Industry 4 -automated heaven or an engineers’ hell?

Whether Industry 4 represents automated heaven or an engineers’ hell rather depends on your viewpoint. From a management perspective, the challenge for manufacturers is knowing how best to improve productivity. This is important for being globally competitive, whilst protecting and growing your home markets.

It requires investment in the automation plant and processes, which come at a cost. Financially, there needs to be an adequate Return on Investment (ROI). Total Cost of Ownership (TCO), is also important as it includes the lifetime cost of new plant, rather than simply the initial purchasing price. So where does Industry 4 fit?

Benefits of Industry 4 and IIoT

The idea behind I4 and IIoT is that collecting more data from the manufacturing plant leads to better visibility of the plant’s condition and performance. The business benefits are improved decision-making and real-time increased productivity. To achieve this, every device from sensor level up will be either directly or indirectly connected to the plant networks. These in turn lead to other benefits, including improved asset control; reduction of downtime and maintenance, improved security and safety of people and data.

Industry 4 – can I get there from here?

Building I4.0 into a new plant adds proportionally little to costs and can show a swift return on the investment. However, this is not the case when implementing it in an existing plant.

Adding I4.0 to an existing production facility will involve both investment and disruption. This requires careful financial analysis to understand the payback in relation to the expected plant life. However, for manufacturing engineers, it presents additional and totally different challenges. The greatest of which are incompatibility of factory automation equipment between manufacturers, and the lack of connectivity of older equipment.

Collaborating on industrial networks

Computers, PLCs and networks are common place in manufacturing. However, unlike computer systems, most are incompatible between manufacturers. This is because, in developing plant-level Ethernet, each producer designed their own ruggedized and incompatible version. Despite this, Industrial Ethernet has become the network of choice in a growing number of plants.

In recognising the difficulties industrial network users experience, there are growing signs of convergence to improve network interoperability. One example is from the organisations behind Profinet and the CC-Link-IE Industrial Ethernet networks. They have jointly developed transparent ‘horizontal’ network connectivity using standardised interfaces, so users can integrate devices from either source.  Similarly, the OPC foundation is collaborating in unifying vertical connectivity between shop-floor and ICT levels.

 

Choosing the right industrial network

I4 and IIot will drive a massive growth in data. This will come from the growth in the number of connected devices, and from the increasing levels of data each will generate. Importantly, implementing I4 will require a network infrastructure capable of handling the exponential growth in demand for speed and bandwidth.

Overall, whether you call it Industry 4, IIot or use the UK’s 4IR, it is coming to a competitor near you. Heaven or hell, adopting it is a no-brainer: the decision is where and when to start.