The automation vendors attending last week’s PACK EXPO show in Las Vegas came to exhibit their control, HMI and robot technologies to machine builders. But the overall message they shared mirrors what they are talking to their manufacturing customers about. Namely, some of the critical elements of flexible manufacturing that include remote monitoring, security and the cloud, among other big ideas like Big Data and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).
But what stood out to me as a major theme was the need to ease the burden of programming systems and applications.
This first caught my attention during a conversation with Rockwell Automation about its Rapid packaging line integration software that was designed specifically to decrease the amount of time it takes to integrate machines together. Why? Because one of the most costly and unpredictable aspects of a project is machine integration. Typically, it’s a custom engineering job involving multiple system integrators.
“We had CPG companies telling us that they spend more on integrating lines than on the critical assets of the lines,” said Rockwell’s global industry group vice president Christopher Zei. “We set out to make that easier.” They did that by flipping the integration model around. It is typically approached from the top down, which requires opening up the machine and hardwiring. Rapid works from the inside out, using instruction sets within the software to create the hooks between systems.
Using software to integrate the line also makes more information available to do operational adjustments related to OEE (overall equipment effectiveness). And exposing new types of information fits directly into the flexible manufacturing model, which Rockwell dubs the “connected enterprise.”
“We focus on controlling machines, but the other aspect is leveraging the information in there,” Zei said “What to do with it, how to handle it, and how to keep it safe and secure.”
The topic of easing integration through programming to save time and money, as well as gain performance advantages, repeated itself during my meetings with other automation companies at the show.
For example, the integrated engineering of Siemens’ Totally Integrated Automation (TIA) framework uses consistent data management and uniform interfaces to save between 30-to-60 percent of the time it takes to engineer, design and commission projects with a mix of PLCs, motors, drives and HMIs, officials said.
In addition, Beckhoff Automation’s TwinCAT 3.1 PC-based control technology works with many-core controllers. These are computers with multiple processors, each equipped with several cores and its own dedicated memory. Multi-processing is important for the increasing connectivity and control requirements of smart manufacturing, which Beckhoff refers to as Industry 4.0. But it also requires multi-functional control software. TwinCAT is capable of mapping the various machine and process workflows for parallelization and distribution of different tasks as function modules. And, TwinCAT 3.1 is also designed to run on hardware with up to 256 processing cores.
Indeed, there is a lot of processing required to power flexible manufacturing. There’s also a lot of complexity associated with emerging applications and technologies. Oh, and a new team of Millennials getting ready to take over. All of this is why programming software will become extremely important to the future of the factory.
This message was reinforced by GE Intelligent Platforms’ chief of strategy Rich Carpenter, who, in the Automation World October feature story Creating a New Breed of Manufacturing IT, noted that automation vendors must be tuned into the experience of the end user as a way to appeal to the emerging IT skillsets on the factory floor. In the past, people would compare product features, he said, but now it is about allowing users to get up and running quickly by providing an interface that is different than the typical industrial design.