In the IIoT age, automation simplifies work

Intelligent and connected machines are more flexible and better equipped to manufacture customized products.

By Doug Burns, Lenze Americas December 13, 2016

Modern automation initiatives are gaining traction across the globe. Following three previous revolutions—the development of the steam engine, mass production on the conveyor belt, and the dawn of computers-the term ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ might have some believing the manufacturing world is changing overnight. Although tempting to characterize an influx of technology as revolutionary, the long history of manufacturing shows us that the nature of all change is evolutionary.

A logical next phase, digital automation technologies ushered in an era of unprecedented machine intelligence. Advancements in sensors, networking and the use of new communication systems created a surge of Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) initiatives aimed at producing goods with improved flexibility, speed and efficiency. The rate of adoption for automation technologies has been extraordinary, with nearly every factory now automated, and projections show the global robotics industry expanding to over $226 billion by 2021.

Many companies already use machine intelligence to expand the efficiency and performance of operations. A recent survey (Business Insider) found that over 80% of executives agree that successful adoption of IoT technologies will be critical for future success. Another study (Quest Technomarketing, Germany) reports that half of all mechanical engineers already rely on modular, intelligent machines. The number of these machines will increase twice as quickly as generic machine production over the next few years-with modular, intelligent machines slated to reach an 80% market share within three years.

All of these trends are boosting demand for intelligent motion control-along with the need to manage complexity. Let’s look at some successful strategies for implementing automation technologies.

Think in terms of individualization

One of the most important drivers of IoT-enabled and digital motor drive technology is the trend toward product customization. There is growing need to streamline and conserve resources, along with a steadily growing world population and trends toward flexible packaging and individualization of demand.

For example, some automakers no longer offer as wide a range of models. Buyers can select a special detail or combination of details that may only be produced for one car. The trend toward increased individualization is obvious in other industries as well. In years past, a supermarket might stock two carton sizes of milk available in full fat or skim versions. Today’s shoppers can choose between many different carton sizes and various qualities from normal pasteurized milk to raw, organic, rice and soy milks.

Do we drive more cars or drink more milk as a result? Not necessarily. Batch sizes are shrinking all the time, yet variances are increasing for the same quantity produced. You can easily find many other examples of shrinking production runs. Greater variety may not mean more consumption necessarily, yet can translate into more sales of a manufacturer’s brands.

As production quantities decrease, the goal is to contain costs without compromising on quality. Representing a shift from high-volume and limited variability manufacturing, many industries are already experiencing rising demand for lower volume mixed production runs. Automated factories will see more temporary production lines requiring reconfiguration for increasingly diverse products. That means manufacturers increasingly must adapt to mix demand and ever-changing product portfolios, which translates into more rapid changeover of products or packaging sizes.

Therefore, they need to think about how best to produce more variety at a reasonable cost. Obviously, a separate machine for every packaging or product variation drives up cost. Rather, machines must be capable of doing more. Intelligent and connected machines are more flexible and better equipped to manufacture customized products with the highest degree of productivity, quality and resource efficiency in small and large series production quantities.

Don’t invite complexity

Machine builders and manufacturers shoulder a great deal of responsibility when it comes to automation technology implementation. Advanced automation technologies can provide tremendous opportunities; they can also add layers of complexity in the form of kinematic programming and control systems and integration into the network, Internet- and cloud-based platforms.

Everything stands and falls on efficient and effective production planning as production runs decrease. While plant-based controlled production planning might be up to the job, the complexity involved would be practically impossible to manage at that level.

System boundaries may blur between a machine and other machines upstream and downstream. Logically speaking, it only makes sense to have machine intelligence and communication with other machines involved in the application. Compounding the complexity, most plants still operate with at least some legacy systems.

Another challenging factor is an aging workforce and lack of experienced employees-and high competition for candidates who possess technical skills. Machines must not be endlessly complex for the human operators. Protracted machine design and commissioning, programming demands or steep learning curves do not support faster pace and leaner operations needed to compete in a digital world.

Focus on simplicity

So what should be the focus when it comes to specifying motion control? Go back to basics. By definition, automation innovation should make jobs easier. Simplifying complex technologies requires modularity of motion control concepts and standardization of functional units from the motor to the shaft. Better machines require drive control solutions that overcome the challenges of product individualization and the complexities of digital technologies.

Robots must be more easily programmed to perform a wide range of tasks to support flexible manufacturing, including product design variability. Machine designs must accommodate product variants and easy changeovers. Machines with self-optimization and the right motor and inverter systems can make automation more efficient by expediting machine commissioning, programming and maintenance diagnostics.

Modularity makes it possible to add or remove machine drive modules in the production process or quickly retool machines using modular programming. For machine builders it is nothing short of a paradigm change. Their first priority used to be perfecting a machine to manufacture products with the greatest possible efficiency to the highest possible standard. Now they can offer customers optimal flexibility and the agility, without sacrificing quality. On the plant floor, modularity means different packaging sizes, materials and even contents can be processed, packed and palletized on a single machine. Modular and standardized machine drives and software engineering tools are already helping make complex production requirements and IIoT-enabled technologies more manageable.

Built on parameterized programming technology, smart motor drives expedite machine kinematic programming from concept to deployment. Parameterization allows easier commissioning than traditional programming. Replacing complex programming with uniform machine-configuration software tools significantly reduces engineering time and technical requirements and eliminates redundancies that drive up costs.

Frequency inverters with advanced functionality actively support connectivity for new and legacy machines. Bringing a smart drive online no longer requires special training, thanks to modular motion control components and engineering tools. So, machine builders can focus on what they know best-elements unique to their projects-the differentiators that make their products more competitive.

Fast track connectivity

Digital connectivity is driving equipment monitoring and asset management strategies to improve performance, uptime and machine operating life. Agile and scalable drive technologies enable efficient data flow, visibility and control, with secure data transmission for real-time decision-making, diagnostics, maintenance and predictive analytics.

Wherever machines are moving things, and wherever components are monitoring, controlling and driving machines, this is where you can find connected drive and automation technology. While engineering tools are needed, one ought not require an advanced degree to commission and operate a machine.

Simplifying otherwise complex operations is the main challenge that intelligent drive systems can overcome. The modular concept is also migrating into software. High-quality, adaptive software will become a key driver of innovation and engineering productivity. Machine module functions no longer require traditional programming; they can be programmed simply by adjusting parameters.

Motion-centric automation solutions incorporate ergonomics and user-friendly, multi-touch, HMI operating systems for process visualization and easier integration to support network and IIoT-enabled connectivity and control.

In terms of advanced control, data aggregation, monitoring and diagnostics, cloud-based applications make it possible to perform complex functions remotely that were once only accessible at the plant level.

Set IIoT in motion

Speed, flexibility, productivity and efficiency remain cornerstones of manufacturing production, packaging and logistics. Yet the dynamics in global markets are changing, reflecting new supply chain models with more variation and shorter production cycles requiring greater agility to reduce machine development time and turnkey system integration.

The design and engineering of machines has always been characterized by a high degree of customer centricity, requiring the translation of manufacturing needs into technical solutions. That’s where scalable and easily configurable modular motion control and drive components and software designed to address a wider range of application requirements can make the greatest impact.

IIoT technologies have proliferated not only in large companies but also in small and mid-sized companies. There is no lack of on-ramps, so the choice ultimately comes down to leading or lagging behind competitors. Harnessing technology to simplify complexity is the direction the industry has been headed for many years. The goal now is to continue systematically down this path. The IoT framework supports this trend and stands to act as a stimulus to all segments of industry.

-Doug Burns is director of sales and marketing for Lenze Americas.