Industrial automation's main aim is to reduce the necessity of people in manufacturing processes. This allows production to speed up, increase in safety, and better utilize their resources and industrial analytics in manufacturing. Achieving this goal is accomplished by fully mapping out the industrial process and understanding sub-process relationships so machines can be assigned to work and automate certain process tasks.
Machine automation technology can be set to work as fixed applications, programmable applications, or flexible/adaptable applications. Each of these types of machine automation has certain advantages and disadvantages. Recent advancements in machine automation are due to a better understanding of machine automation and the adoption of new machine capabilities such as feedback controllers, robotics, networking, digital computers, and interconnectivity.
Fixed automated machines for example, only work to carry out repetitive and mundane tasks but newly-interconnected, programmable machines can enable manufacturers to offload many process decisions to high-speed controllers, oftentimes operating completely without human intervention.
The Internet of Things (IoT) describes a phenomenon where more and more IoT devices are connected to the Internet, such as smart homes, smart fridges, and industrial manufacturing machines. These interconnected smart devices are significant in enabling automation across industries.
To understand the difference between the growth of IoT from non-IoT devices (non-IoT devices include PC, mobile phone, tablets, laptops, or landlines), in 2010, the total active non-IoT connections was 8 bn devices, compared to only 0.8 bn IoT devices. Estimates predict that by 2025, non-IoT device connections will grow by only 2 bn, reaching approximately 10.3 bn, whereas, in the same time, IoT device connections will exceed 38.6 bn. A dizzying growth rate that has been in tandem with the adoption of automation practices.
It is difficult to separate IoT and automation because automation has been a tremendous driver for IoT devices as it has given applicable purpose to many IoT technologies. Industrial devices like sensors, connectors, actuators, IoT gateways, interfaces, motion controllers, lightbulbs, locks, etc., today, have the capability to share information about their condition and performance, while offering remote access and control. Combined with cloud computing and advanced data analytics, automation IoT software can manage these devices and learn to adapt accordingly to accommodate new ones as necessary.
Many organizations invest heavily in IoT and industrial automation for their great business benefits. And while cost reductions and profitability are significant motivators, the ability for companies to scale, and improve their industrial AI-driven operations are often more valuable, especially in healthcare and other life sustaining industries. For all the improvements and advancements that automation brings to industries, the inherent technicalities of using IoT brings its own challenges. For example, by its nature, IoT technology raises important security concerns, even with new practices, aptly named IoT security, have emerged that addresses these types of concerns.
Advantages of IoT Automation
Ability to Scale Production — Scale in production is achieved by increasing output and becoming more efficient, two objectives the digital industrial transformation enables and accelerates. It's unfortunate for workforces that the human component is sometimes the weakest link in production processes. However, by removing people from a process, companies can multiply their throughput by putting production in the hands of robots.
Increased System Uptime — Much like scale of production is limited by the human component, so too is uptime. People need rest, food, a safe working environment, and to be treated ethically. Machines on the other hand are not limited by breaks and hunger. It must be mentioned that many factory floors are very safe because automation practices can improve plant safety.
Operational Efficiency — Operational efficiency is a key business benefit that directly improves due to automation investments. This means more than using machines to perform mundane repetitive tasks, it means interconnecting systems and integrating systems to share information and allow for exponential operational improvements. With computer logic, systems can respond to other system needs. This basic application is everywhere now, from turning lights off when unneeded, to immediately informing supplier's systems around the globe that the factory system will exhaust its raw materials soon, and request a resupply.
Improved Safety for Workers — Though automation may reduce the number of line workers which can improve worker safety by minimizing the body count, using data analysis and IoT, the same automation can also improve immediate worker safety. Sensor information can be collected and analyzed to detect impending machine failures and alert maintenance staff.
Improved Regulatory Compliance — Certain companies are pressured to maintain a certain standard quality regulated by the government in their productions, which automation can help with due to its unwavering productive capabilities. This ability to eliminate, for the most part, defects in productivity allows companies to adhere to stringent regulations. For instance, in cases like food producers, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act mandates authorities to protect consumers and promote public health, through many programs like the Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMP), HACCP, the FDA Retail Food Code.
Strengthened Security Access and Control through Technology — While IoT technology may introduce many attack vectors to automation systems, it also presents the solution. Physically, IoT automation can detect the presences of unauthorized individuals and alert authorities, automatically locking doors, or preventing access altogether. Advanced computer security can also take advantage of automation to defend against cyber attackers. Automation helps defenders make visible their entire network, adhere to a policy-based approach to system configuration, management, and security, and conduct many of the low-level maintenance tasks automatically while alerting IT teams of more serious breaches, or patterns that may signal attacks.
Disadvantages of IoT Automation
Greater Connectivity Increases Attack Vectors — Unfortunately, adding more devices means more vectors for cyber attackers. IoT security is a branch of security practices that aims to solve this growing concern.
Internet Dependency — IoT and automation are heavily dependent on the Internet to function. Redundant connectivity systems are advisable, whereas losing connectivity even for a short while could seriously cripple production with huge costs.
Complexity Increases Failure Points — Akin to more connected devices as attack vectors, the same is true for local and system failures. As the IoT automation systems grow in complexity, the weight of the inherent risk of failed components within the system must be addressed. There are many practices and designs that help overcome, including dividing the system up and adding redundancies.
IoT Planning, Building, Management Complexities — Simply, there is significant planning, building, and management of the complexities in IoT automated systems. For all their advantages, engineers must still be actively involved in these systems to ensure they continue to operate as intended.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is a key driving factor in enabling the development of industrial automation systems. IoT coupled with computer automation controls helps streamline industrial systems and improve data automation, with the aim of removing errors and inefficiencies, primarily from the people. To achieve this at the industrial level, several layers of devices are used. IoT devices from the field (plant floor), analyzers, actuators, robotics, etc. communicate data upwards to local process control units, which in turn send data to top-level Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) software. While field level machines may perform tasks automatically, at every level a human monitor can step in and interface with the system (provided they have access).
There are four general categories of industrial automation systems. And while there are different types of systems, their variations tend to build upon each other to form more integrated systems that can automate increasingly complex processes. Simpler automation systems, which are fixed and limited in their capabilities and purpose, typically address repetitive mechanical tasks. As automation systems develop to become more complex, computer logic and connectivity between systems are emphasized for added layers of automated decision making and coordination.
Fixed Automation Systems — Fixed automation is widely known within nearly every industry where machines are performing simple tasks once done by people. These systems carry out simple repetitive mechanical tasks, usually found in production or continuous flow processes, with much greater production efficiency and speed than could be done manually. These systems can be custom built to perform a task, but many off-the-shelf solutions are available for common applications. Sometimes called 'hard automation' because the operation is fixed by the equipment design. Examples of fixed automation include conveyor belts, box folders, or bottle filling and capping machines, or flow packing machines for food packaging, etc.
Programmable Automation Systems — Programmable automation systems introduces programmable computer logic to industrial automation. This upgrade allows industrial automation machines to switch their capabilities, though this can incur significant costs in money and programming time and expertise. However, this style of automation is invaluably advantageous for industries such as auto manufacturing, where capital costs are high for manufacturing equipment. While auto manufacturing processes behave like they need fixed automation systems, since there are millions of repetitive tasks to build thousands of automobiles, every year new models are designed and marketed that require similar but different automation. Does the company need to buy new automation solutions? With programmable automation systems, manufacturers with long product runs, and high automation investment requirements, can routinely reprogram their automation systems to fit their new product lines.
Flexible Automation Systems — Flexible systems use computer-controlled manufacturing systems that allow individual product customization while automating production of the entire batch. Sometimes this is called 'soft automation' in contrast to hard 'fixed' automation that is not flexible. Flexible automation also differs from programmable automation as it's able to make adjustments while processing jobs rather than be reprogrammed for manufacturing new products. CNC machines are a common example, like computer-controlled lathes and routers, that can take a computer code from the operator, and turn-out a piece specific to the job. For this reason, flexible automation systems are used in batch processes, small to medium volumes, and high product varieties.
Integrated Automated Systems — Integrated automation systems expand automation impact by connecting all systems within a manufacturing plant, referred to as total automation. Sensor data, data analytics, and computer control and decision making allows these factories to minimize human labor in operations. For example, these systems are prominent in Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM), where engineers can design, plan, and send manufacturing details to production, and maintain full control over the entire product manufacturing life cycle. These concepts are further developed in Smart Factories, where interconnected global systems utilize system wide data to make decisions, such as the inventory levels in manufacturing one location may trigger the real-time automatic resupply from international suppliers.
Industrial automation products, or tools, are devices that monitor, control, or perform tasks using mechanical, electromechanical, and/or solid-state electronics. These devices each operate at different levels of industrial automation: a higher-order control level is where supervisory decisions are made, a process control level monitors, controls, and schedules, and a field level where machines are coordinated.
Higher-order control level
Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) — SCADA is software that performs data analysis on the system to find optimizations to improve operations and output.
Process control level
Human Machine Interface (HMI) — HMI devices are wide ranging, from switches to touchscreens, and allow operators to interface with machines, give them new instructions, or change configurations.
Artificial Neural Network (ANN) — Neural networks perform complex mathematics and are found in data analytics intensive applications, like finance.
Distributed Control System (DCS) — These devices work together to monitor and control large or sprawling systems, like traffic signal systems, electrical grids, or water management systems.
Control and automation level
Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) — PLCs allow automation equipment to be reprogrammed for new tasks.
Robotics — These are the arms of industrial automation. These robotic devices can be programmed, automated, and move autonomously in 3 dimensions.
Sensors and Analyzers — Various sensors include thermocouples, Resistor Temperature Detectors (RTDs), strain gauges, etc.
Amazon.com — The book seller turned online marketplace, turned streaming platform, is not new to courting innovative technology. As far as logistics, Amazon has leveraged Kiva's technology in their workflows through acquisition of the company. Utilizing thousands of these Wi-Fi connected robots to fetch products, rather than humans, saves the company 20% in operating costs.
Caterpillar — The heavy machinery producer uses augmented reality technology to predict when maintenance is needed before it is absolutely needed. The application gives maintenance workers a holistic, at-a-glance view, based entirely on sensor data that maps everything from fuel levels to when filters need replacing. When replacing a filter, maintenance instructions can be sent to an AR app providing workers with all necessary information they need.
Rolls-Royce — Popularly known for their automobiles and engines, Rolls-Royce has a higher vision of replacing human-controlled cargo vessels with drone ships remotely controlled. These ships, monitored using AR technology, could manage hundreds of drone ships on the oceans that automatically navigate to their destinations using AI and machine learning. Professionals can remotely step into the driver seat when issues arise and take control of the drone ships.
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