The case for centralization
The need to centralize stand-alone systems is becoming more urgent as automation hardware and software increase in complexity and functionality. This is especially apparent as certain regulatory requirements evolve. However, centralizing standalone systems can be very time-consuming and costly depending on coding standards and technology generational gaps. For these reasons, many manufacturers may place temporary solutions in place and focus its attention on something that may seem more pressing. With the expanding economy, the prevailing feeling tends to be, “if it’s producing, why fix it?”
At a base level, just focusing on centralizing computer systems can have a major positive impact speaking from both external and internal experiences. Internally, at Panacea, we moved our project infrastructure to a central, virtualized, hybrid-cloud platform. Not only does this help in terms of efficiency for employees to retrieve specific items when needed, but, because we have our projects centralized, all of our data is backed up in case of a major incident. This allows us to easily restore our infrastructure to minimize downtime and client delivery impact.
Utilizing a virtual machine from a centralized location rather than a local machine from your stand-alone laptop has many advantages. There are many risks associated with important projects and files on a personal laptop without backups. With a virtual machine in a centralized location, you have everything backed up even if your laptop breaks. As a result, this helps everyone to be more organized and approach certain tasks with ease. This has essentially turned our laptops into thin clients, which has parodies to industrial human-machine interface (HMI) architectures.
Laying down a foundation
Moving to a central, virtualized architecture may feel cutting edge, but it is being widely adopted across multiple industries. And, we have seen most of our client’s internal engineering groups move towards this as well. Traditional, standard setting methods can aide greatly in the deployment of a virtual infrastructure. It may be difficult in the beginning to create uniform standards and security processes, but having this foundation makes your infrastructure easier to manage and change as your team and project landscape changes as well. The time saving aspects of centralized asset management and storage greatly outweigh the initial investment of both capital and time, which will make for a better functioning manufacturing architecture with a focus on data integrity.
Looking to the future
Having a stand-alone system poses many risks and disadvantages when a certain change is requested, especially when files aren’t properly backed up. The importance of centralizing your systems is not limited to computers, but extends to programmable logic controllers (PLCs), HMIs, and documentation. Having a centralized medium for documentation eliminates the need for CD (and in some cases, Floppy Disk) storage peripherals. It creates a central storage location to store files in a similar manner that simplify complex standard operating procedures focusing on data storage and retrieval. This can greatly decrease time spent on these activities during projects—especially for busy project teams in regulated industries. It also helps eliminate potential mistakes that happen when moving files and backups from one information medium to another. Storage is inexpensive and robust. With multiple different network redundancy options, the fear of central storage should be a thing of the past.
The process of centralizing your systems may seem very difficult, but it doesn’t have to be. There are many tools that make the process smoother, and this journey will give you the opportunity to integrate new functions to empower yourself, as well as other members of your team to perform the best they can.
As we kickoff 2020, let’s make virtualization and centralization a priority. Let’s work to empower our teams and clients to work more efficiently and with greater accuracy.
Royce Lee is lead automation engineer at Panacea Technologies, a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about Panacea, visit its profile on the CSIA Industrial Automation Exchange.