Strategies for implementing plant automation

13 May 2024

Joe Wagner, Field Application Engineer at Red Lion answered some questions about the benefits of plant automation and strategies for implementation.

Q: What are the key advantages of implementing automation in a manufacturing plant?
Remote system monitoring, easy data access, and powerful data visualisation options are just a few key advantages of implementing automation technology in a manufacturing plant. Automated systems often make it possible to remotely access and interact with the system from anywhere in the world in a secure way, which also enables quick and easy access to data generated by the automated system. This data is very useful, as it can be analysed for process improvements or factored into real-time calculations. It can also be visualised on a touchscreen interface for easy monitoring and interaction. Overall, automation enables an enhanced level of access and control that can lead to increased uptime, efficiency gains, and quality improvements.

Q: What are the emerging trends and technologies in plant automation that are shaping the future of manufacturing?
One emerging technology in plant automation that is shaping the future of manufacturing is MQ Telemetry Transport (MQTT) protocol. MQTT was originally designed for connections with devices in remote locations with resource constraints or limited bandwidth, making it very lightweight and efficient at moving data to and from a data broker – either locally or in the cloud. More specifically, MQTT is capable of ‘report by exception’ which means that data is only transmitted when it has changed. MQTT is not necessarily new but is still relatively new to the world of manufacturing with many companies just starting to adopt this powerful technology. 

MQTT has an important role to play in bridging the gap between IT and OT as it is now one of the most used protocols for connecting machinery on the factory floor to a central server. It facilitates real-time data streaming, enabling the central server to make mission-critical decisions. Its ability to facilitate instantaneous data transmission from the central Manufacturing Execution System (MES) server to edge devices during actions like plan changes, holds, and releases is invaluable. Keeping data synchronised between processes and plan information allows for real-time data analysis at both the edge and server levels, sharing the computational load, especially when scaling up for comprehensive Industry 4.0 implementations.

Process parameters such as speed (RPM), pressure, displacement, temperature, and time play a pivotal role in determining product quality. These parameters are regularly monitored and compared with predefined metrics on the server using pre-built algorithms. Predictive decisions are then formulated and sent back to the edge devices. HMIs are integrated with the MQTT Agent to relay small, time-sensitive data variations to the server for rapid decision-making. 

Q: How can engineers ensure that automated systems are adaptable and flexible to meet changing production demands?
One way to describe the ability to be adaptable and flexible to changing production demands is ‘futureproofing’. When it comes to ensuring that automated systems are as future-proof as possible, there are several factors to consider such as: compatibility with multiple communication protocols and devices and having the ability to quickly expand the communications capabilities of the system, and the ability to easily expand the input/output (I/O) capabilities of the system. Choosing the right hardware, which has this level of flexibility, users can ensure that their system will be adaptable and ready for many years of changing production demands.

Q: What are the most critical considerations when selecting automation technologies for a specific manufacturing process? 
When selecting automation technologies for a specific manufacturing process there are several critical considerations to keep in mind, some of which will depend on the process itself. Some of the more general considerations include ensuring compatibility with existing devices/processes, being flexible and ready for future changes or additions to the process, and selecting robust hardware that is easy to configure. When considering the challenge posed by the need for flexibility and having a system that is ready for future changes, one solution is to look at modular hardware that allows users to easily expand the communications capabilities or input/output (I/O) capabilities of a device in the field with minimal disruption to production.

Q: What are the main challenges faced when integrating automation into an existing manufacturing process?
When integrating automation into an existing manufacturing process, users should expect to face a few challenges along the way. For example, it is very common for manufacturing plants to have several pieces of legacy hardware which may not be able to communicate directly with newer automation hardware using modern protocols. In cases like this, users can implement an appropriate protocol converter to overcome communication barriers and achieve a high level of connectivity. Another challenge relates to operator training. Any time changes are introduced in a manufacturing environment, users should be provided with  some level of operational training so they are ready to address any unexpected issues that may arise

Q: How can automation improve product quality and consistency in a manufacturing plant? 
There are a number of ways that automation can improve product quality and consistency in a manufacturing plant, but one word that can describe it very well is ‘data’. Automated systems are capable of tracking relevant data points over time and displaying that data in clear ways while keeping a historic record of measurements for analysis. For higher-urgency situations, automated systems are capable of alerting users via text and/or e-mail when certain alarms are active, allowing for a quick response and correction. Finally, automated systems may be capable of making automatic real-time adjustments to processes to account for any deviations, ensuring a high level of quality and consistency.

Q: How can automation technologies support sustainability and environmental initiatives within a manufacturing plant?
Automation technologies can support sustainability and environmental initiatives within a manufacturing plant in many ways – one of which is to increase efficiency. Automation technology typically involves data logging and analysing historical data which can be used for all kinds of system improvements and even automatic real-time adjustments that increase efficiency. These efficiency gains can be realised by, for example, as lowering scrap rates and reducing the raw materials needed for a process, making an entire process more sustainable while simultaneously reducing waste. As users continue to adopt advanced automation technologies and harness the power of their own data, these efficiency gains are likely to continue.

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