The factory of the future will still have Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) and Human-Machine Interface (HMI) panels, but someone half a world away will likely be monitoring and controlling them. That person may be sitting at a desk watching over a global network of facilities or checking the latest production statistics from a smartphone. Either way, the vision of the "Connected Factory" is evolving from concept to reality, as the explosive growth in Machine-to-Machine (M2M) connections, mobile devices in the enterprise, and wireless data traffic shows.
Implementing this approach, however, is not simply a matter of connecting devices to Ethernet and wireless networks. The fundamentals must be right to ensure that facilities produce information that can be accessed, monitored, and controlled from anywhere.
Over the past 50 years, automation technology has evolved to the point that a plant manager for a global industrial manufacturing company can easily monitor and control devices from hundreds of miles away, rather than standing a few feet away from them. This level of control can be achieved in ways that may include:
- Sitting at a desk in a centralized office
- Watching video footage captured by a global network of connected cameras
- Remotely troubleshooting a piece of equipment from a tablet
- Checking the latest production statistics using a smartphone app
The progression of the “Industry 4.0” revolution means that more factories and industrial plants will implement more networked devices that are able to collect data. This concept, which is also referred to as the “connected factory,” is transitioning from a ’what-if’ notion to present-day reality at overwhelming speed.
The flood of enabling technology has paved the way for automation to gain global prominence across a wide variety of industrial and manufacturing industries. Organizations are increasingly realizing that with automation they can produce better quality products, sustainably and efficiently, while keeping a closer check on production costs. Gartner forecasts that by the year 2020, there will be up to 30 billion devices connected with unique IP addresses, most of which will be products. In the industrial world, these devices will be equipment such as natural gas or wastewater treatment pumps, high-capacity scales, and other production machines.
While many global manufacturers are eager to realize the benefits of the Connected Factory, such as reduced operational costs and better visibility and control of assets, it is unrealistic and cost prohibitive for them to construct greenfield facilities or orchestrate a ’rip-and-replace’ of all legacy equipment. Instead, plant managers are better off leveraging industrially fluent communications devices and adapting the legacy sensors, Remote Terminal Units (RTUs), and communications protocols that have served them well for years in order to create modern, real-time reporting and control systems.
The three key requisites of the Connected Factory
Managing productivity and profitability is a key role of plant managers and engineers in world-class manufacturing operations. The first step towards achieving this in the 21st century factory is to implement the fundamentals of a successful Connected Factory. These fundamentals must be in place to ensure that factories are generating information that can be accessed, monitored, and controlled from anywhere.
To begin this process, manufacturers must do three things:
- Enable devices to speak the same language
- Rethink operational efficiencies so more devices can talk with each other
- Provide a secure, seamless platform in which these devices can communicate
Come together: Devices that speak the same language
The challenge with integrating legacy equipment with the Connected Factory model is that it often uses older protocols or even serial links that don’t easily fit into the TCP/IP world. An organization’s engineers must first ensure that this equipment can speak the same language as newer devices.
Plant engineers often source network switches used to build industrial networks from the IT world, a decision that may make sense for higher level infrastructure, but one that essentially introduces technology that is not purpose-built for machine-level control systems. For example, a modern machine may have every component networked and may allow every conceivable piece of status information to be displayed on its HMIs, but the network switch itself – the failure of which could take down the entire machine – sits alone or is loosely integrated via expensive and seemingly incomprehensible SMNP drivers.
To avoid this scenario, manufacturers must use a complex combination of drivers to provide protocol compatibility, replace existing hardware with more complex devices, or choose advanced HMIs, protocol converters, and industrial-grade switches that offer industrial fluency and multi-protocol support.
The first two options add complexity and development costs to the system. The third – deploying equipment with native support for all required standards and protocols – provides a simpler solution.
Raise your voice: Enabling more devices to communicate
Connecting equipment that can’t easily be reached in remote or geographically rugged locations enables real-time information access and greatly enhances remote troubleshooting capabilities. It can also result in safer working conditions for the humans who must monitor, regulate, and troubleshoot this equipment. Think about the value of automated devices in an oil and gas facility, for example. This clear value proposition for remote connectivity is driving the current boom in cellular M2M connection. Consider Metcalfe’s law as it applies to the Connected Factory: the value of the network increases exponentially with the number of connected assets.
With this in mind, manufacturers must invest in issuing all remote assets a cellular connection. Cellular routers and modems now provide native support for industrial automation equipment and protocols, including models that support 4G network connectivity. These products enable two-way communications from facility to facility, and enable information exchange with remote assets, such as offshore platforms or unattended substations or pipelines.
Everyone’s invited: A better place for devices to connect
As manufacturers seek to assign an IP address to networked assets, one hurdle they often face is that the available bandwidth remains static in spite of the growing number of networkable devices and data points. When factoring in the hierarchical nature of the industrial world – with PLCs and HMIs grouped into machines, these machines grouped into cells, and these cells grouped into factories – assigning an IP address to every PLC and sensor can be a management nightmare.
But new approaches to network design and configuration can help plant managers take full advantage of the available connectivity and control. Instead of assigning individual IP addresses, for example, engineers can solve the problem by using a rugged appliance that manages communications with dozens of disparate devices (including sensors, PLCs, and HMIs) while serving as a single point of contact for the network.
What’s next for Industry 4.0?
The ability to seamlessly communicate with operators, control systems, and software applications combined with practical networking options and support for native features and protocols delivers exponential meaning to data extracted from industrial devices. In other words, the true value of Industry 4.0 and the Connected Factory isn’t derived from the sheer volume of connections; it comes from creating more meaningful connections and the competitive edge gained by the harmonious dialogue between devices and the humans managing them. These capabilities create the context to take automation and remote management to new levels, thereby making the Connected Factory a reality.
As part of the Industry 4.0 movement, the Connected Factory demands a new approach to the concept of factory automation. With the thoughtful integration of supporting components that are designed specifically for this goal, the ability to connect, monitor, and control will drive productivity well into the future.
Red Lion Controls, Inc.