The Quiet Side of Automation

May 4, 2020
Powerful, yet not always understood, data is the quiet powerhouse of automation.

Automation conjures up images of hyper-efficient machines and robot arms, busily churning out product and filling packages. But automation has a quieter aspect, too: furnishing information.

All kinds of data are available from the controllers that run most modern processing and packaging equipment, as well as other sources like sensors and instruments. Using it is a question of what end users want to do with it, and how much they’re willing to pay.

One of the simplest and most popular uses for plant-floor data is to give feedback to floor workers. Many companies have set up monitors that show, often in real time, how much throughput a given line is achieving, comparing it in some cases to the previous day or shift.

“Operational technology information systems can calculate and analyze production data to provide information to the plant floor operators so they can easily see if they are winning or losing,” says Marc Gallant, vice president for advanced manufacturing systems at Stone Technologies. “These systems allow operators to make decisions based on those findings.”

Sensors applied to rotating equipment, like the Grundfos Machine Health system, can monitor in real time for both alarms and long-term historical trends.

Another use for plant-floor information is preventive maintenance. A growing number of manufacturers offer continual monitoring of their equipment with wireless sensors connected to the internet or to a company intranet. This setup provides information on machine or component performance, as well as alarms when something goes far enough out of whack to risk an imminent breakdown.

Pump manufacturer Grundfos, for example, recently came out with Grundfos Machine Health, a real-time analytics and diagnostics solution that provides analysis on rotating equipment. Vibrations, temperature variations and magnetic flux get reported to cloud-based software that translates it to a straightforward, actionable task for the maintenance team.

Arguably the farthest-reaching use for plant floor data is siphoning it into software with a wider purpose, like manufacturing execution or enterprise resource planning systems. These can help coordinate processing and packaging with each other and with other aspects of the business, from inventory management to long-term planning.

“What’s different now versus five or 10 years ago is what is the value of unlocking your data on the production floor and weaving it through an ERP system or other analytic tools,” says Colin Guheen, managing director of food, beverage and agribusiness investments at Capital One Commercial Banking.

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