Smart solutions

Thomas Wilk investigates how manufacturers are using intelligence effectively on the plant floor.

By Thomas Wilk, chief editor

Since the birth of the smart transmitter in the early 1980s, manufacturers have chased a vision of using intelligent technologies to drive automated process and resource efficiencies on the plant floor.

The latest manifestation of this vision is the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), also known as Industry 4.0. Both terms are often used as shorthand to describe the ways that connected machines can monitor physical processes and conditions, and then make decentralized decisions on how to optimize those processes. The potential exists for billions of linked smart devices to collaborate and communicate as part of the IIoT, and to enable customized solutions that help individual plants operate more safely, reliably, and efficiently.

In recognition of the increasing depth to which smart technologies and automated control systems are now used on the plant floor, Plant Services is introducing a new department: the Automation Zone. Each month we will invite a different expert in the field of automation and control systems to share their thoughts on how maintenance and reliability teams can use smart systems to better monitor and maintain their equipment, as well as how best to gather and analyze the information they need to help them optimize equipment operation, maintenance, and repair activities.

The first of these columns is courtesy of Rockwell Automation’s Ryan Cahalane, who focuses on the information-sharing side of smart solutions. Recognizing that capital expenditures are limited in many plants, Cahalane identifies the process of connecting and optimizing the assorted mix of equipment that’s already in place as one of the top challenges facing plant personnel. He suggests that the deployment of integrated control and information software can enable collaboration capabilities to be relatively easily infused into legacy assets, and advocates for lean and modular software systems that “empower all levels of employees to develop the performance-tracking definitions that are most relevant to their specific operations and then change them as needed, all without having to burden IT and OT with additional development.”

This open and collaborative approach is echoed in this month’s cover story on how to build a predictive maintenance program that is right for your plant. In that story, Ken Piety, VP of technology at Azima DLI, reminds us that to ensure lasting success, “Today’s PdM program must involve and inform stakeholders in different departments and at different locations so they can be aware of what is known and what actions are being taken, or not.”

In other words, the most impactful smart solutions ultimately extend beyond the device and machine level and back into the realm of human decision-making and collaboration.

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