Evolving Automation to Connect the Enterprise

Rockwell and Fanuc, two factory automation suppliers, are collaborating to unite networks, assets, and predictive services in order to boost productivity for their mutual manufacturing customers.

Rockwell Automation has many partners in its business circle, but only a handful of strategic alliances. This core group includes network, field device and business system providers. These technology companies complement Rockwell’s core automation business, and collaborate to help the company deliver on its vision of the “connected enterprise,” described as a high-performance architecture built on standard unmodified Ethernet.

It’s an initiative that signals a move away from fragmented systems scattered across the factory floor, to integrated control and processes running across a unified network. And, key to this set up are “smart assets,” or self-aware systems that acquire process data to report on self-diagnostics and energy use, and that communicate with common software tools and interfaces.

With the proliferation of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and the technology advances that enable real-time analytics closer to the control system or data source, Rockwell has reached a critical moment in its connected enterprise model. And, as the company has demonstrated from its many partnerships, it can’t do it alone. Now, it’s turning to it’s newest strategic partner—Fanuc Corporation—to help manufacturing customers achieve unprecedented productivity gains.

The companies have been working together behind the scenes for a the last four years, but used last month’s Automation Fair to call attention to all of the effort that’s gone into fortifying this partnership. It’s an interesting dynamic. After all, they are both providers of factory automation.

At first glance, it’s slightly confusing to see these two companies, which may be considered competitors, coming together. But in fact, there is little overlap in their product lines. Fanuc is focused on computer numerical control (CNC) and robotics, Rockwell’s strength lies within its Logix programmable automation controller (PAC), human machine interface (HMI), and operations management software. And, in fact, Fanuc is no stranger to this kind of collaboration, having had a similar arrangement with GE that spanned two decades before the GE Fanuc joint venture was dissolved in 2009.

Upon hearing about the latest alliance, the first question to pop into my mind, of course, was whether this duo would unite to become an automation superpower.

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to address the topic directly with the executives in charge. During Automation Fair, I was invited to sit down with Rockwell chairman and CEO Keith Nosbusch and Fanuc president and CEO Dr. Yoshiharu Inaba—who had just arrived from Japan—to talk about their global collaboration.

And, I asked the question. “Is this the first step toward a joint venture?”

The answer: “We are satisfied with a strategic alliance,” Nosbusch said, noting that the real significance of the two companies coming together is not about creating a new organization, but to add value for customers by aggregating data from the machine level, line level and plant level systems.

Dr. Inaba agreed, adding that the partnership is not exclusive, as both companies believe in doing what is right for the customer.

Common Ground

The relationship started with the network, as Ethernet is important for both companies. It is also important that Cisco—another strategic partner—is in the mix, as they strengthen the secure network infrastructure to deliver on the promise of IIoT, remote monitoring and delivering data where it’s needed.

As a proof of concept, the companies first approached a large automotive manufacturer, which traditionally used different networks for control, safety, and peripheral devices, and moved them to a single Ethernet network integrating CNC, PAC and robots using a standardized approach to get data, contextualize it, and analyze it. According to a Rockwell spokesperson, having a single network saved about 15% on infrastructure costs, and, by incorporating a standardized, repeatable process, the manufacturer was able to quickly replicate the set up in several other plants around the world.

What started in automotive, however, will soon reach other industries, Nosbusch said. And, what began as a partnership centered on Ethernet, will evolve into analytics as Rockwell adopts Fanuc’s Zero Downtime (ZDT) system, which can capture exceptions on a line, securely transmit and store the data in the Cisco Cloud, and apply analytics to predict maintenance needed to avoid downtime—which in the case of an automotive manufacturer can cost about $20,000 per minute.

It changes the business model of the traditional automation company and, as Nosbusch said, will become a powerful program as ZDT is extended to more assets and the companies leverage each other’s strengths with a clear focus on productivity and safety.

And therein lies the big picture, as our conversation circled back to the issue of system aware smart assets and the ability to use real-time analytics to verify the integrity and safety of an automated work cell. A great example of the value of this partnership is Fanuc’s CR-35iA collaborate robot which can lift objects up to 35 kg and uses Rockwell’s Allen-Bradley Guardmaster scanners enabling it to work side-by-side with humans without the need for fencing.

“We are collaborating on R&D, not just integration,” said Nosbusch.

They can work like this, said the two executives, because the companies have similar corporate cultures based on engineering, innovation, leadership and ethics. Ultimately, it is about adding value for the customer.

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