Smart manufacturing and new automation improve lives of engineers

Next-generation automation has a profound impact on manufacturing business models and quality of life for engineers.


Smart manufacturing means better manufacturing quality and work quality, as well. Courtesy: Control EngineeringIt changed my life! Manufacturing engineers seldom refer to technology this way. But the impact of remote access to a production line can be dramatic for some. One usually dour, Scottish engineer had a huge smile on his face-the capability to monitor and adjust line and machine controllers from anywhere meant that on-site night shifts had been replaced by stay-at-home work, with "standby" shifts (sleep until you're called) planned for the future. Domestic bliss had been restored.

That was about 10 years ago. The advance of smart manufacturing technology has driven the continuing transformation of production environments. Increasing automation and better development tools enable improvements at almost every level of a manufacturing system, with changes ranging from new concepts to new optimum distributions of function to straightforward refinement, all offering better efficiency, quality, and cycle times.

Machine monitoring

Technology creates opportunities for new business models, and new market entrants. For example, remote access was disruptive to the provision of machine monitoring and service. Historically, service was performed by the owner. This involved asset management systems, scheduled service, and repair by in-house engineers who probably maintained their own stocks of spare parts. Management initiatives to outsource and focus on core competence tended to hold back in-house service groups, and boost third-party providers. Remote access enabled continuous monitoring from service centers, and this was one way that machine builders and their partners could compete for service revenues.

The continuing growth of instrumentation means feedback is for operation and control and for product development planning. Design engineers are "in the loop" and can use actual sensor measurements to calibrate and drive machine simulations, and improve their understanding of machine performance. These simulations provide data about symptoms that lead to the failure modes that have been studied. The owners of this information have a strong position when it comes to preventive maintenance; they know exactly which combinations of temperature, pressure, vibration, and other measurements trigger a maintenance call, and which need just an adjustment.

Intelligent controllers

The intelligent controllers that are enabling this improved level of instrumentation and monitoring also are allowing functions to be moved from hardware to software. It will be possible to build more machines from standard material handling and other subsystems, assembled onto a common platform. The machines will be differentiated by the software that controls and integrates the standard units. Even now, higher processor speeds in motion control systems offer designers more choice-lower cost sensors and actuators may be able to deliver the same performance if driven by better algorithms, or even the same algorithm executed at a higher frequency.

Planning and installation tools also are changing, reducing production downtime needed for refurbishment and upgrade projects.

For example, site surveys can be automated with laser scanning units that generate point clouds that can be integrated into the design environment. This eliminates surprises when you get on-site about the position of existing machines, walls, walkways, cable trays, and so on. Completed simulations will cover the installation sequence and the operation of the completed units. And this won't have been just the start-up, standard cycle, and close down sequence of one machine or work cell. Those involved can tap into a whole-line or factory simulation tool that examines alternative ways of balancing machine performance and production flexibility to provide planned levels of customization as well as minimum cost and fastest response.

Peter Thorne is director of Cambashi Ltd. Courtesy: CambashiThese advances are blurring the line between the virtual and real worlds. The engineer on-site will always have an advantage with access to the sight, sound, and smell of a machine as well as the big data instrumentation feeds, the analytics to make sense of the readings, and all the design and simulation study results. But technology is reducing the on-site advantage, and as more business models change, more engineers will be saying, "It changed my life!" Hopefully, as for the dour Scot, smart manufacturing is changing lives in the right direction.

- Peter Thorne is director, Cambashi Ltd. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering,

Key concepts

  • Advance of smart manufacturing technology has driven the continuing transformation of production environments.
  • Intelligent controllers are enabling this improved level of instrumentation and monitoring.
  • Planning and installation tools also are changing, reducing production downtime needed for refurbishment and upgrade projects.

Consider this

How could smarter applications of technology make your life easier?

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