Industrial panel PCs make manufacturing smarter

August 1, 2014 OpenSystems Media

For a lucky minority working in manufacturing reading this, this news could've been reported a decade ago. I concede myself I'm surprised that only now are we truly seeing unprecedented and exponential explosion of production lines deploying local Human Machine Interface (HMI) technology, namely panel PCs.

Embracing and adopting this revolution in some manufacturers has perhaps been held back by decreasing capital budgets and "that's the way we've always done it" attitudes – this phrase famously being one of the most dangerous in business.

Beyond relying on one's own perception, efficiency improvements (particularly in production scenarios) must first be monitored to be improved, and unfortunately the old "pen and paper" method doesn't cut it.

Historically, job sheets were simply printed on paper and handed to whoever is responsible for their undertaking. Whilst these enabled recording of some data – such as time elapsed and any issues encountered – this data was either later manually collated or not at all, the monitoring laborious and the data potentially unreliable. For example, relying on accurate clocking in/out times to be recorded by the individual responsible.

These served more as evidence that a process was followed for conformance certification rather than permitting management and improvement of that process. Some companies I've visited actually had a half-way house of taking the data recorded on paper and inputting this into their IT system, usually within a spreadsheet. Whilst this was certainly an improvement on a purely paper approach, it of course fell well short of a fully integrated approach utilizing panel PC technology.

The panel PC concept at first was simple and little more than the computerization of the previous paper job sheets, recording elapsed time. It was then quickly realized that having an HMI at each production machine could offer so much more.

Evidently, computing technology has been around for decades, but deploying commercial IT hardware in often grimy, dusty, hot, and potentially wet environments is a mistake some have made, though only once! Dusty environments quickly clog active cooling fans whose failure then quickly renders the commercial PC inoperable.

The industrialization of computing technology – particularly within panel PCs able to withstand such environments and simultaneously removing the need for mice and keyboards – has provided the perfect solution to satisfy even the harshest of installation environments. The associated costs of any production line downtime dictate reliability is critical; panel PCs address this with industrial-grade components, SSDs, and passive cooling technologies – resulting in a system with no moving parts to damage.

Not only are all panel PCs exponentially more suited to such environments, today's range are truly remarkable, able to withstand Arctic and Saharan conditions, operating fully submersed in water, and even pressure washed with near boiling water!

The software implemented on the panel PCs can not only provide indisputable time recording and prove individual responsibility by utilizing smart ID cards, but can offer live reporting of any faults causing production downtime – which can be reported electronically immediately to management or directly to the service contractor, expediting resolution and thus reducing losses.

Beyond just resolving issues, the Production Manager has a live view of the department's operation without ever leaving his desk and can actively control prioritization of tasks by either grading urgency, or only displaying the highest priority task until this has been appropriated, and only then display the next.

This can be expanded on further still: the Production Manager can analyze the cost of adding/removing human resource to the efficiency of the department and ascertain how that efficiency improves with individual experience, essentially providing an ROI on new employees dependent upon their experience level – this could even be stretched to basing pay on their profit contribution, for new and existing employees.

Whilst there perhaps is a danger of becoming too Orwellian, it cannot be denied that awareness of a tighter monitoring system results in individual performance increases; one would hope predominantly due to pride in one's own work ethic, though even more so if their future pay review will consider this performance data!

Additionally, through a combination of the latest environmentally friendly pushes, increasing raw material costs, and progressively more intrusive auditing practices, the level of monitoring that a panel PC deployment offers is more attractive than ever.

Rory Dear (Technical Contributor)
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