Graeme Philip, CEO of Gambica, the trade association for automation technologies, sets up the debate for delegates at Automate UK and identifies the principles, already in use in industry, which will enable the creation of factories of the future.
“It’s time to move off the well-worn path of improved repeatability, quality and general manufacturing efficiency when we talk about automation in manufacturing,” asserts Graeme Philip as we talk ahead of Automate UK, an event for users of process and industrial automation which Dr Philp will chair on February 25 in London.
“To really inspire and extract the maximum potential from automation investments we need to be aware of more strategic and innovative uses of automation,” he continues. “How can automation support the reshoring of more manufacturing to the UK? How can we use wireless networking technologies, associated with the establishment of Industry 4.0, to increase flexibility in plants and factories, rather than simply improving our ability to make the same part over and over again?”
Philip knows that this line of discussion is challenging, with limited proofs of concept to point to. “I know that the case studies we have at this iteration of Automate UK are unlikely to be able to demonstrate much in terms of the full scale realisation of Industry and its associated benefits,” he admits. “But it is very important that we lay down the challenge. We need to put a clear idea around what the factory of the future will look like and identify the principles already being used in industry which will help get us there.”
Philip has sympathy for the weary manufacturer being bombarded day by day with news of ‘the next big thing’ which will transform their industry. Especially when the same promise of transformation seems to have been made for years with little noticeable change. But he does have an answer to cynics.
“We are certainly still at a stage with the Industry 4.0 vision which means there is more technology push than industry pull,” he acknowledges. “But this is inevitable because you have to understand that this vision is not based on a single technology offering, but on a suite of networked technologies. These are at varying stages of technology maturity and, while islands of excellence in the exploitation of isolated technologies do exist today, we will not truly be able to understand the benefits of Industry 4.0 until we are able to bring that full suite together.”
So should manufacturers bother investing in automation offerings which stake a claim to be essential to the factory of the future today?
“Yes. There are elements of the Industry 4.0 suite which are have been around for some time and which end users can be innovative in reaping more benefits from.”
As an example, Philp points to the wireless networking of sensors for process automation.
“There is enough proprietary product around now to allow industry led innovation,” he states – and manufacturers should not be put off by the fact that plant have been promised distributed computing power from their investments since the 1970s.
“It’s only with the advent of wireless digital networking and the introduction of technologies developed in the mobile phone industry that decentralised computing has really become achievable in rugged environments like manufacturing plants – if you need a fan to cool a processor it can’t really be place in a rugged environment very usefully.”
This thought moves Philp onto another potential game changer that has seen boom and bust in terms of technology promise and slow delivery – energy harvesting.
“Again this has been talked about for some time but the appearance of really usable technologies in the past three years has been significant. As a whole I would put energy harvesting at a technology readiness level 4-5, so there’s some way to go, but those looking at next steps for investment should keep in touch with developments in this area.”
What is energy harvesting?
Very simply, energy harvesting is the collection of energy from the ambient plant/factory environment for use in powering automation technologies.
While this might include the use of solar panels, there are two main types of energy harvesting which are gathering significant interest for their potential to reduce maintenance costs and eliminate the need for batteries in sensors.
These include the harvesting of energy created through vibration, and the conversion of heat energy through temperature difference.
Is there a specific profile for the kinds of companies which should be looking at these technologies?
“Not really,” says Philp. “The biggest economic difference will be made by convincing bigger medium sized companies and large firms, so many of whom are cash rich at the moment, that the economy is now stable enough for them to invest. And sentiment certainly does seem to be turning that way.”
Philp says that this means we will likely see a great deal of marketing directed at mid-sized and large firms to make significant technology acquisitions in the coming year. “But that is not to say that these Industry 4.0-type technologies are not relevant to SME,” clarifies Philp.
“Indeed, in many ways SMEs are better place to make the transition to digital networking of automation equipment because they do not have such an extensive analogue asset base in the field.”
Continuing to address the challenges of updating an existing asset base, Philp admits that it is clearly easier to make leaps towards establishing a digitally connected plant – using both wired and wireless networking – if a company is working on a greenfield project.
“Looking at adding to and modifying existing plant it is a little more difficult,” he says. “Many factories still have a lot of analogue technology in place and technicians may be used to carrying multimeters in order to carry out maintenance tasks. These are fine for analogue sites but almost useless in a digital world.”
This means that there is a training issue to overcome as well as a technology acquisition and implementation challenge.
“However,” Philp concludes, “increasingly we are seeing companies start the transition, despite the challenges posed because they know that digital technologies are undoubtedly the future. The right mentality is to progressively replace analogue technologies with digital and networked capability.”
Automate UK and AAB
Graeme Philp is also keen to use Automate UK as a call to action for both technology vendors ans users to support the establishment of an independent council in the UK to drive the progress of Industry 4.0 technology adoption.
Gambica recently joined TM’s Automation Advisory Board (AAB)with a view to taking this mission forward.
“The UK has lacked a mechanism for pulling together automation technology vendors and users in a scenario which is not vendor driven,” observes Philp.
“This is not the case in Germany where there is a structured council with about 100 members, comprising users and vendors and other stakeholders, which regularly comes together to facilitate education and plan the implementation of Industry 4.0.”
Philp does not advocate a copying and pasting this council structure in the UK but he does see the establishment of a British equivalent as critical to the future competitiveness and relevance of UK manufacturing in a world affected by parallel trends for globalisation, localisation and mass customisation.
“We need to establish a structure which is sympathetic to British industrial culture but which is equally effective in achieving the results the German system can already display. AAB may be part of the answer,” he concludes.