A more intelligent generation

Future generations of engineers embrace and expect smarter automation

By Dave Perkon, technical editor

"In the past, the understanding was that more automation complexity leads to more problems, and it was true," says Sandro Quintero, product manager, valve terminals and electronics, at Festo US. "Now, we are evolving. The discussions on the use of smart devices are ongoing, but the new generation of workers understands the complexity and accepts it."

Well, I'm the gray-haired guy in the corner, but I don't resist the change too much. The future will likely leave the discrete sensor or valve behind—just like the flip phone.

While I have always thought of Festo as a pneumatic vendor that supplies air preparation, tubing, fittings, valves and actuators, Festo changed my mindset on that. It has had an electrical-automation product basket for the past 15 years or so, and I used many over the past decade.

Festo definitely has strong and smart electrical automation products. It has been around since 1925, and I'm impressed with its product offering. The automation industry has many things going on—technology is moving forward, according to Quintero.

"If you think about the future of the workers, the Gen Alpha generation, toddlers to 5-year olds, you see these young kids with their eyes glued to tablets and smartphones, playing games and connecting to YouTube for videos," says Quintero. "Most cannot even read, yet they are doing it, controlling the smart device. Once these kids reach the workforce, that's what they will expect in their machines. It won't be bits and bytes; these kids are going to expect a better user experience and a multimedia user interface. With little work, they will want to see status, adjust production and control many things."

The change is that, now, we want the machines to talk to us.

The Millennial and Gen Alpha generations have a different outlook than the grayer-haired Baby Boom generation of workers, says Quintero. "One of the changes I see in machine control is the way we interact with machines," he says. "In the past and currently, many use the HMI to question the machine. They go to the machine and use the HMI to find machine status, fault information or production rates; or they view a stack light from a distance to determine if the machine has a problem."

The change is that, now, we want the machines to talk to us, explains Quintero. "We expect to receive machine information in a similar way that the weather and traffic are being pushed to our smart devices, such as ‘Initiator Line 1 current production rate is 360 parts per hour’ or ‘Shift 1 quality is 98.3%,’" he says. "And the information will get even better. For example, ‘Test 2 meter probes are predicted to fail tomorrow, and an increased friction is noted in Actuator 3; failure is possible.’"

The machines are becoming more intelligent, and it's the smart devices that are driving it. "The reason we didn't have this in the past, although the technology was there, was because we needed coordination between the vendors and the machine builders," says Quintero. "On the vendor side, we needed to come up with products that were able to do these types of things, and we did. Festo designed a new generation of valves that can tell you air consumption, changes in pressure and temperature and other parameters. With these intelligent devices now available, the machine builders can change their mindsets. Instead of having 'dumb machines,' now they can insert intelligence. The module or smart device can now report what's going on."

Previous thinking in machine control provided discrete, directional control of the valve and use of sensors and fault logic to highlight actuator movement and issues, explains Quintero. "There was not a means to know about valve leakage or position," he says. "With intelligent devices and the better information they provide, and a change in mindset, more problems can be avoided."

Festo Motion Terminal has basically closed the loop at the smart-device level by embedding processing power and sensors. "With one piece of hardware, you have many functions," says Quintero. "With intelligent devices the valve can be digitally changed—functions such as proportionally controlled flow, pressure control, motion apps, leakage detection, speed control of actuator and others. Customers are using it in their next generation of machines and love it, and it enables different functions in the same valve."

Essentials Guide — The "IIoT-Ready" machine

These smart devices are an extension of human knowledge, says Quintero. "By having these newer technologies available to us, we can make more things work, be more efficient and make smarter machines for tomorrow's production line," he says.

Communication of devices is important, as well. If you want the low-level device such as a sensor or a valve to be smarter, it must communicate to higher-order systems or to other devices. Standard protocols, such as IO-Link and industrial Ethernet protocols, are the enablers. Configuration and parameters can be changed on the fly, and the control system knows all about the device.

"Now, with these device capabilities, we are in a transition period for builders to produce smarter machines," says Quintero. "There are a lot of old-timer control engineers, no disrespect, who have been around the industry and know how to handle discrete devices. With new smart devices, they may say, ‘Why do I need these devices?’ The young kids, fresh out of college, get it. As more and more generations arrive, the intelligence in smarter machines will be expected."

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