These are exciting times for those involved in industrial control solutions. The maturing and convergence of enabling technologies on the plant floor is driving change: standardization of Ethernet, availability and reliability of Internet access, low cost of cloud-based data storage, wireless connectivity, mobility and others. We have a unique opportunity to not only witness, but also participate in, extraordinary innovation.
This can be seen as a singular global phenomenon being described in many different ways: Industry 4.0, smart manufacturing, the digital factory, China 2025, flexible manufacturing, the connected enterprise, and other terms to include the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).
Over the past year, I have been able to meet with a number of our customers in various industries with whom we enjoy good long-standing relationships. During those visits, we have had open discussions regarding the opportunities that are ahead of us and how we might be able to derive value in the age of IoT/IIoT.
The solutions of tomorrow will be much more integrated between implementation tiers on the plant floor to the enterprise and beyond. Therefore, it is imperative that these solutions give strong consideration to network architectures and cybersecurity. As we continue to move forward, you will hear more about operational technology (OT). OT can be understood as the application of IT to the plant floor. Though it is true that networking has existed as part of industrial control solutions for many years, traditional isolated control networks will not support the level of integration required for large-scale data and analytics, nor will they support the number of connected devices that will be a part of IIoT-based solutions. IIoT-based solutions demand connectivity, accessibility and security, making the network infrastructure critical.
Unanimously, the companies I meet with are investing in data and analytics and will continue to do so. These solutions are offering greater insight into manufacturing processes—either supporting long-held beliefs and assumptions or challenging them. Actionable information is driving change on the plant floor from the modification of procedures to the implementation of new control measures. With some, the investment is going beyond hardware and software to include organizational changes and the addition of people who have a primary responsibility of deriving data from their processes and interpreting it in ways that can improve performance and profitability.
Predictive maintenance and supply chain integration have been discussed independently and in conjunction with each other. Interest and investment in predictive maintenance has been near unanimous with manufacturers and OEM machine builders. Solutions range from the automatic generation of work orders for maintenance personnel to the ability to automatically place an order for wear parts. Regarding the supply chain, solution implementation has been limited and varied in degree up to the integration of suppliers having direct line of sight into end user inventory levels. For an OEM with a service department, providing spare parts, predictive maintenance in conjunction with supply chain integration offers a competitive advantage providing a direct source of recurrent revenue.
Mobility is continuing to grow in popularity with the desire to easily access production information from any device, anywhere, at any time. Even though it is encouraging to see how vendors are addressing this through product offerings, there seems to be a noticeable lag with implementation. The limited success in this area may be attributed to the current cost and effort being seen as outweighing the benefits. Yet mobility remains as a central theme and poised for rapid growth with a change in the value proposition.
Considering how vast these solutions can be, with all of the possibilities, it is important for each of us to survey the landscape to determine where we want to be and what role we will play. At Bachelor Controls, we are describing our efforts as a “smart manufacturing initiative” with the overarching goal of “developing solutions that offer manufacturers the ability to monitor production in real time, from anywhere, on any device, allowing decisions to be made in real time, supporting greater profitability: data, information, knowledge, ROI.”
Larry Asher is director of operations at Bachelor Controls Inc., a certified member of theControl System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about Bachelor Controls, visit its profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.