In the IIoT age, automation simplifies work

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


Modular solutions can ensure ensure maximum flexibility and precision. Courtesy: LenzeModern 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.

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