An intuitive shift towards greater automation

Image: Rockwell Automation

Anthony Wong, Regional Director – South Pacific Region, Rockwell Automation

Automation and remote operations are on the move. Nowhere was this more clear than at our recent Rockwell Automation On The Move – a unique event where from 3-4 March we saw 119 customers attend 15 breakout sessions in Auckland, New Zealand, engaging with new trends, new technology and each other.

It was truly a hands-on experience where customers apply the latest automation and remote operations technology to a business problem, with the support of an experienced technician, working along with their team. It was a chance to demystify Industry 4.0 and the reality of what automation and IT/OT convergence can mean for businesses – making it real for customers.

Increased demand for automation

This is critical and becoming more important with each passing day. Businesses want to get to market quicker. They want to know how they can leverage data better to improve productivity and sustainability.

Then there’s the challenge of accelerating learning. Many knowledgeable veterans will retire. At the same time, younger generations change jobs more readily and businesses are struggling to find people who want to live and work in harsh or remote conditions.

Coronavirus is encouraging some companies to explore increased automation solutions and remote operations due to the challenges posed to business operations. A lot of customers, partners and engineers are unable to go onto site right now. I expect this to change the way we think about how we can run plants effectively without people onsite.

Many challenges aren’t different – but the technology is

While COVID-19 may be the latest and greatest threat, many of the challenges businesses face today are no different to 20 years ago. Businesses want to know how to get information to decision makers in a timely way, particularly when many IT systems do not interface easily with one another.

It was hard to correlate or find manufacturing trends. There was too much data that took too much time to retrieve and was not real-time. We built custom, costly and complicated one-sided solutions.

With the arrival of Industry 4.0, the tech has accelerated, and we can do things differently. Digitalisation is the next quantum leap in terms of trying to get more done with your systems.

The convergence of IT and OT can help us make sense of as much data as is available and process it in a timely way. Machine learning can assist with automation and spotting trends, and augmented reality (AR) can support accelerated learning, remote training and enhanced operator experience.

AR has pass through the hype phase and is now part of the mainstream. It’s allowing the overlay of the digital and the physical worlds. This includes both being able to visualise and move around a machine that isn’t physically there and being able to overlay a physical machine with an AR visualisation, which can support training and maintenance.

Behind this shift lies the fact that sensors have come down in price, computing power has gone through the roof, latency has reduced, cloud computing has now become pervasive in our lives and cybersecurity has become top of mind.

Whereas in the past we saw that many IT projects tended not to fail because of tech but because of issues with adoption and understanding, usability and user experience are now becoming a primary objective of many solutions – and that will allow more successful projects. A lot of the tech is becoming configurable and open.

What this means is that businesses can now make sense of as much data that is available and process it in real-time to make decisions that can change the way a business is run, instead of waiting until it’s too late. It means more efficient maintenance and training. This is reducing downtime, while increasing productivity, agility and speed to market.

Getting started

Technology may have become increasingly intuitive but getting started isn’t always as easy. When getting beginning your journey towards Industry 4.0, consider the following: what data you want to connect, how you can make solutions repeatable, use machine learning or predictive analytics to analyse trends and retrieve insights, how you will deliver relevant insights to those who need them in a consumable way, and what happens when you do spot something unusual or interesting.

Try to strike the right balance between off-the-shelf and customised solutions. Prioritise solutions that are repeatable from an infrastructure perspective but which offers an over the top user experience fits what you need.

Platforms such as Rockwell Automation’s Factory Talk Innovation Suite™, which has PTC technology inside, includes specific applications around remote monitoring, creating digital twins with AR/VR, and an IoT platform that extends to Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES), Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) and predictive maintenance to support productivity, sustainability and integrated supply chain solutions.

These extensible platforms allow you to tap into a range of in-built applications relevant to your needs today – and position you to add in those which might become useful down the line.

Then get started. Don’t worry about gold plating it from the start. See what works and what doesn’t. Find a balance. Iterate. With the help of this remarkable technology we can get through this latest crisis and come out stronger on the other side.