Industrial Automation

4 Big Trends that Impact Industrial Automation

Brian Oulton

Every decade has its big manufacturing trends and hyped-up IT issue(s). Remember Y2K? Nowadays there are several topics that have been the subject of numerous articles in manufacturing trade publications.

 These include:

  1. The Internet of Things (IoT)
  2. Big Data
  3. Cloud Computing
  4. Industry 4.0

All of these trends involve a lot of devices networked together and a lot of data available to do things. They also include deciding whether data is stored and applications accessed from the computer next to you or from a server located somewhere else.


The good news is: The supporting technologies behind all the buzzwords are already available. Are they empty hype, a valid threat, or an opportunity? (the answer is yes). In this article, I’ll tackle each of these topics one by one, focusing on what you need to know to sort out reality and react to each.


1. Connected Industrial Devices Impacts Industrial Automation 

The IoT is about a lot of industrial devices networked together. For example, I’ve encountered automotive plants with 8,000 devices on a single network and consumer products plants with 12,000.


The benefits of networking these devices include:

  • Managing everything from anywhere.
  • Reducing complexity and hardware costs with one network technology.
  • Moving control and information at will.
  • Expanding it all easily.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is about connecting industrial devices together and taking advantage of the connectivity for business improvement.


The IoT Challenge for Industrial Automation


The challenge is in learning the new technology and understanding how to carefully design for systems that dwarf even the largest fieldbuses.


As the IoT concept continues to develop, vendors and standards groups will take care of the hard stuff. The technology will evolve to accommodate the growth—more wireless will be added, everything will be made more secure, higher levels of network traffic will get managed, and more IP addresses will be created.


When all is said and done, you’ll be able to continue as before, just with a few more zeroes in the number of devices on your network.


The IoT Opportunity for Industrial Automation

Ultimately, however, it will be up to you to decide how your company can operate differently when virtually anything can be on your network.


2. The Next Frontier of Manufacturing IT: Big Data for Industrial Automation Applications 

Big Data is about having a ton of information to use. Ten years ago, manufacturers recognized they could and should store production data and, in response, they added storage space at an alarmingly fast rate.


The Big Data Challenge

Now that all this data is at hand, more than one manufacturer has been known to say: “We’re collecting everything, but we aren’t really using any of it; and we aren’t sure what we should do with it all.”


This trend continues today, but with software that knows how to analyze and help you use that data. Some of the best technology is derived from search engine and web companies, like Google and Amazon that measure, interpret and record every twitch their users make. Vendors will continue to make data transport and storage bigger and faster, and will keep creating software to help you use the data.


The challenge with Big Data is how to use it to gain efficiencies, insight speed and competitive advantage.


The Big Data Opportunity 

Your decision is how to connect the information “gold” in your hands to your company’s business challenges to see new opportunities to gain efficiencies, insight, speed and competitive advantage.


3. Cloud Computing with Industrial Application Technologies

Cloud computing is about storing your information and computing power somewhere other than the computer next to you. Today, most see cloud computing as an opportunity to gain more computing power and storage space, while reducing the overall cost of maintaining and managing IT equipment and software. They also see new ways to collaborate with others.


While the computing aspect of cloud computing has a ways to go to become truly viable for the industrial space, storage is coming on strong as an easy way to back up and share data.


The Cloud Computing Challenge

Like the IoT and Big Data, vendors will handle the technology issues here as well. Your job is to assess the benefits and risks of having your critical data available and secure when it is located and managed by someone else, somewhere else.


In the industrial world, we define “real-time” and “mission-critical” different than the IT group, so our comfort level with what and how the cloud can work for us may vary dramatically. Proceed here with caution.


The Cloud Computing Opportunity 

Once satisfied, however, you can determine how your company might benefit by having virtually unlimited computing power, storage and, eventually, new avenues of collaboration.

4. Industry 4.0 - Industrial Automation

Industry 4.0/Manufacturing 4.0, which originated in Germany, is about the strategic use of smart devices. As a frame of reference, consider this:


  • In the 1990s, a photo eye was available that held more than 30 pieces of information when networked on DeviceNet.

  • About the same time, variable frequency drives (VFDs) and motor starters went from having only a few analog and digital signals tied in with their power to sharing hundreds of pieces of information when networked.

The point here is that the technology behind Industry 4.0 isn’t new.


The Industry 4.0 Opportunity and Challenge

The new opportunity with Industry 4.0 is using the wealth of information available from smart, networked devices to revolutionize industrial processes.


The challenge is to think big and drive the change necessary within your organization to capitalize on information available today to for success tomorrow.


Take Advantage in your Industrial Automation Environment

Given that the supporting technologies behind all these futuristic industry concepts are available today, the question is: Are you ready to take advantage of them?


The technologies related to these trends are available today. In this article I am going to describe these steps and also present some ideas of how the 4 big trends might be used by forward thinking organizations.


Step 1 – Move from Ad Hoc to Industrial Ethernet Infrastructure

The first thing to do is make sure your network is well-designed and that it lets you scale-up dramatically, easily and reliably. If you’re like most, you’ve been moving to industrial Ethernet and away from fieldbuses. You’ve found Ethernet to be big, fast, and pretty forgiving.


Chances are, however, that your network has grown ad-hoc but just keeps working. As your network grows, you’ll need to evolve to a design that includes segmentation, security and redundancy in the right places, along with easy network management and expansion. 


Step 2 – Expect Cost Savings and Use Them to Justify “Big Idea” Projects

You don’t need to work very hard to find hard cost savings from using a well-designed Industrial Ethernet Infrastructure. You’ll quickly be able to realize savings from:

  • Fewer spares
  • Less training
  • Less support

But don’t forget to add in soft cost savings resulting from aspects such as:

  • Less paper
  • More accurate work
  • More timely response
  • Other business  and process efficiencies

All together cost savings, productivity improvements and doing what you do better and faster should justify projects related to the 4 big trends.


Step 3 – Dream up “Big Ideas” that Could Radically Improve Business

To do this, you need to think way beyond cost savings, or your department or job function.


If your company could have ultimate intelligence, in the blink of an eye, from anywhere in the world with the ability to change what you’re doing or how you’re doing it on a dime, what would you do?


Take whatever you’re thinking about now and think exponentially bigger. If you’re not that kind of thinker, grab some people who are, take them out of their current box and get them to think the big thoughts.


Here are some ideas to help you get going…


Brainstorming: Internet of Things in Industrial Automation

The IoT is about a lot of industrial devices networked together, allowing for better information quicker. This is not about having real-time information from sensors and actuators – that has been standard in industry for about 20 years.

This is about having information from disparate sources, some of which are in the factory and some of which are outside of it, available at your fingertips.


For example, let’s say you have trouble with a machine. Imagine that you could troubleshoot the problem using data not just from sensors, actuators, PLCs etc. from also from drawings, videos and help text. Now add in information from patches and updates from the Internet, plus voice and video connections with the machine building company and other remote resources.


Now what other problems could be solved faster by being able to bring together a wide variety of information quickly?


If car production goes down, taking advantage of better, faster ways to troubleshoot problems provides a payback and justifies investment in projects related to the 4 big trends.

Brainstorming: Big Data in Industrial Automation Applications

Like many manufacturers, you are already pulling together a lot of data, but you struggle to understand it. It is also likely difficult to act on it or determine how it relates to your business challenges. Now imagine that you can have any set of information at your fingertips (backed up by incredible analytics technology). What would you do with it?


For example, could it be used to provide super customized products for customers, based on market trends and sales / demand data? Or, what if you could share trend and other data in real-time, directly with customers, have them decide what they want made, then make it and delivery it really fast?


What if algorithms could be applied to big data that would allow you to smooth out production? What benefits would that give you?


Big data can be used to accelerate business by quickly matching production with demand. What do you dream about being able to do in this area?


Brainstorming: Cloud Computing/Storage with Industrial Automation

Cloud Storage is about storing data elsewhere than the computer beside you. If stored offsite, you can obtain access to the data from anywhere at any time. This access can be compelling because it puts data storage, backup, security etc. in the hands of others with specialized expertise and allows you to focus on your core manufacturing competencies.


As I mentioned in Part 1, for manufacturers this is applicable for storing information like drawings and machine or process information. While cloud computing is also possible, real time control using the cloud at this time has significant risks for many industrial applications. Be sure to proceed with caution in this area and ensure that all performance, availability and security concerns are addressed.


Now, with information available anywhere anytime, what advantages can you gain from that? Does it enable closer collaboration between different facilities? Can it connect you closer to your customers?


Brainstorming: Industry 4.0 for Industrial Automation Technologies

The concept behind Industry 4.0 is to challenge your organization to work differently and to innovate, given the new technologies available now.


For example, can your manufacturing be done using green energy sources, or can power requirements be reduced? Can you operate in a much smaller footprint or greatly improve speed or throughput to your existing footprint? Can your manufacturing be done in such a way that you can change outputs on a dime?


How Can Today’s Technology Dramatically Improve Your Business?

While some of the technologies I’ve described can add complexity & cost, they all possess the potential to do the opposite if applied to real business challenges. Further, you can be assured that taking the first step of improving network infrastructure will have a payback and put you in position to take advantage of the 4 big trends.


Next come up with the big ideas and start planning projects. Tie investments to specific goals that will result in cost savings with a big upside, then gain project approval.


Now drive boldly forward to realize incredible improvements and change how your company performs! What do you think of Big Data or the Internet of Things? Is your organization examining how to use them for competitive advantages? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.