Industrial Automation

Plug-and-Produce is Key for the Smart Factory of the Future – Part 1

Andreas Dreher

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is revolutionizing the way manufacturing is done by connecting more smart devices and sharing the information they produce to improve existing business models and enable new ones. Nowhere is this more evident than in the industrial arena, where experts estimate the economic impact of the IIoT to reach $11.1 trillion by the year 2025*.

Underlying this transformation is the network of physical objects – sensors, actuators, machines, controllers – which are embedded with electronics, software, sensors and network connectivity for collecting and exchanging data. And, just as the technology is changing, so are the processes for using it.


For example, there is a growing expectation that an industrial networking or automation product can be simply connected and turned on - and it will work. When this is applied to the industrial automation process it is being called “plug-and produce.”


As part of our IIoT learning journey, let’s examine plug-and-produce and its potential for industrial applications.



In the interconnected, smart factory of the future cyber-physical systems collaborate to manufacture just what is needed in an energy and resource efficient manner.


What Is Plug-and-Produce and What Industrial Internet Trends are Driving It?

The term “plug-and-play” carries an expectation of ease of use and reliable, foolproof operation. A plug-and-play product, as its name suggests, can simply be connected and turned on – and it works. The practical extension of plug-and-play products, when applied to industrial automation, has given way to the new term: plug-and-produce.


Plug-and-produce offers a practical solution to the issues of increasing competition in the global marketplace, which demands flexibility, as well as higher resource and energy efficiencies in the way goods are produced. As companies work to get products to market faster and cheaper, simple solutions are needed to enable near-immediate implementation – with no special tools or highly trained engineers or electricians required.


In the smart factory of tomorrow, machines, production lines and storage systems will collaborate within a network composed of cyber-physical systems (CPS). These systems are capable of autonomously exchanging information, triggering actions and controlling one another.


Even components that later become part of the final product itself can carry information by communicating with machines and operators and exchanging actual condition data. The analysis data and information on components, machines and processes can trigger actions to prevent failures. This spontaneous networking of humans, machines and components enabled by a plug-and-produce infrastructure will further contribute to more flexible and resilient factories in the future.*


The pursuit of profitably producing affordable goods that fulfill customer demands is driving industrial automation systems towards:

  • Distributed control and decentralized decision-making

  • A redrawing of the classical automation pyramid such that approximately 80%of discrete control is transferred to the field level

  • Modular, scalable solutions

  • Shorter, more flexible production cycles

  • Miniaturization of equipment and smaller production lines

  • Parallel communication of process data with diagnostic and condition monitoring data without impacting standard processes

Plug-and-produce components fulfill these demands by allowing a line’s computational intelligence to remain with the tooling unit rather than a central computer.



The IIoT is revolutionizing the classical automation model towards a paradigm where the majority of control logic will occur at the field level. 


What Are the Key Benefits of Plug-and-Produce for the Smart Factory?

The concept of plug-and-produce enables discrete industrial automation applications to benefit as described below.


1. Fast, easy and intuitive installation and maintenance

The very nature of a plug-and-produce system is simple – the system’s networking and connectivity components just plug into one another and work immediately. Installation happens quickly and a broken part can easily be disconnected and replaced within seconds.


2. Dynamic infrastructure

Interconnected, plug-and-play products establish the foundation for a dynamic and flexible infrastructure.


3. Built on standards

This foundation of a flexible and future-proof infrastructure is built on standard – not proprietary – solutions. As a result, plug-and-produce products go through iterations more quickly, continually becoming better and faster.


4. Consolidation of devices

Devices designed for global use with many regional needs or specifications in mind reduce the total number of stock items needed by machine builders. Instead of buying more devices or reconfiguring existing ones, the same devices can be used across countries, reducing cost and complexity.


5. Pre-diagnostic data

Finally, since these products are purpose-built to provide pre-diagnostic data, which includes monitoring conditions and identifying errors, they can increase efficiency and enhance uptime – in turn creating additional cost savings.


What Are Some Examples of IIoT Plug-and-Produce Applications?

A basic example of a plug-and-produce architecture at work can be illustrated by a sorting conveyor.


As commonly found in current operations, a central PLC communicates with a conveyor to determine how to route a part depending on programmed responses and feedback from sensors. This conveyor setup may be repeated with several similar stations down the entire length of the sorting line, which would require hundreds of meters of cabling to connect the overall system.


In an IIoT plug-and-produce setting, however, the use of distributed control units (DCUs) can automate the process – or, if networking is required, consolidating sensors can reduce the length of cabling needed.


Other practical plug-and-produce applications include:

  • Robotic arms on a manufacturing assembly line outfitted with plug-and-play cables that combine data communication and power supply.
  • Tool changers for equipment found in industrial automation applications controlled through plug-and-produce products, alleviating the burden on a centralized PLC.
  •  High-level sensors that interface with Ethernet, enabling another consolidation possibility. Since these sensors no longer need a standard I/O module, an Ethernet switch can act as a de-facto I/O module to enable sensors.

Plug-and-Produce Products Enable the Smart Factory of the Future

Plug-and-produce products provide the flexibility, modularity and field level control needed to equip the smart factory of tomorrow. In further articles on this topic I will cover how to design field-level solutions, how Distributed Control Units (DCUs) are evolving and provide an on overview of Belden’s solutions in this area.


If you want more information on plug-and-produce right away, or an informative primer on the topic, download the white paper available below.


Are you using any plug-and-produce solutions now? Are they enabling flexible manufacturing? I look forward to hearing from you.


Unlocking the Potential of the IoT, June 2015, McKinsey.
Recommendations for implementing the strategic initiative INDUSTRIE 4.0, April 2013, Acatech (German National Academy of Science and Engineering)