How Do You Stack Up in Automation?

April 11, 2022
While you may not be able to make the leap from PLC to ERP integration all at once, beginning the journey toward OT/IT Integration is now more important than ever before.

Given the competitive environment we all find ourselves in today, there is no greater time than now to plan strategic moves to keep your company at the top of the food chain when it comes to productivity and efficiency. For manufacturing companies, utilities, and nearly all regulated businesses, this will include an element of automation. Moreover, the move toward industrial automation systems becoming more integrated with enterprise systems such as ERP (enterprise resource planning) to help secure a more stable production environment has arrived. Ensuring your plant is up to speed on the latest in automation will be vital to the future performance of your organization.  And while you may not be able to make the leap from PLC (programmable logic controller) to ERP integration all at once, beginning the journey is more imperative than ever.

But where do you stand now? Realistically, everyone finds themselves positioned somewhere along a sliding scale when it comes to automation integration. Whether you are working from the most rudimentary PLC-based control system or the most highly complex ERP system, determining your next steps can be difficult, especially while trying to keep up with daily productivity goals at the same time. 

Foundational to any automation structure is a microcomputer called a PLC that allows the various components of a system to regulate action by talking to one another. It’s often a fun little game to take a PLC to a career fair and talk with prospective employees, simply asking them, “do you know what a PLC is?” Often, in their wide-eyed confusion they will mumble something like, “I think I’ve heard of them before but I’m not entirely sure…,” as their voice trails off thinking for sure they don’t have a shot at getting hired by an engineering firm. I am fond of saying, “That’s okay, I didn’t know what one was 25 years ago when I was hired.”  It’s true. We all start somewhere and through experience and time we learn what we don’t know and what can make us more efficient and productive. That’s the key to automation; it starts with the basics. 

If you find your company just starting to climb this mountain, don’t be discouraged. A valued system integrator can walk beside you and help when the going gets tough.  Just don’t stay stagnant—it’s time to move. Maybe it’s time to utilize smart sensors and devices that provide more than just an on or off signal. Smart sensors and devices provide additional diagnostic data that can help with preventive maintenance and keep your plant running smoothly. Upgrading to PLCs that can be networked on Ethernet is a logical first step to getting the data residing in the PLCs.

Human Machine Interface (HMI)

Key to your operators keeping things running smoothly is gathering data in an easy-to-use visual format that allows them to quickly identify problem areas and extract insights that allow them to showcase their performance. HMIs are just that—a screen to give operators the information they need to improve efficiency and monitor production.  Well-designed HMIs can potentially save time and money when there is a problem by allowing operators to quickly identify its source. HMIs are local to a machine, so they offer efficient two-way communication for your operators. A well-designed HMI that features high-performance graphics can eliminate downtime that could otherwise result in millions of dollars of lost revenue. Even if you have an existing HMI with an older interface, it is worth looking into upgrading to a newer interface with additional functionality.  These proficiencies in design translate to real-world dollars in both labor and production.

Supervisory Control & Data Acquisition (SCADA)

Take a moment and contemplate the time it would take an operator to walk from a set of production lines in one building to several different sets in three other buildings on a day when his/her colleagues were not able to be onsite. Now let’s compare the cost of that operators’ hours over the course of a year with the cost of implementing or upgrading a SCADA system with additional functionality to monitor and control production lines and machines.

For supervisors who are responsible for multiple systems, the benefit of having a modern SCADA system located in a standard control room cannot be underestimated. Supervisors will save countless hours by aggregating data pulled from those systems in one place, and freeing up their time to focus on more strategic initiatives.

Mobility in a SCADA system not only alleviates the manual time and labor required of your operators to monitor systems, but also grants you a historical account of the product you’re manufacturing to cross-reference with compliance requirements.

HMI and SCADA have been around for a long-time. The integration between the plant floor (PLC/HMI) and the enterprise level (MES/ERP) has been slow, but is gaining more steam as Industry 4.0 and IIoT expand. This is a pivotal time in automation even for those who have been reaping the benefits of automation for some time.  And the only way the transition will be smooth will be if end users lean on a system integrator who has expertise and experience in more advanced systems like MES and ERP.

Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES)

Transitioning from common automation systems like SCADA, HMI and PLC to the incorporation of an MES that provides data analytic metrics such as overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) is a powerful step. Bringing data from the plant floor to an MES allows business decisions to become more actionable.

While there are many ways to showcase this, one of the easiest is by thinking about traceability.  The ability to trace all products from raw materials through production, including machining, assembly, and distribution is vitally important when it comes to food, beverage, and pharmaceutical goods.

A high-quality MES system allows not only for traceability, but also offers end users the ability to aggregate OEE data and deliver transparent results for managers, even if they are offsite. This allows scheduling and planning for production to be carried out in the most low-cost, high-quality, and efficient manner.

Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP)

Aggregating data from an MES, witnessing trends, modifying strategic objectives, and real-time editing options are just a few of the data-based capabilities at your fingertips with a complete ERP that will truly keep you on the cusp of innovative engineering no matter your industry. The agility required to process incoming online orders and make business decisions on which production lines should be active daily, if not hourly, can be provided by an effective ERP system.  This big data efficiency translates to bottom line dollars in making sure the right products are being produced, the right machines ae running, and the most energy-efficient usage of all equipment is being fully realized. This data analysis only comes to fruition when the right technologies are in place to bridge the gap between IT and OT.

This is what forward-thinking business leaders are tracking now. High-level overviews of every operational system of a company allows these leaders to run predictive analytics on how their business model is performing both for internal teams and customers alike. Electronic batch records (EBR) provide regulatory compliance vital to upper management. Executive leaders such as Chief Information Officers (CIOs) will soon be taking more control, implementing more cross-functional teams that can prove the technology’s return on investment (ROI) for enterprises, customers, and employees alike.

As we move further and further up the automation stack to the mountaintops of IIoT and Industry 4.0, finding a certified system integrator with knowledge and skills from ladder logic and function blocks to working with APIs, JSON and REST will be imperative to a smooth transition toward pulling data analytics from the plant floor to the C-Suite. The business decisions made with that data will propel forward thinking companies well beyond their peers.

So, how do you stack up in automation? And are you ready to make the climb? Wherever you are on the journey to climb the automation mountain, there are ways to reach higher.  We have an office in Colorado and have some experienced mountain climbers on our team. They have taken pictures for us as they ascend into the mountains, and those images from up top are breathtaking.  It’s such an incredible accomplishment. They also know that climbing a 14er doesn’t happen without the right equipment, methodical preparation, detail-oriented planning, and someone to push you a little along the way and come alongside you when you’re not sure you can go on. 

The same is true in automation. Everyone is at a different level of readiness for the next best thing in automation, but the thing our climbers will always tell us is that you never want to stand still. You always need to keep moving. Finding that critical partner who has been to the mountaintop before and is willing to climb alongside you is crucial. A qualified system integrator will do just that. 

Finding a qualified partner with experience at all levels of the automation stack will set you up for a solid climb. That system integrator should possess both the ability and drive to climb along beside you, encouraging you every step of the way and bringing their considerable experience to bear so that when you get to the top you can enjoy the moment before climbing once again.

Applying experienced knowledge in automation keeps us all growing and makes us faster, stronger, and better. We know you don’t get to the top alone, but we’re ready to climb alongside you.   

Keith Mandachit, PE is an Engineering Manager at Huffman Engineering Inc., certified members of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about Autoware, visit its profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.

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