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Industry 4.0: A process control optimisation solution?

11 February 2018

Almost every industrial process is capable of adopting aspects of Industry 4.0 – the interconnection and digitisation of products, business models and value chains, says Paul Trevitt. As more manufacturers and businesses adopt the principles and more common protocols are implemented, so the benefits become more accessible.

Industry 4.0 aims to bring together the worlds of industrial production and network connectivity to create an ‘Internet of Things’. This will lead to a ‘smart production’ environment, where intelligent machines, systems and networks are capable of independently exchanging and responding to information to manage industrial production processes.

Properly implemented, creating a more connected process control system has the potential to significantly improve productivity. In fact, PwC, one of the world’s largest professional services companies, conducted an extensive survey of over 200 German industrial companies, and showed an expectation that productivity will increase by 18% over the next five years. Despite only 20% of the companies having initiated a new investment in digital controls at the time of the survey, 85% of them expected to have introduced Industry 4.0 solutions within five years.

Improving data communication
There are already large amounts of data produced by machinery, which is then transmitted to a higher level device for interpretation. As the data is used by an increasing number of processes and controllers so it becomes essential that the production process uses a universal communication protocol. This enables a free flow of information across the manufacturing site and also facilities expansion of the automated system in the future.

Many industries, especially heavily regulated ones such as pharmaceuticals, are required to record large amounts of data from their manufacturing processes, including precise records of water quality which form a crucial part of compliance with industry standards.

However, increasing levels of data can begin to restrict transmission speeds which ultimately could affect productivity. This can be mitigated by the use of modern field devices and their controllers, which are becoming more intelligent and increasingly making intelligent decisions locally, reducing data traffic and speeding up decision making.

Data collection, traditionally, may have been achieved using a wide range of sensors, whereas now this can be automated along with continuous data analysis rather than batch sampling. This improvement has come about due to advances in design technology and a reduction in costs, which have made the latest sensory technology available to a much wider audience.

Effective process control
Having captured so much process data it is important to use it effectively, otherwise the investment in modern sensors will have been wasted. In terms of process control, data from flow measurement, temperature, pressure, pH and many other sensors can now be analysed local to the process and displayed graphically. Any anomalies can be flagged at the most appropriate location, even remote to the production site if necessary.

Network connections can be used to transmit both production information as well as information about process parameters that have fallen outside the required specifications. In this way process control is kept at a local level, with only alarms and critical data being sent further afield.

However, the real advances have been in the integration of process controls into the overall concept. Modern designs of input/output (I/O) modules allow sensors and actuators to be combined within the same network using standardised signals. This enables control valves to use instant feedback signals from local sensors to improve the accuracy of control.

Increasing levels of automation and connectivity have heralded ‘Industry 4.0’ which is enabling more devices to communicate and interact within industrial processes. However, all of this new information needs to be managed and displayed in a way that is easy to understand and interpret. It is essential that as more and more data is generated, we are able to process it and use it effectively.

As we continue to explore the possibilities that are being created by ‘Industry 4.0’ it is important that the investment in new equipment and processes is matched by the benefits to the overall business. That said, waiting too long to implement more efficient processes and improved information technology may allow the competition to take advantage.

Paul Trevitt is operations and engineering manager at Bürkert Fluid Control. Systems.


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