As Time Advances, So Will Your Operations

As Time Advances, So Will Your Operations

Take a look into the future to see how current control, analytics and safety technologies will reshape industries in the coming decades.

By Dennis Wylie, global product manager, and Julie Robinson, business manager, Rockwell Automation

If you were a production engineer who fell asleep at your laptop and woke up 20 years later, what would you behold?

That classic time-traveler, Rip Van Winkle, slept through the Revolutionary War and awakened to an unfamiliar country after his 20-year slumber. Would your operations, circa 2038, be just as foreign?

It’s not such an outlandish scenario, given the revolutionary change that is afoot in today’s industrial world. Digital technologies are redefining how some companies understand, manage and staff their industrial operations. Yet, for so many others, terms such as Industry 4.0 and digital transformation still are abstract concepts.

So, let’s look 20 years into the future to see how current smarter controllers and other digital technologies could reshape operations in different industries.

Food & Beverage: Predicting an End to Unplanned Downtime?

Your packaged foods plant has held up surprisingly well after 20 years, but with noticeable changes.

For instance, you see fewer operator workstations on the production floor. Instead, you see the plant manager and an engineer looking at a tablet, while a robot replaces a device on the production line.

“What broke?” you ask them.

“Nothing,” the plant manager responds. “We have another week and two days before the pump goes down on the mixing tank. Our system predicted a failure last month and put an order in for the replacement part. We’re putting the new pump in today during our scheduled maintenance.”

You watch as the plant manager pulls up the plant analytics on his tablet and quickly drills down into the failing pump, showing its expected failure date. He then pulls up a display of all plant devices that need to be serviced within the next month.

Having just arrived in the future, knowing nothing about it, you’re amazed by how analytics software now can see into the future with enough clarity to predict downtime issues. Twenty years ago, you think, the plant was still doing calendar-based maintenance. Workers couldn’t predict anything, and they often found themselves fixing the same re-occurring problems.

You’re also surprised by just how easily information is now accessed. For example, the plant manager can search his operations for answers — such as machine health or key performance indicators (KPIs) as if he were searching the internet. He even can ask his tablet questions verbally, such as how long the next batch will take to produce, and the software responds with answers.

Automotive: Robots Save Your Back (and More)

Who knew robots could be so intuitive — and so helpful?

As you stumble out of your slumber and onto the plant floor, you are amazed by how seamlessly and safely robots now are woven into production processes.

Approaching the assembly area, you don’t see a gate around the robots to keep people at a safe distance. Instead, as you walk closer, the robot slows down and then comes to a stop as you stand next to it.

But it’s not just the proximity of the robots — it’s what they’re doing. Before drifting into your decades-long dream, you were worried about the safety implications of the heavy lifting being done by the plant’s older workers. You also worried that the plant wasn’t going to find skilled talent to replace those workers when they retired.

Now, robots do all the heavy lifting. This helps keep production running, even during labor or skills shortages. It also improves ergonomics for workers, reducing their exposure to repetitive strains.

All this is made possible by a combination of safety technologies, including robots, sensors and controllers.

Life Sciences: A Multi-Modal Mobile Makeover

Is this even the same production facility? You look around to see that the sea of fixed, stainless steel biopharma machinery has been replaced by modular, mobile equipment.

It looks like a coordinated dance: Workers are moving equipment throughout the facility and repositioning it with simple plug-and-play connectivity. Instead of large batch runs, you see workers making smaller, more targeted batches or even single drugs that are personalized to one person’s physiology.

You intently follow one operator as she pushes a piece of mobile equipment from one production area to another and then connects it to a docking station. The control system detects the equipment connection automatically, identifies its IP address and confirms that it’s in the right location. The operator then uses a tablet to guide her through connecting the right tubes to the appropriate points on the transfer panel.

Making all this happen is a modern distributed control system (DCS) with an open and unmodified Ethernet backbone. The DCS can confirm that the right mobile equipment is connected and allows control only when equipment is in the right location. It also allows workers to scan materials to confirm they’re used with the right equipment.

Thin-client technology makes mobile visualization possible by recognizing an operator’s location and allowing access to screens and applications that are relevant to that location. And asset-management software securely and centrally manages production.

Make This Future a Reality

These future factory scenarios aren’t simply theory or fantasy. They’re the inevitable outcomes of adopting the control and information technologies that are available today as part of an Industry 4.0 strategy. And they’re closer than you might think.

For example, new controllers with onboard computing can help you tie production more closely to customer orders. And new analytics software allows facility workers to quickly and easily access analytics that aren’t displayed on their dashboard. Even a natural-language search can be used to find information in their plant.

Forward-thinking companies already are beginning to make these future factories a reality to gain all the competitive advantages that they offer. This is why every organization should be thinking about how their Industry 4.0 strategy will help them compete better not just today, but in the decades to come.

The Journal From Rockwell Automation and Our PartnerNetwork™ is published by Putman Media, Inc.

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The JOURNAL from Rockwell Automation and Our PartnerNetwork™ is a bimonthly magazine, published by Putman Media, Inc., designed to educate engineers about leading-edge industrial automation methods, trends and technologies.