Editor’s Note: This article was created with expertise from Andreas Dreher, the strategic technology manager at Hirschmann Automation and Control.

When it comes to industrial networking today, many factories and process control facilities around the world are focused on upgrading to managed Ethernet networks. With the long, useful life of industrial devices, there is plenty of old equipment using legacy industrial protocols in active service. Indeed, much of our business involves helping companies upgrade to structured, reliable and easy-to-maintain industrial Ethernet infrastructure.

Even given this reality, it is instructive to step away from current challenges and look ahead to the Factory of the Future. What will industrial production look like 5-20 years from now? What do I need to understand about where factories are going to guide my decisions today? How will my factory compete with brand new factories that use next generation communication systems and concepts? Where does the industrial Internet of Things fit in?

This blog is the first in a series of blogs on the Smart Factory that aim to advise you about where factory production and automation are going. It applies not only to discrete manufacturing, but also to automation in the process, energy and transportation industries.

We are fortunate to have insight into this topic from our Hirschmann division, based in Germany where “Industry 4.0” is part of a large publicly funded project, to inform this discussion.

Let’s take a look at what the Smart Factory is and what characterizes its communication systems.

Industrial Automation

The Smart Factory of the Future will consist of systems that are more intelligent, flexible and dynamic than the ones in use today.

Defining the Smart Factory 

The terms “Smart Factory,” “Smart Manufacturing,” “Intelligent Factory” and “Factory of the Future” all describe a vision of what industrial production will look like in the future.

In this vision, the Smart Factory will be much more intelligent, flexible and dynamic.

Manufacturing processes will be organized differently, with entire production chains – from suppliers to logistics to the life cycle management of a product – closely connected across corporate boundaries.

Individual production steps will be seamlessly connected. The processes impacted will include:

  • factory and production planning
  • product development
  • logistics
  • enterprise resource planning (ERP)
  • manufacturing execution systems (MES)
  • control technologies
  • individual sensors and actuators in the field

In a Smart Factory, machinery and equipment will have the ability to improve processes through self-optimization and autonomous decision-making. This is in stark contrast to running fixed program operations, as is the case today.

The Smart Factory of the Future is based on a fourth industrial revolution

Figure 1: The Smart Factory of the Future is based on a fourth industrial revolution –
Industry 4.0,
and is centered on the use of cyber-physical systems.
(Click here for larger image)

Key Traits of Future Industrial Networking Solutions

To do this, the future structure of factories will be much different: an inter-connected combination of intelligent production technologies, with the newest high-performance information and communication technologies.

This will provide digitally integrated engineering and horizontal integration across the entire value chain, as well as vertical integration and connectivity across all levels of production.

High-performance, reliable communication technology will exceed what is currently in use. This technology will make it possible to:

  • Transfer large amounts of data in real-time and with minimum delay
  • Connect a large number of individual devices in a very reliable manner and with the highest standards of data security
  • Utilize more and more wireless technologies, both within the plant and for remote connectivity
  • Operate in an energy-efficient manner

Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? It might seem unrealistic to you right now, but I hope that once we break the Smart Factory down to its communication components you will be able to see that it is attainable.

New call-to-actionThe Structure of Future Industrial Automation Systems

Today’s industrial automation systems consist of several clearly separated levels typically represented as a pyramid with:

  • Field level actuators and sensors
  • Control level control devices, I/O modules and operator terminals
  • A process management level with computers for engineering, supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and MES systems
  • An enterprise level with business processes and ERP systems, typically located on servers in the IT data center

Each of these levels is relatively well structured and individual devices can be clearly mapped to one of the levels.

Industrial Networking

Figure 2: In the Factory of the Future, the field level remains distinct, but other levels migrate to server farms or the cloud.

With Industry 4.0, the system structure changes. The field level remains a separate dedicated level, as it is now, but the devices on it will embed more and more intelligence. As parts of cyber-physical systems, they will autonomously perform many processes. Field level devices will also significantly increase in numbers.

All functions located above the field level will potentially move to high-performance servers located in a server cluster, data center or in a “cloud.” Virtualization, the separation of specific functions and processing hardware, which is already state-of-the-art in the IT world, will become commonplace in the factory.

The advantage of this structure is that it reduces the variety of devices, which results in easier management, better utilization of resources and a clear cost savings.

This approach has not yet been adopted in automation because of issues related to performance, required determinism, reliability, and the lack of fast, low latency communication from the servers to the field level. Nonetheless, these issues will be addressed in new and upcoming systems.

Examples of Cyber-Physical Systems

Since Industry 4.0 will be built with cyber-physical systems, let’s take a moment to consider what they are.

One website describes them as:

“….. integrations of computation, networking, and physical processes. Embedded computers and networks monitor and control the physical processes, with feedback loops where physical processes affect computations and vice versa.”

An example of such a system today is the CarTel project at MIT where a fleet of taxis collects real-time traffic information in the Boston area. This information is combined with historical data to calculate the fastest routes for particular times of the day.

Another example that you may be familiar with is the Smart Grid. One definition of it, based on work from the U.S. Department of Energy, is:

“A modernized electrical grid that uses information and communications technology to gather and act on information in an automated fashion … to improve the efficiency, reliability, economics, and sustainability of the production and distribution of electricity.”

Finally, an example for a factory is changing systems so that the energy consumption in a vehicle assembly line is reduced when the line is not operation. Today, many production lines continue running during breaks and weekends. Consider laser welding technology that remains powered up over weekends so it can resume quickly on Monday. This practice consumes up to 12 percent of total energy consumption of the assembly line.

With Industry 4.0 and cyber-physical systems, robots will go into standby mode as a matter of course during short production breaks and power down during longer breaks. Speed-controlled motors that reduce the energy required to run machines will be widespread. Such changes will significantly reduce energy consumption and will be taken into account up front as part of Smart Factory design practices.

Communications in the Factory LAN

Our next blog in this series will look at the requirements and solutions for communications within a manufacturing site’s LAN for achieving the vision of the factory of the future.

What do you think about the Smart Factory? Is the vision achievable? Is it the right vision? I look forward to hearing from you.

Related Links