Moving towards the future one step at a time

06 March 2017

It will come as no surprise to hear that system integrators have an important role to play in the engineering cycle, delivering turnkey control solutions to their end-user customers. They also offer valuable engineering knowledge, together with application know-how. Suzanne Gill reports on their role in helping to prepare industry for the future.

As more manufacturers start to look at practical ways that they can implement, and benefit from, smart factory and Industry 4.0 strategies many are looking more closely at the role automation can play in helping to further enhance productivity. “As their customer expectations evolve, many manufacturers are looking at the ways they can make more intelligent business decisions, faster,” explained Simon Keogh, general manager Factory Automation & Control Products at Siemens UK & Ireland. “This does not mean that the ongoing requirement for optimisation has fallen by the wayside, even across the traditional manufacturing space. A key driver for this shift is a move towards increased automation, which for many, brings a wealth of productivity gains too. In terms of market demand, we are now finding more customers are actively exploring techniques they can utilise to further encourage the upward movement of data, from the shopfloor, to ERP systems and into a cloud environment.” 

System integrators will usually work closely with the client to understand the business drivers and the manufacturing processes and are often considered as an additional engineering arm of the client, particularly in the face of the well reported engineering skills shortage.  It is important, therefore, that systems integrators have a good understanding of the latest technology developments and, for this reason, many automation vendors work ever more closely with their systems integration partners to ensure they stay up to date with their latest offerings.

System integrators need to keep up to date with the latest solutions, and this is where the role of the manufacturer is vital – good education provision and an active, open channel of communication between the automation component vendor and the systems integrator is essential to enable the filter-down of new technology from the vendor to the end user. “As the world becomes increasingly digitised the role of the systems integrator will continue to be at the forefront of adoption in the industrial sphere,” said Ian Davison, sales development manager at Mitsubishi Electric UK.

“Once the client has explained their project goals then it is up to the system integrator to translate this into a physical structure and a control platform – one that will deliver what the client is looking to achieve and which also fits neatly into an existing control and management structure,” concluded Davison.

“Traditionally, within many manufacturing plants systems have been physically mounted, and digitally replicated hardware. The increase in popularity of cyber-physical systems, means that system integrators are now able to offer their customers the ability to simulate system processes and the surrounding environment, including the automation of systems and the plant floor,” continued Keogh. 

Opening the data flow
“For the manufacturer increasing collaboration with system integrators and controls automation can open up the flow of information, driving data analytics across the shop floor. Data has been at the fingertips of manufacturing businesses for some time; however, what is changing is the way in which this same data is being interpreted”. 

When extrapolated and analysed, data can be effectively utilised throughout the manufacturing cycle – from research and development, through to manufacturing and on to field services. At each stage, the data harnessed enables manufacturers to streamline their process, further optimising automation. So, the digitised solutions delivered by system integrators can enable manufacturers to blur department and organisational boundaries to achieve collaborative engineering.

With production, design and manufacturing integrating more closely, it is also possible to extend this information transparency out into the supply chain to make products and services more dynamic, data more valuable, and business decisions more intelligence-based.

“We cannot fully predict where automation technology will be in ten years, but manufacturers can ensure they are in the best position to take advantage of what comes next by working in partnership with system integrators,” concludes Keogh.

End-user awareness levels
“Awareness levels regarding IIoT, digitisation and Industry 4.0 among end users is high and increasing at great pace,” according to Dave Sutton, product marketing manager Automation systems, Networks, SCADA at Schneider Electric. “Manufacturers, especially in process-biased industries now understand the potential that IIoT holds.
“It isn’t so much a step change, but rather a gradual evolution of technologies, albeit a more rapid transition in recent times brought about by the new generation of smart, connected, yet secure technology.” Sutton believes that the biggest integration challenges faced by end users today is the management of legacy installations which are still running production plants using outdated proprietary technologies that are now starting to show their age in terms of speed, data bandwidth, flexibility of connection, and providing transparent access to data remotely. “The dilemma for the end user is that they need to maintain a wide variety of third-party proprietary systems, yet smoothly introduce new technology platforms, with an ageing workforce that is not necessarily familiar with IIoT technology. This is where the role of the system integrator is key,” continued Sutton.

System integrators can help bridge the gaps that end users may have in terms of incorporating new IIoT technologies such as wireless, mobile, cloud and data analytics. But why do manufacturers need to do this? Because IIoT will enable more smart assets to communicate with each other and exchange more data. System integrators are also able to help interpret this data and present it as meaningful and actionable information. “Technologies such as cloud and mobile will become more prevalent, so system integrators need to build their skills in applying these technologies to the control system – continued investment in training and hiring of good engineers, with fresh ideas on the application of IT-based systems will be key to ensuring that knowledge is improved and maintained,” said Sutton.

Evolution not revolution
According to Steve Holt, managing director of systems integrator, Stelram Engineering, Industry 4.0 is already happening and should be regarded as more of an evolution than a revolution. 

Holt says that many of the ideas that underpin Industry 4.0 can be, and should be, implemented right now, whenever a plant update is undertaken or a new plant is designed and built. However, but complete conversion to Industry 4.0 cannot happen overnight. „It is best approached as an organic process; manufacturers can start with one area of their plant – by, for example, upgrading the automation systems on just one production line or even just part of line. After that, they can take incremental steps in updating other parts of the plant with the ultimate goal of applying the ideas of Industry 4.0 in every area to maximise productivity and profitability,” he said.

Holt says that technologies such as vision systems can offer another way of achieving immediate gains while moving toward Industry 4.0. “Modern vision systems make it easy to implement accurate and dependable inspection,” he said. “These systems can see as much as – and sometimes more than – a person, and they never blink or take tea breaks. 

“Robots too can make production faster and more efficient. Easy to install and, reliable, robotic arms are an excellent choice for Industry 4.0 implementations. Furthermore, they can also be integrated via IIoT for traceability and validation purposes.”

Stelram has found that many of its customers are keen to adopt Industry 4.0 but simply don’t know where to start. Traditionally presented as an ‘all or nothing’ approach, it can appear to many companies as something daunting, disruptive and ultimately unattainable. 

“Our approach is to start from the customer’s existing lines and equipment and look at ways in which automation would improve them. Sometimes it is as simple as adding a pick-and-place robot to a packaging line, whereas in other situations a completely new and intelligent automation system is the best solution for IIoT integration and moving toward Industry 4.0,” said Holt

“Without doubt, the most important thing to remember is that improvements do not have to happen all at once. A step-by-step approach to streamlining and upgrading plants is more beneficial, as it does not disrupt manufacturing and gives operators the time they require training and getting used to new machinery.”

Making it clear
Mark Bragg, general manager at HepcoAutomation, an Omron system integration partner, agrees that awareness levels about Industry 4.0, IIoT and smart factories is increasing. However, he said that the need to provide clear information about the benefits of these concepts cannot be over emphasised. “When broken down into its component parts these big enterprise-wide concepts will make much more sense to the engineer specifying a bespoke motion or drive project,” he said.

Bragg believes that the UK automotive industry is leading the way and has already taken many smart factory ideas on board. Indeed, many are now dictating their smart factory requirements to their systems integrators. “Many of our end-user customers do not get that involved with the bigger conceptual ideas behind smart factories so they need to be told about the benefits that it will offer them.”   

HepcoAutomation works hard to explain the philosophy behind these concepts to its customers. “Monitoring torque on a motor, for example, can help predict the need for maintenance activities.  This is just a small piece of a bigger picture but it can demonstrate how the potential benefits of greater connectivity across an enterprise can also offer immediate benefits to the specifying engineer.”

The downside to providing Industry 4.0 ready solutions for the systems integrator is that it will add cost to a project. “We need to be able to explain these costs so that the customer is not simply looking at the pricetag. We need to make solutions affordable and cost-effective for the customer. Future proofing solutions does come at a cost and unless the benefits are clearly highlighted at the outset, the customer may make the decision not to take this route,” said Bragg.

Barry Graham, automation product marketing manager at Omron says that no one can fully predict where automation technology will lead in the coming years. “However, one thing we can be sure of is that functionality supporting smart manufacturing initiatives will become widely available and diverse in content,” he said. It is widely accepted that enabling ‘smart’ functionality will have an impact on system development time and these developments should take this into consideration by making the use and implementation simple, quick and more accessible. 

“Ultimately strong partnerships between automation equipment manufacturers and their system integration partners will allow for better promoting and demonstration of true value offered by these smart manufacturing initiatives to the users.”

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