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What Will Your Smart Factory Look Like in 20 Years?

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If you time-traveled 20 years into the future, would you even recognize your operations?

It’s a question I got to thinking about as I reflect on the initial release of our Logix control platform. When Logix was first released, it introduced new techniques and methods to address long-standing challenges.

Not only did it have more memory and faster performance than its predecessor, it also allowed users to converge different production disciplines — like discrete, motion, process and safety — into an integrated plant-wide architecture.

Looking ahead to the next 20 years, the Logix platform and other digital technologies offer even more transformative potential – to entirely change how we design, manage and staff operations.

But that potential still eludes many in the industrial world because concepts like Industry 4.0 and smart manufacturing are too “blue sky” and difficult to translate into real-world improvements.

While a PLC is tangible and its performance is measurable, something like Industry 4.0 is abstract and bound only by the limits of our imagination.

With this in mind, let’s look at three concrete, achievable examples of how operations will change in a smart factory within 20 years.

Predictive Asset Maintenance

Some organizations today have implemented this capability, but most still use reactive or calendar-based maintenance.

Predictive asset maintenance works like this: analytics software collects relevant data from PLCs, sensors and other sources, then looks for known patterns that predict failures or anomalies that could lead to a failure.

This allows maintenance technicians – or perhaps, someday, robots – to fix problems in production assets before they lead to a failure.

In the coming years, there will even be self-healing assets, including PLCs that can make adjustments on their own and continue running without any servicing.

Collaborative Robotics

The idea of humans and robots working side by side is becoming more prevalent – and more acceptable – thanks to improvements in safety technologies.

Instead of using a safety barrier to physically keep people away from robots, collaborative robots can detect a human’s presence and either slow down or stop based on a person’s distance. This has the potential to enhance both safety and productivity.

Just imagine robots taking over the more physically demanding tasks of production, like palletizing and lifting heavy objects. This could reduce the strain put on workers and, thus, potentially reduce worker injuries. It could also help keep companies productive through challenges like skills shortages.

Mass Customization

Advanced control and more intelligence closer to the production process will help make greater customization possible – and transform some industries in the process.

Just imagine what biopharma production could look like 20 years from now. Fixed, stainless-steel equipment will likely be gone. Instead, workers will move equipment, materials and tubing from one production area to another.

Looking ahead to the next 20 years, the Logix platform and other digital technologies offer even more transformative potential – to entirely change how we design, manage and staff operations.

Mobile visualization will help guide those workers through everything from setup to production. And a modern distributed control system (DCS) will simplify connections and help make sure equipment and materials are always in the right place.

Such a facility will be able to quickly produce low volumes of customized products to meet demands for more targeted and personalized biologics. Using solutions like pretested and validated equipment, it will have the potential to reduce start-up times from years to mere months.

Bringing Transformation to Life

Today’s new control and information technologies will help you realize these and other capabilities in your smart factory of the future. But technologies alone won’t be enough.

You need a digital transformation strategy that ties your investments to defined problems or outcomes, creates successes that can be replicated elsewhere in your operations and creates a foundation for continuous improvement.

Otherwise, you may find in 20 years that your operations aren’t significantly different or better – but those of your competitors are.

Co-authored by Dennis Wylie, Global Product Manager, ControlLogix Controllers

Julie Robinson
Julie Robinson
Marketing Manager - Logix, Rockwell Automation
Julie Robinson

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