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The Shift to Industrial Networks

Aug. 7, 2013
How the Progression of Internet and Networked Computing Is Revolutionizing the Automation Industry
About the Author

Simon Grant is president and CEO of Automation GT in Carlsbad, Calif, which designs and manufactures automated assembly, inspection, and test systems in the medical device, pharmaceutical and biotechnology markets.

The progression of the internet and networked computing has had an effect on almost all business sectors and industries, some more significantly affected than others. Now it's revolutionizing the automation industry, or at least it will for Automation GT.

SEE ALSO: A Recipe for Mechatronics

The focus of automation traditionally has been centered on the mechatronics of a standalone machine — the mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and controls engineering of a system. Our vision is to expand from a simple mechatronic machine to a shared network of systems that talk to each other and report to a management portal in real time. The technology we foresee means that, with a few clicks of a mouse, a COO sitting at his or her desk in Silicon Valley can pull a comparative summary of all systems installed in Shanghai or Buenos Aires, and drill down on a specific machine to see its operational efficiency and what parts need service.

We've begun to standardize the tools with which automation systems operate, and network them to the same controls operating platform. Instead of various machines reporting (or not reporting) to separate and isolated data repositories, all machines report to one master platform where you can view data for each machine as well as a comparative summary of all operating systems. Data becomes information.

Currently, machines are installed with custom code, custom configuration, custom reporting, and custom management. Instead of  a unique configuration for each machine, systems should be on a standardized platform, so users can look at any machine through the same interface and view aggregated data that can be crunched and compared.

We can build machines on an integrated IT infrastructure, so users can store information on a shared database. Identity profiles can be set up for management and access control. The ability to read data or make code changes will be permitted only to authorized users at login. This level of regulation isn't normally practiced because, until now, the technology didn't exist. That's going to change and Automation GT is among the first custom automation houses to offer it. We're already doing it for our customers that operate internationally.

Another added bonus of placing automation systems onto a shared infrastructure is centralized "recipe" management. We have a customer that uses automation to build patient-specific medical devices. They have 700+ spreadsheets of code for any one order. For each assembly, a system operator manually plugs in the code to give the machine the set of brains it needs to assemble the specified product.

The problem is that the spreadsheets are not controlled. If someone accidently changes a number, no one knows. So, we suggest that all recipes be uploaded to a database. When the system operator needs to change the recipe, he or she can simply select "Recipe 4" or "Recipe 4,652." This can be done on the HMI directly or remotely through the shared server. The machine will reach out to the database, pull the selected recipe, put it on the machine, and the machine will start running. That recipe is managed and controlled, so no one can change it.

And if someone wants to change it, you can program in change control on the server, so the operator is required to fill in a form and say "this is how I'm going to modify it, this is how I've tested the new code, etc." Furthermore, upon program modification, alerts can be set up to signal management that Recipe 4,652 was changed on Machine A by Operator X.

It's important that you have a unified relationship among your engineering, automation and controls, and IT groups. When those three are aligned and able to communicate, you can use the tools from the IT side and the controls and software side, and train your mechatronics engineers to listen and talk to all of these. This trifecta is a very powerful system. Recent advances in networking, virtual machine technology and cloud computing have allowed an elegant integration of automation and business systems. This opens up the analysis and reporting tools that manufacturing, engineering and management are already comfortable using.

As the automation industry progresses, more companies will network systems together. The level of control management, security, and information is unparalleled by any other applicable technology.