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Embracing Automation in Tough Times

What do a car-parts maker in Germany, a chemical plant in Singapore, a mine in Latin America, and the American health-care industry have in common?  Due to the global pandemic, all of them are automating their systems more than ever before.

A recent article in The Economist, Bearing fruit: After years of dithering companies are embracing automation, recounts how the pandemic has pushed many companies to take the plunge and automate their plants, warehouses, and internal systems.  Sales of robots have doubled for some popular models, and remote connectivity has gone from luxury to necessity.

“Bosses have boasted of automating their operations for years without an awful lot to show for it,” the article says. “Covid-19 has spurred them to put their money where their mouths are.”

Automation goals are changing

The fact that this is a pandemic-driven response is illustrated in a Bain Automation Survey of 500 companies, showing that goals for automation have changed dramatically.  Before the pandemic, the leading reasons for automating were to lower costs, increase performance, and grow revenue.  Since the pandemic, improving business resilience, lowering risk, and generating business insights are at the top of the list.

Projected adoption rates have doubled for sensors, Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity, and Artificial Intelligence (AI), according to another survey of 1001 supply-chain professionals.  A third survey quoted in the Economist article shows that a full 80% of companies surveyed had accelerated their adoption of digital employee interaction and collaboration.

Beyond automation, and expected to be even a bigger wave, is the resulting data, and how it gets used. The article says, “The pandemic’s bigger long-term impact may be a fuller embrace by firms of data their operations generate, and predictive algorithms to help guide real-time decisions.”   Major automation companies like ABB, Emerson, and Rockwell are racing against smaller start-ups and consultants to turn the real-time and archived data from their systems into actionable intelligence.  The resulting efficiencies have led to a prediction from Allied Market Research that process-automation product sales will rise from $1.6 billion two years ago to just under $20 billion by 2027.

Connecting the data

All this data must be connected.  Data from the sensors, devices, and automation systems on the plant floor has to be connected securely, in real time, to the managers, analysts and decision-making executives in corporate HQs.  Factories spread across the globe need to share data seamlessly and securely.  Workers staying at home require remote access to processes in the field.  For all of this to work, robust data communication is crucial.

This explains why, despite the pandemic and economic slowdowns in major world economies, our customers have been hard at work building and expanding their systems.  Management in these companies are embracing automation, as a hedge against uncertainty and an investment in data-driven solutions.  Our job is to ensure that they get the data they need, easily, rapidly, and securely.

A New Normal for Manufacturing?

The industrialized world is still reeling from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it may not be going away any time soon. We may not like it, but we are learning how to live with it. And some of us are looking ahead to see what the long-term impacts might be. Is the future darker or brighter?

IndustryWeek magazine recently published an article by Artem Kroupenev, Vice President of Strategy at Augury, who asks the question: What Will Manufacturing’s New Normal Be After COVID-19? The answer, he opines, involves healthy doses of automation, digitization, and remote access.

He notes that many companies saw supply chains break and raw material stocks dry up as countries closed borders. Those relying on just-in-time production were hit especially hard. In the same way, whole countries experienced shortages of manufactured goods that could not be imported.

To protect against future disruptions, Kroupenev predicts a revival in domestic manufacturing, and a decoupling of supply chains. But things will be different from 20 or 30 years ago. There will be a strong push, he says, towards automation in the new domestic industries, and companies will rely far more on digitization to manage supply chains.

A Key to Success

A vital key to success in this new reality will be data, and the ability to send and receive it securely across the Internet. “For manufacturing, greater connectivity will mean significantly accelerated deployment of Industrial IoT, including sensing, data visualization, remote collaboration tools and AI-based insights across their operations,” Kroupenev said. “Control-tower view of data and insights across the whole operation will become a standard component of running a manufacturing organization.”

Even before the pandemic, early adopters of digitization had gained an average 7% revenue growth advantage, according to a McKinsey report cited in the article. They have been able to increase efficiency through better supply chain integration, more effective operations, and more flexible maintenance programs. They have made the transition to remote access more smoothly. Companies that do not adopt this new normal will suffer, says Kroupenev, and may eventually fail.

Embracing the new normal does not need to be difficult. Skkynet’s software and services work equally well with legacy systems as new installations. There is no reason to take risks. Something as simple as making a standard-protocol connection to a secure, proven technology can transport a company into a safer, more reliable world.

Pairing OPC UA with a Good IIoT Protocol

Automation.com, a leading online publisher of automation-related content, recently ran an article on the value of pairing OPC UA with a good IIoT protocol like DHTP. The article discusses how OPC UA was initially expected to serve as an IIoT protocol, but more recently the trend seems to be towards using OPC UA at the plant level only. Other protocols, such as MQTT and AMQP are being offered as candidates for connecting outside the plant, but they are not ideally suited to IIoT. This article explains why, and introduces 9 criteria for good IIoT data communication.

Embracing an Automation Economy

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, automation has been a steadily growing trend for the manufacturing and process industries, to the joy of some and the dismay of others.  On the one hand, automation is synonymous with lower production costs and higher quality, providing more consistent output with less physical labor.  On the other hand, from time to time there is concern about job loss as machines replace unskilled labor, and put people out of work.  As far back as 1779, so the story goes, a young weaver’s apprentice named Ned Ludd vandalized a couple of knitting machines, thus becoming the namesake of the Luddite movement, a group of skilled workers who violently protested one of the world’s first industrial automation initiatives.

Now there is a new automation revolution taking place that may have an even greater social impact.  Thanks to new digital technologies like artificial intelligence, big data, robotics, satellite geopositioning, and others, jobs that we once thought only humans can do are now seen as potential targets for automation.

“In the past, automation was largely restricted to simple manual or procedural tasks,” said Carolyn Wilkins, Senior Deputy Governor of the Bank of Canada, in a recent speech to the Toronto Board of Trade. “Today’s technology makes it possible to automate an increasing number of cognitive and non-routine tasks across a wide range of industries.”

The impact of automation on virtually every employment sector for the near future was the subject of The Future of Employment by Carl Benedikt Frey & Michael Osborne of the University of Oxford.  “According to our estimates around 47 percent of total US employment is in the high risk category,” the paper states in its conclusion.  “We refer to these as jobs at risk – i.e. jobs we expect could be automated relatively soon, perhaps over the next decade or two.”

Some of the jobs most at risk were in categories like “Machine Setters, Operators, and Tenders” in various industries.  This what we might expect, given the recent robotics trend in manufacturing.  More surprising were job categories like hotel desk clerk, agricultural inspector, bill collector, animal breeder, restaurant cook, and legal secretary.  Twenty years ago, who would have imagined these occupations being automated?  Yet most of them will be in the next twenty years, according to the study.

What now?

Where does that leave us?  “What we need to do is embrace the technologies in areas where we can make a difference and promote productivity,” recommends Carolyn Wilkins.  She mentioned in particular the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math) as “solid foundations that provide a platform for future learning.”  Perhaps she is right.  The Oxford study lists a number of occupational areas with a low chance of replacement, and engineering is among them, for sure.  And for those with a more humanistic interest, health care, education, the arts and entertainment are other options, as they also are not expected to be automated any time soon.

At Skkynet we our doing our part to make automation easy to embrace, by making our products and services convenient and affordable.  And internally, we are always looking for ways to streamline our work flow.  The more we automate the boring and repetitive jobs here in the office, the more time we have to do the cool, fun, and interesting stuff that keeps us at the leading edge.

Skkynet at Automate Show in Chicago

There will be live demonstrations of DataHub, SkkyHub, and the ETK in two different areas of the Automate show at the McCormick Place in Chicago next week.  The Automate show is one of the largest industrial automation shows in North America, with displays of robotics, vision and motion control, and other cutting-edge technologies that attract automation and control engineers, managers, and researchers from across the world.

A Renesas demo at the Renesas pavilion, Booth #866, is being powered by Skkynet’s SkkyHub service and ETK.  The demo lets show attendees monitor the movement of a Festo linear piston from their mobile phones.  The base-level control of the piston is through a PLC that is connected to a Renesas Synergy S7 chip running on a development board.  The S7 chip has the Skkynet ETK loaded on it, which makes a connection to SkkyHub to provide the data and a user interface. Anyone can call up a URL on their smartphone and then view the data in a seamless connection.

“This demo makes the Industrial IoT come alive,” said Paul Thomas, President of Skkynet.  “Everyone attending the Automate show has probably heard about the IIoT, and now they will have a chance to experience a secure-by-design implementation of it, first-hand.”

The Cogent demo will be shown at the OPC Foundation pavilion, Booth #2265.  We will be demonstrating the latest features of the DataHub, in addition to an integrated solution using Red Lion’s mobile gateway and an embedded demo using Renesas Synergy S7 running Cogent’s beta implementation of OPC UA.  Attendees will be able to control LEDs on the S7 demo board itself, as well as control a bank of lights on the booth.  Additionally, they will be able to see output from the board’s light and motion sensors in their mobile displays.

Backing up the demo with insight, Xavier Mesrobian, Cogent’s VP of Sales and Marketing will be presenting a talk, Share your Data Not your Network, at the Future of Automation Theater on Tuesday afternoon. “Both of our demos at this show rely on our secure-by-design technology,” said Mesrobian, “but few realize how revolutionary it is. When you are talking about security for the IIoT, most people think ‘VPN’. But that’s the wrong technology, by far. We want people to know that there is a better, safer, and more affordable alternative.”

Come and meet us, hear the talk, and see the demos.  Members of the Skkynet and Cogent team will be at the Cogent area in the OPC Foundation pavilion, Booth #2265.  Don’t forget to bring your smartphone!

Case Study: Coca-Cola Bottler, Ireland

State-of-the-art Coca-Cola plant uses DataHub scripts to integrate alarm data and reports.

One of the largest soft drink manufacturing plants in the world, Coca-Cola’s Ballina Beverages facility, recently installed the DataHub® from Cogent Real-Time Systems (Skkynet’s subsidiary), to log alarm data and create end-of-shift reports. The 62,000 square meter plant, located in Ballina, Ireland, uses the most up-to-date manufacturing automation systems available, and management is constantly looking for ways to improve them.

Some of the equipment used at Ballina Beverages is designed and manfactured by Odenberg Engineering. Odenberg, in turn, relies on their subsidiary, Tricon Automation to handle the process control of the machinery.

In a recent upgrade to the system, the Odenberg/Tricon team chose the DataHub to construct custom log files to track and archive their alarms. They wanted to combine the live data from each triggered alarm with a text description of the alarm, and then log the results to a file. The alarms were being generated by an Allen-Bradley system from Rockwell Automation Inc., and the 1500 alarm descriptions were stored in an Excel spreadsheet. Each row of the final log would have to combine the time, date, and code of a triggered alarm with the corresponding description of that alarm.

After considering several different scenarios, the most effective approach was to connect the DataHub to Rockwell Automation’s RSLinx using its OPC server, and then to read in the alarm condition strings from a text file (instead of from the spreadsheet), using a DataHub script. The same script writes the data to the log file. This works so well that they decided to use another script to create end-of-shift reports.

“We got the basic system up and running in a few hours,” said Gus Phipps, team member from Odenberg, “which was good, because we were working under a tight deadline. Cogent helped us out with the DataHub scripting, but we were able to do most of the work ourselves. It went surprisingly quickly.”

“Using the DataHub’s scripting language let us customize it to exactly meet our needs,” said George Black, Tricon’s project manager. “It is very flexible, and yet completely robust. It is months now since the project was completed, and the DataHub continues working away merrily every day, just doing its job. We plan to use it again in other projects very soon.”