Automation in the information age

Posted on 7 Dec 2012

Attending the Rockwell Automation Fair in Philadelphia, USA Tom Moore finds that producing the same amount with less labour and energy is just the beginning of automation as data collection technology and applications progress to complement cloud applications and mobile devices.

So why is this one of the largest single company shows in the world? One reason is that Rockwell Automation customers, such as Apple, Ford based in the US and contact lens manufacturers CooperVision in the UK, want to maintain relations, show off case studies and find out the latest products and services. Knowledge foraged in these sessions can be parachuted into factories helping international peers raise to their game in overcoming challenges at home – UK companies at the Rockwell fair were focused on potential ways to mitigate energy costs.

“Manufacturers are going to start competing on [energy labeling]” – Sujeet Chand, Chief Technology Officer, Rockwell Automation

But information sharing was a focus at the Rockwell Automation Fair in more ways than one. Complex requirements from global customers which are looking to standardise technology and processes across locations, as well as pressures on costs and compliance, have required Rockwell to develop new offerings including more mature methods of data collection and application.

Thus Rockwell, traditionally better known for its hardware, has poured investment into supporting software which plugs knowledge gaps in remote locations that previously went unrecorded. It is pulling energy and equipment usage data and is now beginning to put it into the cloud, for instance.

There has been good uptake for this kind of technology from the oil and gas sector, giving the equipment seller a head start in the lucrative service market. Rockwell can monitor its products in use as Rolls-Royce do, enabling it to know before its customers do, when new parts are required.

Servicing a skills gap

Companies such as Rockwell Automation are ever more important in providing skilled automation services amidst a heavily depleted pool of engineering talent (there are 10 million manufacturing jobs unfilled throughout the world due to sub-standard local skills according to Deloitte).

Outsourcing can be contentious but, in a similar way to logistics and IT, it can often make sense for highly specific engineering skills outside design and manufacture to be sourced on an as-needed basis from companies that have tentacles all over the world. These skills can then be shared across many companies rather than inflate in-house wages.

Keith Nosbusch, CEO of Rockwell Automation, touched upon a common theme in what is now a globalised world where design sticks and manufacturing moves. “Services are very important in emerging markets where there isn’t a lot of skill or knowledge to apply automation. In mature economies engineers are retiring and not being replaced in the same way, so they too are looking for providers to give that support,” he commented.

“Manufacturing is growing outside of Europe and outside of the US so we have to be where our multinational customers are and they want a similar execution model wherever they go. They don’t have people [with automation skills] to put into China, Latin America and Eastern Europe,” he added.

Peter Daenan, manufacturing engineering chief for Ford South America, explained that the US manufacturing icon is looking to use its global positioning to create factory clones so that production can be moved or altered to suit demand. This means having the same automation system, the same machines and the same level of skills wherever possible.

“We want to move away from having non flexible lines with three typical models and move to a much higher level of flexibility,” said Mr Daenan.

Energy wheels

Sujeet Chand, chief technology officer at Rockwell Automation, says that we are only seeing the start of energy-reducing regulations and that more will come. With manufacturers being asked to report energy consumption, an automation system needs to be accurate as there could otherwise be fines.

Mr Chand expects to see labels on products in the near future, signalling the energy involved in the process to get it to the store it’s sold in, counting energy in a similar way to calories on food products.

“It will most likely start with food stuffs in a way that colour codes indicate calorie content and consumers may start buying based on this,” he predicts. “Manufacturers are going to start competing on that as a result.

“Manufacturers look at entire plants not specific machines,” adds Chand. “We need to provide visibility because today there isn’t much. Once you know where energy is going then you can replace inefficient machines and devices.”

Supporting this search for visibility, Rockwell is starting to bring out products that embrace Common Industrial Protocol (CIP). This is an initiative which is transforming the model for information and communication technology in the industrial ecosystem. CIP allows companies to integrate I/O control, device configuration and data collection across multiple networks. It allows automation hardware running through factories to report what power is being used by the equipment.

“Every drive measures voltage, current and power,” states Chand. “Drives have voltage and power information in factory but they don’t have a mechanism to report that today. If we build a standard way of reporting, where drives can communicate that…” Chand envisages a fast approaching time when it will be commonplace for manufacturers to be able to push individual devices to lower energy modes as necessary – based on drive information provided by CIP over Ethernet.

Safe speed

Balancing safety with growing pressures on productivity was an area of focused interest for customers at the Rockwell Automation Fair. Acknowledging safety requirements is a necessity – but it can sometimes feel like a limitation on productivity.

Recognising customer frustrations over this, Rockwell Automation has implemented a number of changes to speed up maintenance.

Derek Jones from the safety division of Rockwell says that “if safety interferes with productivity and becomes an obstacle, then that is the worst thing as there is a temptation to override it.”

Rockwell has been used to using uniquely coded RFID techniques to make it harder to override safety protocols – so that when a machine is in stop mode it stays in stop mode.

Now the case is different. Safe speed and safe direction allows for machine cleans to be a lot faster as it moves the often heavy piece of equipment, such as a roller used in the paper industry, for the maintenance team. This saves time exiting the area, locking it, moving the equipment and then re-entering to complete the rest of the job, with production resuming more quickly.

With the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) implementing charging for ‘interventions’, Mr Jones explains that the carrot for investing in this capability to improve productivity is matched in size by the stick for falling foul of compliance.

“If you are found at fault over an incident then you are made to pay the HSE an hourly rate for time spent investigating,” he says. “They’ve always had a stick to beat you with but now they’ll have an expensive stick to beat you with.”