Automation softens hard times

AS the global financial crisis continues, the 'economics of manufacturing' has drastically changed, driving a growing trend for companies to review or 'reset' their businesses practices with the view to increase operational efficiencies while reducing capital expenditure - basically, do more with less.

AS the global financial crisis continues, the ‘economics of manufacturing’ has drastically changed, driving a growing trend for companies to review or ‘reset’ their businesses practices with the view to increase operational efficiencies while reducing capital expenditure – basically, do more with less.

This has led to an increased focus on automation, control and information systems such as Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) and other operation management software offerings to help manufacturers increase production efficiencies, while boosting quality, reliability and profitability.

Erik Udstuen, US-based VP – Software & Services, GE Fanuc Intelligent Platforms, says companies that were once aggressively building new production lines or adding capacity are now focussed on getting more out of existing assets rather than investing in ‘Greenfields’ or new projects.

“There is more emphasis on retrofit or productivity-type applications where users want straight efficiency gains by improving, eliminating and automating steps to reduce downtime and there is an increased need for software tools that are focused on these types of ‘cost out’ activities,” Udstuen told Manufacturers’ Monthly on his recent visit to Australia.

Conscious of the need to reduce the cost of implementing industrial control software, automation software developers are producing more ‘entry’ level SCADA/HMI and MES systems that require minimum infrastructure or automation to work effectively.

A new software development Udestuen is very excited about is Proficy Workflow, an industrialised version of a business management tool, which he says will allow users to integrate business and production processes across systems and departments for reliable, repeatable process execution, regardless of the actual level of automation in the plant.

“Different parts of the world have varying levels of automation, so to enable users to digitise manual and automated processes with one tool – capturing process, traceability and quality data across systems to reduce errors, waste and delays – means there doesn’t need to be significant automation investments made.

“A key part of ensuring operational efficiency is by reducing variation in production performance and this tool is something that can be applied across the whole spectrum of companies who want to define what their best practices are, configure those work practices into a work management tool and ensure that those best practices are being executed across all their production lines and manufacturing facilities.”

Udstuen says another goal for the company is to make MES and SCADA systems more accessible “for the masses”.

“Traditionally MES is normally in the realm of very large companies that have a lot of assets and our strategy is to make it easier, more modular and more scaleable so that customers can get into it at a relatively low investment and expand it over time – MES for the Masses.

“As uptake increases in local regions, companies will become more familiar with that these systems can deliver and this will accelerate the adoption of this technology,” he said.

Converging solutions

The integration of IT and database design into the modern generation of MES and SCADA software has helped to develop more integrated information (IT) and automation solutions.

Twain Drewett, local MD of Rockwell Automation says increasingly automation software suppliers are seeking to improve interfacing with enterprise level software that is largely IT-based.

“By building control system technology onto an IT platform, we’re able to achieve the desired tight integration, meaning the data can be transferred directly into ERP.

“One of the by-products of convergence is breaking down the cultural barriers between information technology and automation professionals in order to provide high quality information to allow manufacturers to make informed business decisions, increase productivity and efficiency and therefore improve their bottom line,” Drewett told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

From a process control perspective, Drewett says he is seeing two main trends, more demand for ‘open’ systems and the increasing adoption of multi-disciplined control.

“A benefit of using open systems which are not locked into the vendor, the customer has the flexibility of being able to use several different suppliers to tailor the best ‘best-of-breed’ solution.

“Multi-disciplined control allows the implementation of a system on a single platform that can provide an integrated information, process control, safety and motion solutions,” he said.

According to Drewett, during this period of economic downturn, customers are not only seeking to remove costs from their business, but there’s a noticeable demand for support.

“A lot of our customers have downsized their engineering capabilities in their businesses. I believe this has been an ongoing trend where they’re looking to outsource their engineering.

“Along with losing these people out of their business, the ability to support the technical and automation side of their business has been diminished somewhat.

“It is then important we can assure them we can be there with them to support them and enable customers to make informed decisions about their processes so they can determine if they are as efficient as it could or should be,” Drewett said.