With the buzz around Smart Industry, the industrial automation market is focusing on themes such as cybersecurity, big data and connectivity. Mechatronics&Machinebouw discusses the most important trends with experts from B&R and Rockwell.
One of the key trends in industrial automation is digital engineering. OEMs, end-users, and system integrators are all looking for tools that enable them to pre-engineer and test in a fully virtual world. Of course, there have been plenty of mechanical and electrical design packages on the market for years, but the industry is ready for the next step. ‘These mechanical and electrical CAD tools produce all kinds of beautiful models. Developers now want to merge them into one platform,” says Patrick Blommaert, business manager Architecture & Software at Rockwell Automation. ‘From the combined data, they can generate a prototype of the machine, a 3D model or even a digital twin, with which they can easily show how the design is progressing and where it is going. With the ever-growing computing power, these models are becoming more and more realistic. That simplifies the consultation with the client considerably.
End customers increasingly need data so that they can better optimize their processes.
Connecting tools from different suppliers together seems an impossible task, especially because the packages come from other worlds and therefore speak a completely different language. But according to Blommaert, things are going very well these days. ‘There are standards for data exchange between all those systems. For example, you can make a direct link between Eplan’s electrical models and Rockwell’s 3D simulation tools. And you can link the data from Matlab to that. Those export and import functionalities work excellently.’
Simple software development
Bas Michielsen, sales manager for the Netherlands at B&R Industrial Automation, sees a change in software development for automation. ‘The IEC standard for PLC programming languages has been around since the 1990s. Since then, the development method has hardly changed. However you control PLCs, via Structured Text, C++ or G-Code, it’s all relatively old. In the industry, you now see more and more companies that offer functionalities in pre-programmed software blocks. Think of recipe processing, motion or safety. These are things that come back with every new machine. In B&R’s Mapp technology, those functions are contained in building blocks that you mainly need to configure. The days of code knocking are largely over.’
With hardware programming becoming easier and easier, there’s more time for the heart of the matter. ‘The focus can increasingly shift to how to implement the most important functionality of the machine as efficiently and quickly as possible,’ says Michielsen. ‘More and more software platforms are available on which you can simulate extensively. Because you can do the different development processes in parallel, the available design time for software designers is stretched a long way. In theory, the software can be ready before the hardware is physically delivered. That is of course very interesting in mechanical engineering.’
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Image It is now possible to combine data from mechanical and electrical design tools. Those export and import options work fine. Image: Rockwell
The next step is fully automatic code generation, Michielsen thinks. ‘To some extent, this is already possible with Matlab/Simulink, for example. You put your model in such a system, press a button and your software rolls out automatically. That also works for PLC controls.’
In the cloud
In industrial systems today there are many levels where you can perform tasks: on the controller, on an edge device, in the factory or in the cloud. ‘Of course, there are tasks that you want to keep close to the controller. You really don’t put the controller’s CPU in the cloud’, says Blommaert. ‘But that would be possible in an edge device. You can also filter data there. It is the first layer where you can run advanced process control or other optimizations with artificial intelligence. At the factory level, you can install an IoT platform that takes advantage of the massive computing power in the cloud. In that layer, you can give more people in your organization access to the data, so that you can not only analyze the data from one factory but also compare different sites.’
It gets complicated when there are systems in a factory without an Ethernet connection. ‘I still see regularly – especially at older factories – that data is recorded on paper and later copied into a spreadsheet,’ says Michielsen. ‘On the basis of that input, try to implement an efficiency improvement. B&R has a solution for this so that you can still connect older machines to the internet and read the data. This way you can still optimize any factory – brownfield, greenfield or a mix. And then it may suddenly turn out that the old factory does indeed need to be replaced because the performance really lags behind.’
Call for data
The term has been coined: the internet of things. ‘End customers increasingly want to be fed with data,’ observes Michielsen. ‘On the basis of that, you can come up with all kinds of great algorithms to achieve efficiency gains in your process. Ideally, you have a self-learning factory that automatically optimizes production lines. We’re not there yet, of course, but technology is growing in that direction.’
The difficulty is that it is often not entirely clear exactly what data such an end customer needs. ‘Does he want to increase the overall equipment effectiveness of his machinery, is it about the quality of his end product or is it all about productivity?’, Michielsen sums up. ‘In all cases, the requirement is that the machine must generate more data. Everyone is saying that their machines must be ready for Industry 4.0, but it is much more important to first have a clear idea of what exactly is needed. That is why we often sit down with the machine builder and the end customer to get everything up and running.’
What are the biggest challenges in the industrial automation market? ‘Not in the field of technology’, answers Blommaert. ‘Good controllers have been around for years. Of course, they could be even faster, but I see sufficient progress there. The ultimate goal of much automation is to get all the information through all ranks of the organization as quickly as possible. That means that you link all kinds of things together, that it and to converge. And then cybersecurity is a risk.’
Michielsen: ‘We notice that end customers, in particular, are very careful about connecting their machines to the internet. There is still a lot of fear that factories will be hacked. In part that is right. After all, it happens regularly that the most advanced banks and tech companies fall victim to cybercriminals. OEMs often tell us that their customers simply don’t accept plugging an Ethernet cable into the machines. As a result, they cannot save on service via remote support.’
There is still a lot of fear among plant managers that their factories will be hacked. They are therefore very careful about pinning their machine to the internet.
No one can give a 100 per cent guarantee against hackers. After all, professional cybercriminals will always find a back door, no matter how strict the security is. ‘But if you build it up in a good way, you can considerably limit the risks,’ says Blommaert. ‘You have to be aware that the risk is never completely gone, but with the right steps and the right tools, you can go a long way. You often see the strategy of working in the field with as few PCs as possible. You then put everything in an IT centre and work with zero or thin clients. This way you can distribute the content to different users and you only have one point that you have to secure properly.’
Michielsen: ‘At B&R we have a solution to gain safe access to a machine anywhere in the world. We do this via encrypted VPN tunnels that are extra secured with certificates. This is often a complex matter that usually lies outside the scope of our discussion partners. IT technology is a completely different sport than PLC control or the control of machines. We often take our IT specialists with us to the customer to explain everything properly.’
Another tricky issue is the labour market. ‘That is a real concern,’ says Michielsen. ‘The industry is growing fast and to achieve all this, we need a lot of people. Unfortunately, there is a shortage of technicians. We all have to show what great jobs there are in automation.’
Part of the solution is to make the tools more intuitive. ‘That way more people can use them’, explains Blommaert. ‘Think of augmented reality. An operator scans a tag with his tablet and gets a wealth of information back, exactly when he needs it and projected at the right locations. He can also receive real-time feedback during a complicated step-by-step plan that he has to go through. It has really become a collaboration tool.