There’s no denying that industry—like much of the rest of our lives—is undergoing a digital transformation. This transformation has been accelerating for decades on the consumer side, as witnessed by our move from desktops to mobile devices, and from landline phones and cable boxes to smartphones and smart TVs.
In industry, this same transformation has been taking place over the same time period, but at a much slower pace. However, it’s becoming more apparent that the pace of change in industry is about to speed up dramatically.
At Inductive Automation’s Ignition Community Conference this week, I encountered numerous takes on how this quickening is taking place and how it’s changing common perspectives on the architecture and deployment of automation systems.
Arlen Nipper, president and CTO of CirrusLink (supplier of the MQTT technology used in Ignition to connect device data to higher level industrial and business systems), said he expects the digital transformation of industry to “take a decade or more in the brownfield world” because of issues around connecting to legacy protocols, dealing with register-based data using poll/response protocols, and the fact that existing data will have little context.
Because operational data is not easily consumable by IT, Nipper said most end users try to address this with custom software at the edge. But this approach typically ends up increasing costs and complexity and eroding any return on investment (ROI). Correcting this requires cost effective tools on platforms, not custom code at the edge, he said.
Nipper contends that Ignition is well suited as the platform to deliver these tools because it addresses the fundamental issue that operations technology (OT) infrastructures are not conducive to digital transformation requirements.
One company in the brownfield world undergoing a digital transformation with Ignition is Dana Inc., a global supplier of axles, driveshafts, transmissions, and other components for the automotive industry. The company began its digital transformation last year with its 139 plants all hosting a variety of different automation technologies—including CNC machines built in the 1950s, said Remus Pop, manager of operations technology at Dana Inc.
Pop said Dana is using Ignition largely to get data out of its various programmable logic controllers (PLCs) for decision-making at all levels of the organization. He noted that OPC UA, DeviceWise (from Telit), and Kepware (from PTC) technologies are used to connect Ignition to Siemens, Rockwell, and Mitsubishi PLCs in its plants, as well as to the company’s various CNC machines.
The proof of concept for Dana’s digital transformation plan was completed using Ignition in one weekend, said Pop. This proof of concept was then developed into a working project within two weeks.
This project launched the digital transformation at Dana with the company deploying Ignition in six of its plants. One year later, there are 18 plants and 30 teams at Dana involved in the project. Communications across the teams are coordinated using Slack and Wrike. “We have an API set up between Slack and Ignition,” Pop added.
Dana deployed Ignition to the plants using a standardized, local Ignition gateway connected to Ignition servers at the enterprise level in each plant. “A typical Dana plant is using Ignition to pull [data from] 50,000 tags,” he said.
As for results thus far, Pop said they are seeing a 40% improvement in throughput at their plants using Ignition. This level of improvement is due to less downtime and the ability to visualize process data for the plants’ operators. “With Ignition, our operators have visualization for the entire line, not just their part of it—and we were able to deliver that within a week of deploying Ignition. Putting the data [from Ignition] on Andon boards throughout the factory has helped us set records over and over again, and has already translated into millions of dollars in savings.”
Possibly the starkest digital transformation example providedat the conference was delivered by Peter J. Photos, chief scientist and executive vice president of engineering at Streamline Innovations—a four-year-old startup in the oil and gas industry. Streamline operates in the upstream sector of the industry, where little automation is used because of the remote locations of the equipment.
“We remove hydrogen sulfide—a very toxic gas (1000 ppm is lethal)—from natural gas. Our units create elemental sulfur which removes hydrogen sulfide in a chemical reaction that needs to be controlled precisely,” said Photos.
Streamline currently has three plants in operation—one large plant and two medium plants—with more under construction. In the past six months, Photos said the company has been able to treat two million pounds of sulfur remotely using an Ignition-based control system with full bi-directional control. “We can startup and shutdown units, as well as change setpoints—all remotely—with Ignition,” he said.
Key to Streamline’s approach is leveraging new technologies to rethink how process automation is done. Using Ignition, the company has largely eliminated its need for installed panel human-machine interfaces (HMIs) in favor of Ethernet-connected laptops and wireless connections to smartphones and tablets.
At Streamline’s largest plant, which processes up to 20 tons of sulfur a day, “we eliminated our use of a panel HMI and do it all in Ignition,” Photos said. “We did this using a Stratus edge computer and Ignition, and by broadcasting a Wi-Fi signal for HMI access. This means we don’t need radio communications and 24 hours with someone on site to do loop and function checks. Using Wi-Fi and a tablet, we can do everything remotely, dramatically shortening commissioning time.”
Photos explained that, at the company’s smaller sites (with lesser I/O counts), they are using Moxa’s UC-8112 computers and Opto 22’s groov EPIC. Streamline uses Allen-Bradley PLCs for its larger I/O count projects.
Though it’s easier for Streamline to do this at its greenfield sites than it is for Dana at its brownfield sites, both are approaching their digital transformations from the vantage point of gathering intelligence from all levels of automation.
“We’re making all levels smart at incremental costs across an entire gas processing facility,” said Photos. “With Ignition, it can be done now; not 10 years from now. We did this in six months with four guys.”