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Top 9 automation trends

Editorial
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The following technologies will play a major role in the evolution of automation in the manufacturing sector. Paul Miller explains.

Many of the hottest technology trends today represent a convergence of largely internet- and IT-based enabling technologies. This convergence is likely to remove many existing constraints to help transform the way manufacturers and other industrial enterprises operate and collaborate, both internally and across their extended value chains - and do so to a degree that we have not witnessed in recent decades.

1) Proliferation of Intelligent Devices and the Emerging Internet of Things

As microprocessors and other electronics become increasingly smaller, more efficient, and less expensive, we’re seeing intelligence being embedded into more and more consumer, commercial, and industrial devices.

Increasingly, these devices communicate with each other via the emerging Internet of Things (IoT). This brings what the industry previously referred to as machine-to-machine (M2M) communications to a whole new level.

In 2012, there were more than ten billion Wi-Fi-connected devices, with projections for more than 50 billion devices to be connected by 2020. This will include more than five billion smartphone and internet users, most cars, and many home appliances. Free or inexpensive mobile platforms will dominate the market.

2) Predictive Analytics: Gaining Value from Big Data

Interest in analytics and business intelligence (BI) software has surged over the last few years. Leading software providers offer full analytics suites for enterprises to use to monitor, analyse, and manage a wide range of business activities.

But while many industrial enterprises already use business analytics packages, their successes are primarily in customer-facing activities like sales, marketing, and product development. As a result, many question the applicability of using analytics to improve other critical, but more inward-facing industrial processes like operations and asset management.

3) Cloud Computing and Services-Based Solutions

The technology disruption that cloud computing represents centers on information technology (IT), rather than operational technology (OT). Cloud represents a new model for IT, challenging an organisation’s established IT practices in every area; new platforms, new services, new deployment, licensing, and support models. Cloud forces an IT organization to examine each application within its portfolio and reevaluate the way the application is currently deployed and supported.

From a business standpoint the cloud model offers several potential advantages over the traditional IT service model, including rapid deployment, elasticity, reduced capital investment, and increased access and mobility across a global enterprise.

4) Virtualisation

Virtualisation, a computing approach that decouples hardware and software, is rapidly gaining traction in the traditionally conservative automation and control industry. While initially met with skepticism for industrial applications, this is no longer this case as end user demands to reduce costs and make more efficient use of computing resources drive suppliers to incorporate the technology.

With virtualisation, a single computer can host multiple instances of the same or different software applications as if each was running in its own dedicated computer — regardless of the specific operating systems employed. In this manner, much of the hardware simply goes away, offering significant benefits over the lifecycle of an automation system.

5) Augmented Reality, 3D Simulation, and NUI

An increasing number of companies in the energy and process industries use 3D virtual simulation and visualisation tools to help address some of the many challenges they face. This technology allows plant engineering and operations groups to create very comprehensive and accurate virtual environments that represent the complete physical plant/facility.

These are used to help to plan operational procedures, train operators and maintenance technicians, and meet health and safety requirements; all within a computer-simulated 3D environment. Increasingly, planners also take advantage of this advanced technology to improve their scheduling activities. High-fidelity operator training simulation software is designed to exactly replicate the specific plant or process, creating an interactive environment in 2D or 3D.

The simulator uses a first principle or empirical model of the specific plant and/or process. The training can take place either on the plant’s actual control system, or on an off-line personal computer or tablet that incorporates an image of the actual control system running.

6) Mobility and “Wearable” Technologies

New technologies often provide the key enabler for process re-engineering and business process optimisation that can significantly enhances performance.

For maintenance, mobility can provide major improvements in its primary objectives: uptime, asset longevity, safety, and cost control.

The vast majority of maintenance personnel - technicians, supervisors, and stock keepers - are mobile during their typical work routines. Mobile devices and the associated software applications offer improvements in the associated work flow and business processes. They also improve data integrity by eliminating paper forms and the delays for manual data entry.

7) BYOD

The trend toward BYOD (“bring your own device”) - driven by the today’s profusion of commercial smartphones, tablets, and other handheld computing devices - is another enabler for mobility in industry. Increasingly, plant personnel at all levels prefer to use their own familiar handheld devices while on the job.

In many process industries, field devices must be certified to operate in hazardous locations, a requirement that excludes consumer devices from consideration. For industrial service, smartphones, tablets, and other mobility devices require enhanced ruggedness, hazardous location certification, and - in some cases - dedicated higher performing interfaces for barcode scanning or other job-specific capabilities.

8) Remote Operations Management

In the past, the focus on operating remote industrial facilities had been to maintain steady-state operations despite frequent disturbances, with operators doing whatever was required to keep the facilities running and meet production schedules in a safe and environmentally acceptable way.

Although some remote facilities still operate in this mode, the next-generation of remote facilities will not. Tighter production specifications and the need to maintain supply reserves, plus more stringent process safety measures, cyber-security standards, and environmental regulations further challenge this dynamic environment.

9) Additive Manufacturing

Emerging additive manufacturing (3D printing) technology provides product design teams the ability to perform rapid prototyping to speed product design and reduce costs. Additive manufacturing systems, driven from CAD models, can use a variety of different build materials; including metal, polymer, or sand to build prototypes.

Manufacturers are finding tremendous value in additive manufacturing as a prototyping tool since there is no penalty for design complexity or detail, although most prototypes will require post-production finishing. Using the original CAD models, additive manufacturing systems can fabricate either complex or simple prototypes in one process.

Most of these potentially disruptive technology trends fall within the realm of the new Information-Driven Manufacturing Model. This model presents today’s industrial organisations with an interesting dilemma: while industry tends to be conservative and thus risk-averse and typically slow to adopt new technology, it could actually be far riskier not to implement the new technologies. Why?

Because failure to do so could put industrial organisations at a competitive disadvantage versus their peers that do embrace new technologies to be able to implement more agile and effective information-driven manufacturing.

[Paul Miller (PMiller@ARCweb.com) is Content Director, ARC Advisory Group.] 

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