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).
“Reprogramming, rewiring and testing take a lot of time, and the production times may be too long to make a difference,” says Tom Hoffman, director of business development, Digital Enterprise, Siemens Digital Industries Software. “When starting with nothing but product documents, the best approach is for a manual production line with trained production personnel that is available from the existing plant. One important place for automation is in the final test area. The automation can sequence the final test by issuing work instructions, recording test values and storing the test data for evaluation by the equipment designer or the FDA to ensure the product that was just produced is acceptable for use.”
Hoffman suggests preparing for the future with:
- the ability to leverage a digital twin of the production system for simulation and validation of various process and automation scenarios in advance of committing to a final production strategy
- the creation of micro-production machines that can be deployed to the point of need so local, trained manufacturing operators can operate the equipment
- a mini-MES that can issue work instructions with video demonstrations to each operator
- a preprogrammed, automated test micro-machine to ensure production output is fully functional and suitable for use
- a secure connection to a cloud-based data repository so production data can be viewed/accepted in near real time by the equipment designer/owner or the FDA
- a secure connection to a cloud-based inventory management system that will, in near real time, report the available amount of the needed product.
Converting an entire production line or factory to producing medical devices, ventilators or personal protective equipment (PPE) is no small task, and, as a result, it requires an all-hands-on-deck approach, says Jeff Johnson, mechatronics product manager, USA, Beckhoff Automation. “For machine builders and manufacturers, flexible and modular PC-based automation technologies reduce complexity in large changes to the controls platform,” he says.
To leverage the full strength of an engineering department in a very short timeframe, automation software should empower engineers to program in the language they know best or that best suits the application, whether that’s the object-oriented extensions of IEC 61131-3, function blocks or computer science standards, explains Johnson.
From a mechanical standpoint, changeovers for varying product types and sizes are smoother with flexible motion control components from servo systems to linear transport systems, says Johnson. “In uncertain times, collaboration and flexibility are key, so standardizing on scalable and modular technologies is a sure way to bring the entire team together,” he explains.
"Many manufacturers may need the their control and automation solutions to communicate to testing equipment, validating that the newly produced products work correctly," says Bradford Beale, managing director, Pepperl+Fuchs Comtrol. "In this case, IoT gateways can communicate between Ethernet/IP, Profinet, Modbus with TCP/IP or Serial devices. For quickly adding new equipment to a manufacturer’s production lines, gateway solutions add equipment easily into an established production line."