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Connected automation

23 March, 2017

The term Industry 4.0 is being used more and more widely across the manufacturing sector. While it has been a theoretical possibility for most companies, the last year or two in particular have seen its adoption now become truly practical and achievable for the majority of companies. Andy Minturn of Bosch Rexroth examines exactly where the sector is at - and some of the latest developments driving Industry 4.0 adoption.

Broadly speaking, Industry 4.0, also known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, refers to the creation of smart factories. The key aspect is connectivity, bringing together humans and machines by harnessing extensive real-time data gathering availability and optimised machine intelligence.

There are seven key elements to Industry 4.0. The first is the role of people as key players, with digital assistance functions and intelligent workplace layouts supporting them with contextual information and improved ergonomics, elevating the degree of customisation of the work environment. One example might be a workstation whose height changes to suit the operator, with digital instructions changing depending on the level of expertise and the preferred language of the operator.

Systems must also feature distributed intelligence, with decentralised intelligent automation components carrying out their tasks independently and making autonomous decisions using integrated software following the specifications of higher-level systems.

A further element is rapid integration and flexible configuration, whereby ‘Plug and Produce’ technologies, people, machines, processes, and commodity streams are integrated with one another on an ad-hoc basis. Intelligent software tools simplify start-up, integration and re-configuration, as well as the diagnosis and maintenance of all components, modules and machines.

Open standards are the next factor. Standards across manufacturers and independent platforms form the basis of horizontal and vertical integration, and therefore the smooth exchange of information within value creation networks.

Systems need to provide virtual representation in real-time - all objects and components are virtually imaged within the value creation process and make contextual information available for continuous process improvement.

There must also be digital life cycle management, entailing the continuous integration of all automation components, machines, processes and product data, from production development to recycling. Thereby ensuring the application-oriented design of all components. This helps to reduce costs through the creation of a digital model which increases the efficiency and effectiveness of product life cycle management (PLM) processes, delivering substantially higher return on investment on research and development projects. Typical benefits include reduced time to market, optimised quality and reliability, lower prototyping costs, savings through the re-use of original data and the complete integration of engineering workflows, and maximised supply chain collaboration.

Finally, value creation networks must be both safe and secure. On one hand, Industry 4.0 reliability includes the protection of people against the physical dangers posed by machines. On the other hand, it protects the means of production and company IT systems against attacks and environmental disruptions. These can stem from the security of sensitive data or the prevention of malfunctions, both intentional and unintentional.

Why is it now becoming more of a reality?

Industry 4.0 techniques are now being assimilated more and more widely across a broad spectrum of manufacturing sectors, and this is being driven by a number of factors.

The internet is now more widely available globally than ever, via technologies such as Local Area Networks (LANs), wireless LANs, and GSM/ LTE networks. Meanwhile, the usability of software and hardware has increased markedly, and worldwide GPS localisation is achievable to accuracies as low as a few metres. At the same time, computing power (CPUs) and data storage options are now much more economic and almost unlimited thanks to the use of the Cloud.

The next steps

While all of these are important contributory factors to the broader adoption of Industry 4.0, there are some other highly significant developments which are set to rapidly accelerate this process.

Chief among these are integrated, interactive digital communications platforms, which process and visualise manufacturing data in real time. These enable a major step towards the truly paperless shop floor, providing real-time production data and enabling well-informed and efficient team meetings which are able to reach rapid decisions based on complete, relevant and readily understandable data. Able to access and display information on process conditions, KPIs and quality, to name but a few, these systems are connectible to manufacturing execution systems (MESs), databases and ERP systems, and boast moderation, escalation and whiteboard functions. They represent a major advance over current systems, typically based on notice boards containing many individual sheets on performance, which require significant space as well as a high data maintenance effort, and do not lend themselves to rapid and proactive decision-making.

A second key area is the broader availability of technologies, allowing truly cabinet-free operation, saving space, while reducing installation and set-up times while also cutting the costs of wiring. These include PLC systems with standardised functionality and open connectivity, enabling, for example, connection via Bluetooth to a condition monitoring application on a smart device.

Meanwhile, specialist Industry 4.0 connectors, such as data acquisition and transmission devices, can simply be bolted on to existing plant equipment to gather information in real time and transfer it to the Cloud in an easily configurable and manageable format. This removes the need to redesign equipment or purchase a new plant in a broad array of instances – in fact typically no programming is required. This is a particularly important point given that many plants starting operation now will have originally been designed up to a decade ago, when the pace of technological development was slower and the possibilities offered by the Internet of Things were far less widely understood. However, it is equally applicable to older ‘brownfield’ facilities where there may be minimal connectivity to IT systems.

What is clear is that cost need not necessarily be a barrier to exploring the benefits of Industry 4.0. These connectors, along with sensor packs and upgrade kits using common communications protocols – for functions such as the linking of sensors and actuators into control networks – can go a long way towards creating an Industry 4.0 environment without significant capital expenditure.

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