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Gaining control through automation

28 November 2016

Barry Graham discusses the benefits that today’s control systems can offer the food and beverage industry sector and outlines the far-reaching potential of today’s control systems. 

Automation is sometimes talked about as an end in itself, or as a way of addressing specific issues: cutting labour costs, moving to longer shifts or improving quality consistency. These are all valid objectives, but can obscure the wider supply-chain landscape – and potential longer-term benefits. 

Food industry automation, for example, can provide opportunities on multiple levels for improved business visibility, both internally and externally. This can allow a faster response to changes in upstream supply and downstream demand. It can mean that, at the level of individual pieces of equipment, data can be generated and received in real time. 

Fine tuning efficiency
If automation offers efficiency, in comparison with manual or semi-automatic alternatives, the most convincing type of system will allow that efficiency to be fine-tuned and improved. It is useful to understand the value of measuring overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) which combines calculations of availability, performance and quality and can constitute a precise metric. As such, it allows machinery manufacturers to identify and address their own bottlenecks. But it can also act as a common currency, permitting OEMs and their customers to follow (and derive mutual benefit from) an increase in a particular line’s OEE score. 

When it comes to the ‘availability’ component to OEE, the latest generation of machinery controls can lift efficiency on a number of levels. Omron, for example, has function blocks within its Sysmac Library which focus on reduced machine downtime. 

Simply in terms of fast changeover, the Sysmac control platform offers benefits. Whether triggered directly by the operator or an input device, such as a barcode scanner, there is no delay in resetting a machine to new parameters. 

The ability to gather real-time data boosts machine availability in other ways. In what might be termed ‘preventative diagnostics’, the performance of key components such as sensors and servo drives can be monitored and any adverse trends spotted. So if a servo is losing torque or a sensor going out of alignment, for example, the controller will flag this up before it constitutes a serious failure. That way, rather than causing an unscheduled line stoppage, it can be dealt with during scheduled maintenance. 

Another measure of the effectiveness of automation is the degree to which the different control functions are integrated on a single platform, accessed from a single HMI. On more complex lines where so many different aspects of ‘automation’ come together, this is of huge importance and erquires fully integrated input, logic, output, safety and robotics. 

But to take the benefits of automation to an additional level, food manufacturers will want to engineer data interchange between plant level and management – or enterprise – level. Omron uses EtherNet IP as its communications network, allowing the transfer of data from the factory to the database (or cloud) in real time. 

The food industry in particular should recognise the benefits of capturing and analysing line data, not least the food and drink industry. In fact, it has more to gain than many other sectors given the number of regulatory requirements, industry standards and internal quality guidelines which need to be applied. 

Handling recalls
If a problem arise, requiring a product recall, comprehensive data storage can make the identification of faulty batches and their tracking through the supply chain more straightforward and faster. In a crisis management scenario, the manufacturer would need to be confident about tracing allergens or other contaminants back to the supplier the ingredients were sourced from. Transparency from the manufacturer to the retailer and from the supplier to the manufacturer can only be complete once production and batch data are factored in. 

Ultimately, food and drink factories will be taking automation to the level of the much-debated Industry 4.0. This will require fluid data exchange between the different layers in the business, which needs to be based on the ability of different parts of the production line to ‘talk’ to each other. These networks will enter new territory when equipment not only sends and receives real-time data from multiple sources but also initiates new actions on the basis of that data. 

This could take the form of product changeovers on the basis of Just-in-Time demand or ingredient availability. But it could also take the form, say, of a diagnostic capability which detects the need for a new spare part, interrogates the stores database to see if that part is available and, if not, triggers an email to order it. 

This may sound more like science fiction than an industrial reality, but this is the level of sophistication that the next generation of automation will achieve. Control systems, data collection and data management are all pointing in the same direction – and not that far ahead.

Barry Graham is automation product marketing manager at Omron.

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