Machine control: It’s all about the data

19 June 2018

Suzanne Gill reports on the latest machine control technology developments.

The most important machine control technology developments occurring today seem to be focussed around data and, importantly, the value that can be extracted from it. Value propositions include predictive maintenance, increased efficiencies, and improved Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE).

“Traditional machine control technology is based on signals and sensors on board the machine. A premise of the IIoT is having the ability to combine that data with data from outside sources for more advanced analytics,” explained Arun Sinha, director of business development at Opto 22. “For example, a machine making steel parts might combine onboard operating data with outside data related to the varying commodity price of a steel.”

For machine builders, the IIoT value proposition is being able to offer end-users services such as remote-monitoring & maintenance. However, according to Sinha, advanced data processing goes beyond this toward higher-level business outcomes such as profitability and more efficient asset utilisation.

“Two primary things are driving these changes toward more data driven machine operation,” continued Sinha. “The first is the proliferation of platforms for data analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence from IT companies. IBM, Amazon, Microsoft and many others have set their sights on the industrial space, which is one of the drivers for the change. There has been a slight shift in the conversation lately from the cloud to the edge, which certainly makes sense for industrial machinery. 

“The second driver is that some manufacturers of automation systems and gateways are embracing this change by offering on-board tools for edge data processing, as well as communication protocols and data formats that are IT friendly. Examples include mobile GUIs, open APIs, data mashup tools like Node-RED, JSON data format and MQTT data transmission. This OT/IT convergence is a win-win for machine designers and the customers they serve.”

A word of warning
As we have already heard, the most important development by far for machine control is the race by manufacturers to jump on the IoT bandwagon. “The exponential explosion in the number of devices with Internet access is driving R&D departments to fulfill the desire of end users to have access to their machines in the remotest parts of the world via an Internet connection of some sort,” said Joe Tauser, of Joseph Tauser & Associates, a distributor and integrator for Unitronics. “Tauser says that, while this is a good thing – for most of the time. “We have put too much faith in the quality of the connections. When the cellular or other network goes down or becomes heavily loaded with traffic during certain times of the day those remote nodes can go offline. And then all hell breaks loose, as the devices are often hours away from anywhere.”

Tauser’s advice is that machine designers and end users need to consider intermittent network failure as part of the system design. It is important to implement an ‘alone in the dark’ plan as part of the device's operation. “Too often this is not being done,” concludes Tauser.

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