Data will become king to achieve new levels of performance

24 January 2012

Martin Walder, managing director of Global Sense and chairman of the Engineering and Machinery Alliance (EAMA), discusses industry’s increasing reliance on data to improve productivity and efficiency.

Most manufacturing and process control systems in use today are only configured to sequence production operations and to alarm a local operator when something stops.
Although it is possible to install new state-of-the-art plant with integrated condition monitoring, energy management, environmental controls and production performance information, unlike the rising economies in the East, not many greenfield plants are being built in Europe.

All across Europe the majority of manufacturing will continue with existing plant and equipment. However, to compete with the rising economies it is necessary to improve the productivity and efficiencies of existing plants. This will require investment and the inevitable shift of staff from the production environment to value-add jobs in the supply chain. To achieve this there needs to be a huge reliance on data - both real-time information and easy access historical data - to enable timely and informed decisions to be made.

With less production staff in the average facility it will not be possible to have specialists in disciplines such as: quality, maintenance, energy management, environmental control and production optimisation. Instead, these specialists, who need to champion improvements, will move between multiple plants and may well work for 3rd party companies. However, they will still need access to data, real-time and historical wherever they are.

Quality – There is a need to know how each stage of the production process is performing in real-time against various control parameters so that potential problems can be detected ahead of time and adjustments made to the right cell. Reviewing historical performance against material and environmental changes may give the information needed to recommend process improvements.

Maintenance – There will be a move to a pro-active approach with real-time monitoring of critical wear parts and potential points of catastrophic failure, acting only when pending failure threatens and in advance of total breakdown. Critical maintenance is then scheduled outside of production hours, significantly reducing downtime and ‘standby maintenance’ resource. Also gone will be the need for much of the time-based ‘Planned Preventative Maintenance’ typically completed regardless of asset condition. Detailed asset history will be vital for longer-term improvements in the maintenance process and optimised capital replacement.

Energy – This is now top of the agenda. With soaring costs and CO² quotas all companies must take account of the energy consumed by their plants far beyond the traditional plant metering systems. Use of electricity is certainly a major factor but other utilities also represent energy use such as gas, steam and water. In the future measuring and controlling these at manufacturing cell level and linking to operational output will be important.
Environmental control - This will also have an increasing impact on performance, including the regulation of both material and utility feeds into and emissions out of a manufacturing facility as well as the environment within. The cost of running lighting and in particular heating in manufacturing plants is high with often limited control and no association to actual people whereabouts or production output.

Production – This will need to be optimised not just around customer commitments, labour and supply chain but also all of the above conditions. Beyond that the desire to further reduce WIP and respond to fast changing customer demands drives the need for near real-time information.

Re-engineering of existing manufacturing facilities and establishing an infrastructure of communications capable of handling this data is beyond practicality, for all but extreme situations. For this reason, I can see industry embracing the Internet in the same way that consumers already have, with real-time plant data being sent directly to servers in the cloud, allowing decision makers to gain secure global access through existing interfaces. The servers will be open format running real-time situational analysis and allowing data mining and reporting.

The question then is how does the real-time data from manufacturing cells and industrial environments reach the servers easily and cost effectively. For this I see a new wave of very granular, low cost and communication rich devices entering the market. They will be easily retro-fitted and gain real-time data from sensors and from legacy plant controllers and package for transmission. The data will be sent using a range of wired, wireless and mobile phone technology that allow communication directly with the servers, often bypassing company LANs completely. These units will need to be an order of magnitude lower than today’s typical industrial systems, provide any combination of quality, maintenance, environment and operational data and with it the ROI necessary for implementation.

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