Integrated automation suites solve 24/7 connectivity problems

Edge solutions deliver data insights that increase uptime

By John DeTellem and Ramey Miller April 12, 2021

Advances in digitalization are providing manufacturers with data insights and stable remote connectivity. While digitalization and connectivity used to be competitive advantages for manufacturers, they are now essential for achieving profitability and longevity, along with responsiveness to rapidly evolving market trends.

Fortunately for machine builders, connected components are in abundance, and it is easier than ever to equip machines with smart sensors, analyzers, variable frequency drives, and other intelligent devices. However, there are many challenges to maintaining stable remote 24/7 connectivity.

With a substantial focus on data and connectivity, it is easy to overlook the basics, like system and process diagnostics. But these elementary building blocks provide the foundation for entire automation solutions. With careful planning from conception of an automation system to implementation, the right hardware and software tools are keeping manufacturers connected to their data with confidence, providing consistent uptime.

System reliability, connectivity

To provide continuous and reliable access to plant data, manufacturers must first ensure a stable automation system base, and with many connected machines and devices, integration is often not performed in a consistent fashion. When this is the case, it can create misunderstanding, operational delays, and unplanned downtime.

This lack of uniformity is often a result of deficiencies in engineering and automation standards. While one machine may utilize a particular scheme of interlock checks and means of flagging basic faults, another may be designed entirely differently. Through careful planning and programming, it is possible to consistently implement alerting across multiple machines, although this can be challenging to maintain, especially when introducing changes and reprogramming machines later in their lifecycles.

Once a reliable automation system is carefully architected, the next challenge is defining the channels by which to access plant data, both real time and historical. While developments in the industrial internet of things (IIoT) are making it possible to connect remotely to numerous intelligent devices, direct connection from device to cloud is not the best practice in most manufacturing environments.

In a plant setting with potentially hundreds of intelligent devices, direct connection brings about bandwidth constraints and security concerns. Additionally, many machine components still require an intermediary device for pre-processing raw device data and converting it to cloud-friendly packets, and communication must be encrypted to ensure safe operation and protect sensitive information.

For these reasons, most modern plants maintain PC-based solutions to collect, store, and interpret historical performance data for optimizing production. These solutions, however, can be difficult to configure and clunky to support, and managing data across multiple facilities in a nationwide or global enterprise requires still another layer of software oversight.

Diagnostic solutions

To maintain uniformity across machines reliably, integrated automation suites automatically generate system diagnostic and alerting schemes based on hardware configuration, reducing error-prone custom system diagnostic declarations. This provides consistent alerting and readout of alarms among PLCs, HMIs, edge devices, plant workstations, webservers, and remote sessions through the cloud (Figure 1).

Because these diagnostics are automatically generated rather than manually programmed, changes to the hardware configuration automatically update system diagnostic infrastructure across a connected enterprise, increasing manufacturer confidence when managing systems remotely. Integrated automation suites also simplify alarm management by leveraging a methodology whereby alarm text definitions are defined with process data values. This keeps alarm message readouts consistent across panel HMIs and other connected visualization devices — such as laptops, smartphones, and tablets. These features apply to all local and remote real-time plant visualization solutions.

Even with robust condition monitoring programs, occasional downtime is inevitable for plants, but reliable and easily understood system and process diagnostic information results in quicker recovery. Diagnostics provided by integrated automation suites translate system faults to intuitive error messages in the runtime environment, quickly directing operations and maintenance staff to root causes.

Insight at the Edge

Building on a stable automation system are edge devices installed on the plant floor to make efficient use of bandwidth for secure communications outside the plant, along with reliable remote connectivity. Engineering, operations, and maintenance staff alike must be able to visualize, analyze, and interact with machines to keep a plant running in an efficient manner, and unified HMIs at a network’s edge facilitate these functions.

Unified HMIs provide different capabilities than standard edge controllers, with built-in apps for managing edge devices and data, and they bring advanced IT capabilities to the machine level in a cost-effective manner. When implemented, they serve as a central repository for data across a plant floor, enabling direct visualization and analysis of machine health and performance through a single interface (Figure 2).

In addition to running built-in and scalable edge apps, manufacturers can develop their own apps utilizing the unified HMI’s docker engine. This docker and container infrastructure incorporates security intrinsically, enabling developers to focus on app logic and functionality, instead of spending time building and maintaining app infrastructure. As a result, unified HMI apps are highly configurable, as opposed to programmable, because the underlying infrastructure is already vetted.

For machine builders short on time, there is likely already “an app for that.” Native and third-party apps are available for purchase to run on unified HMIs, accomplishing tasks such as:

  • Performing advanced production algorithms and calculations
  • Connecting to data from multiple sources over multiple protocols
  • Visualizing data
  • Automating workflows
  • Managing inventory
  • Simulating production with a digital twin
  • Analyzing machine and drive health and calling out predictive maintenance
  • Analyzing performance and creating insights
  • Creating notification pipelines and sending alerts.

Furthermore, unified HMIs are repositories for data collection, analysis, storage, and forwarding. With the right apps, users can connect to automation controllers, drives, OPC UA-enabled devices, and other edge devices (Figure 3). Using the MQTT protocol, these devices can efficiently publish data to the cloud while consuming minimal network resources, for efficient remote access and analysis.

Due to their multilingual properties, unified HMIs perform well as interfaces for establishing key performance indicators and measuring actual production output from multiple machines. Unified HMIs also eliminate the need for PCs in many applications because they can execute many of the IT functions performed by PCs within their industrially hardened HMI housing, and at lower cost and in smaller footprint.

Adding another IT characteristic, unified HMIs include enterprise management. Machine builders and manufacturers can centrally manage devices and apps from on- or off-premise through a web-based interface independent of the HMI automation project file. This can be done from any device capable of hosting a web browser, such as a laptop, smartphone, or tablet.


A leading original equipment manufacturer (OEM) of crosscut saws significantly improved its production automation system and enhanced its global customer service by standardizing on the Siemens TIA Portal integrated automation suite. By utilizing the TIA Portal’s automatic system diagnostic and alarm generation, residing within the hardware configuration tool, the OEM was able to reduce its programming time by 30%. The saw manufacturer now provides its end user customers with in-depth troubleshooting, accessible from the HMI.

Using the integrated system diagnostic view, the OEM’s customers are able to self-service many issues, and when problems are escalated to the OEM, the HMI’s clear display of system alarm conditions makes resolution of issues much quicker. The result is less downtime for end users, and fewer support calls to the OEM.
For an industrial heater manufacturer, struggling to keep up with growing demands from its stakeholders, implementing Siemens WinCC Unified HMI software and panels enabled it to deliver greater functionality and performance to its users. This platform also empowered the manufacturer to develop its own apps for machine and performance analysis, and for maintenance support. The HMI’s docker ensured app security, and it saved development time because the pre-built container infrastructure allowed effort to be placed on app functionality.

Using unified HMIs’ remote management capabilities, the machine builder is able to remotely push updates to machines around the world whenever they release a new revision (Figure 4), comparable to app updates on a smartphone or patches on a PC.

Unified HMIs’ native support for the MQTT protocol makes cloud connectivity possible, while OPC UA protocol support enables users to connect their new machine with other machines in their facilities, and with intelligent devices.

Focus on optimization

As industry grows more agile and geographically dispersed, machine builders need always-on access to data. At the same time, customer and corporate expectations are becoming more demanding, requiring manufacturers to maintain consistent uptime by implementing solutions for remote connectivity.

Modern integrated automation suites ease the burden of managing diagnostics and alarms for manufacturers, freeing them up to focus on plant and data connectivity solutions. Paired with a capable edge-based software and hardware system, manufacturers can place more focus on refining machine functionality through data insights, with less concern about machine downtime and lost production.

Unified HMIs installed at the automation edge effectively connect users to their data, while bridging OT plant data with workflows and IT tools, phasing out the need for plant floor PCs in most applications. These Unified HMIs are empowering machine builders to:

  • Connect with their data from anywhere
  • Integrate machine performance data directly with business process workflows
  • Deploy out-of-the-box or customized apps for interaction with their data.

As 24/7 connectivity matures, manufacturers are relying on edge devices to branch out further, supporting an increased breadth of cloud and factory floor communication protocols. These advances will improve machine performance, reduce downtime, enable greater profitability for machine builders, and fuel connected enterprises through the IIoT.

Author Bio: John DeTellem is the TIA Portal product marketing manager for Siemens Industry in the United States. He started his career over 30 years ago as an automation project engineer/project manager for Rockwell Automation in the automotive industry, leading projects at Chrysler and BMW based primarily on Allen-Bradley PLC5/CLX PLCs. John has been with Siemens 14 years. He holds a BSEE from the University of Iowa. Ramey Miller is the HMI/Edge product marketing manager for Siemens Industry in the United States. He holds a bachelor’s degree in computer and electrical engineering from Purdue University. Ramey has over 15 years of industrial automation experience and has been with Siemens for four years.