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The face of change: Compliance and rethinking industry

May 21, 2020
Four ways to make factories more agile and adaptive
In just a few months, the world changed. We watched the face of Asia and then Europe turn from a typical expression of cheerful optimism to an anxious grimace of fear and isolation.

From the United States, we awaited the arrival of the coronavirus with great trepidation, watching as countries overseas battled what would eventually become a global pandemic. Manufacturers raced to postpone normal operations, keeping workers safe and distanced, but many jumped at the opportunity to produce much-needed equipment and personal protective equipment (PPE).

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Compliance and rethinking industry

“While all companies are concerned with quality and process control, the compliance requirements will increase significantly when switching from normal widgets to COVID-19-related products such as ventilators, sanitizer or PPE products,” says Todd Mason-Darnell, Ph.D., marketing manager, services & safety, Omron Automation Americas. “Depending on what was produced previously, the factory may need to implement the capabilities to track all aspects of the manufacturing process.”

Individual components and subassemblies may need to be marked and traced through the entire cycle, he cautions. “Barcodes can be applied to manufactured items,” explains Mason-Darnell. “Barcode readers can be used to help track materials within the manufacturing facility and improve inventory visibility throughout the supply chain.”

Critical assembly parameters, such as torque setting or depth of insertion, may need to be monitored, controlled and documented in much greater detail than they were previously, says Mason-Darnell. “Product labeling will not only need to meet stringent regulatory requirements, but the manufacturer will need to verify and document that by ensuring that the labeling meets those specifications and was applied to the correct product. Finally, all of this data will need to collected, centralized and collated to a specific product serial number in case it ever needs to be retrieved.”

For the past 30 years, the manufacturing industry was focused on learning how to build something and then relentlessly driving down cost, says Mike Fahrion, CTO and director of IIoT solutions, Advantech, IIoT Group. “We applied automation, off-shoring, and supply chain consolidation all while closely watching cost, quality and productivity metrics,” he reminds. “Today, we’re suddenly in an environment where those metrics are trumped by resilience and agility. And, unfortunately, we’re often learning that our decades-long pursuit of lower cost had a negative impact on resilience and agility.”

As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, industry will re-evaluate the key performance indicators and integrate performance metrics that measure the ability to detect and respond to rapid changes in market demands, predicts Fahrion, who lists four ways to make factories more agile and adaptive.

  1. Make wireless technologies a strategic initiative. Ten years ago, this would have been largely impossible, but wireless tech has come a long way. Private LTE networks can provide high-speed, managed bandwidth for machines. Wi-Fi is well-suited to human-interface connectivity. Emerging 5G technologies will provide not only the bandwidth, but also the latency and determinism needed even for most control networks. A well-executed wireless strategy makes manufacturing cells more mobile for fast reconfiguration.
  2. Standardize on open-system-based architectures. Reduce or eliminate the use of application-specific appliances that can only perform a single function. Imagine if 20 years ago you were told you needed to work from home, with full multimedia capability. To do so, you may have spent weeks of time and tens of thousands of dollars to buy specialized equipment and complex software. In March 2020, you were able to do it with nothing more than an iPad. Computers have the ability to be controllers, communication gateways, HMIs and vision systems, defined simply by the software deployed. Software-defined automation systems provide tremendous flexibility and scalability.
  3. “Containerize” your software applications. Whether it’s virtual machines or Docker, use containers to deploy software. Containerized software is easy to deploy at scale, is easy to update at scale and can allow a software-defined automation system to be reconfigured in minutes with no local interaction required. Device management has long been central to the IT world; it is even more critical in agile manufacturing. Zero-touch provisioning should become a requirement.
  4. Leverage computer-vision technologies for quality systems. Cameras are a powerful sensor. Coupled with computer-vision software, they can adapt quickly from inspecting a door frame to a face shield.

The most challenging part of making factories agile may be supply chain, explains Fahrion. “Understanding the spectrum of goods that could be produced with the existing supply chain is a good strategic exercise,” he says. “How would that spectrum change with one or two degrees of change in that supply chain? It’s interesting to imagine a factory of the future that uses additive-manufacturing techniques, robots and automatic guided vehicles. With nothing more than a remote software update, that type of factory of the future should be able to change its output to meet market requirements. We’re not there yet, but the technologies are close enough that we can grasp the vision and start architecting our systems now, so our legacy facilities aren’t the roadblock that slows our adoption of technologies as they become market-ready.”

In the 8th and final part of this series of articles, we dive deeper into the risks and challenges.

About the author: Mike Bacidore
About the Author

Mike Bacidore | Editor in Chief

Mike Bacidore is chief editor of Control Design and has been an integral part of the Endeavor Business Media editorial team since 2007. Previously, he was editorial director at Hughes Communications and a portfolio manager of the human resources and labor law areas at Wolters Kluwer. Bacidore holds a BA from the University of Illinois and an MBA from Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. He is an award-winning columnist, earning multiple regional and national awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors. He may be reached at [email protected] 

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