Man and machine working collaboratively

06 October 2019

Josep Lario, EMEA product marketing manager, Software, at Omron, comments on how industry is overcoming the challenges associated with the move towards greater collaboration between man and machine.

Manufacturing production lines are beginning to change as industry evolves. Greater flexibility is vital in order to cope with demands for shorter production runs, tighter deadlines and greater product variation. These challenges are being addressed with interconnected, intelligent and more advanced systems that are able to be programmed to handle a wide range of tasks.
This has brought new challenges, such as how to program all these devices without needing to learn many different systems and programming languages. Luckily, there are tools available that offer integrated development environments (IDE) for configuration, programming, monitoring and 3D simulations. 
These IDE tools integrate configuration, programming, simulation, and monitoring in a simple interface that allows engineers to manage vision, motion, control, safety, and robotics in one system.
The relationship between machines
Even today, production lines are made up of many different machines – each designed to perform a specific task or set of tasks before the product under construction moves to the next stage in the process. Each of these machines has its own control system for programming and operation, with different manufacturers having their preferred communications and operating protocols. So getting these machines to talk to each other is already a challenge. 
The good news is that there is a number of existing standards. For example, the OPC-UA communication protocol, defined by the OPC Foundation provides a cross-platform unified architecture for industrial automation. In addition, automation vendors, such as Omron, are building more communications functionality into their devices to allow them to communicate with each other, transferring data in real-time to keep production lines running optimally and bringing increased flexibility and efficiency to modern production lines. 
Teamwork collaboration
With all the machines on a line now online, this provides opportunities for increased flexibility. New instructions can be downloaded to a line to change the production, software can be updated remotely, and bugs fixes rolled out to all connected devices just like updating the software on computers or apps on smart devices. This still presents some challenges – while the communications may be standardised, the machines themselves may still use their own operating languages and control systems.
Some integrated development systems have overcome this by providing a standardised and seamless interface that allows programmers to program a complete manufacturing or production line. Integrated platforms give programmers easy access to all aspects of process management.
Taking this a step further, some are incorporating the popular Git – a free and open source distributed version-control system – which ensures efficient project management and easy comparison of different versions. This boosts productivity by supporting cooperative and efficient co-development by teams from different sites. Any number of development teams in different locations can work on the same project simultaneously.
The version-control system allows engineers to work on a local version of a project with full control over the project source code. Improvements and modifications made to the code on the team’s version can then be merged with a remote server, so other teams can access the code. Thus, projects are fully traceable, and comparison and management of machines and projects is simple. Changes to code can be identified so engineers do not waste time solving a problem already solved by another team.
A further aspect of collaborative operation is how easy it is for operators to perform process monitoring and control. Machines need to be intuitive and easy to operate. User interfaces need to be simple consistent and intuitive to use, so that even less skilled operators can become familiar with controls quickly. 
Many hands make light work
Or so the saying goes! The increase of collaborative work, whether this is between operators and machines, remote teams or the machines alone, can deliver substantial benefits for manufacturing lines and production. Benefits such as improved collaboration to boost efficiency, reducing work for programmers, helping to avoid costs from downtime and improved communication when processing information.

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