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What to watch for in automation in 2018

Jan. 12, 2018
In this installment of Automation Zone, advances in robotics and analytics (and their impact on MRO teams) lead the way.

For this 2018 kickoff edition of Automation Zone, the Plant Services editors asked several industry professionals:

How do you think robotics and analytics will change automation in 2018 and going forward, and why?

José M. Rivera, CEO, CSIA (Control System Integrators Association)

  1. On the workforce front, the “war on talent” will continue to intensify. The demand for STEM career professionals will continue to grow, and it won’t be met by the modest improvements made to make these careers more appealing to the younger generation of American born students. Some companies will be able to leverage their global footprint to create technology centers wherever talent is found, including outside of the United States. For the smaller, domestic companies, they will have to resort to creative ways to still meet their needs. Young STEM professionals will have leverage, and employers will try to meet their work environment expectations, including the ability to work remotely part of the time.
  2. The “war on talent” is not limited to university careers. The U.S. has had a serious shortage of good trade workers in spite of the fact that these are good-paying jobs. For generations, we have not valued these jobs and have encouraged the younger generations to target college degrees instead. We have discussed and started to emulate the German apprenticeship model, but the output is small compared to the need. It would be to the benefit of all to have more retraining programs to help workers in some industries transition to others. Unfortunately, I’m not very optimistic that we’ll have 2018 bring us progress on this front.
  3. Industrial automation will continue to be inspired by leading consumer technologies. I expect that in 2018, we’ll see more companies in the industrial automation arena continue to experiment with new approaches to business models – for example, subscription-based offers – creating recurring revenue sources from ongoing services. I also think that end users will continue to view system integrators as a viable source of automation resources to meet the needs they can’t deliver on because of their inability to hire talent themselves (many manufacturers have their operations in non-urban environments, making them less attractive to younger talent).
Automation Zone

This article is part of our monthly Automation Zone column. Read more from our monthly Automation Zone series.

Christine LaVoi, senior client manager for North America, IFS

I think that a larger portion of the group can afford to look at technology. Customers that have lower-value items that they're still (sending) out to service have not looked at sensors, have not even looked at reactive-based maintenance because of the cost of building in sensors, getting the data, getting it into the cloud. Even something as simple as route optimization, as that becomes more common, more understood, as GPS devices become less expensive, as all of the technology price points come down, the number of people using (newer technologies) will expand because the cost of ownership makes sense. It's really easy when you're dealing with a couple-million-dollar machine to say, "I've got to have sensors, I've got to know when it's failing," but if you're dealing with a $5,000 machine … it's tougher to justify. Also, now we're having more and more customers using phones and laptops in the field because data's less expensive. Cost of ownership is coming down, so you're going to see wider adoption, in my opinion.

Edwin van Dijk, vice president of marketing at TrendMiner

Predictive analytics have started to move beyond the hype and deliver true value, and by 2018, the impact of industrial analytics insights will be even greater. There will be more sensors generating more data within automated processes, and the ability to leverage that data will be critical to remaining profitable.

New adopters can benefit from the experience of companies that have already achieved analytics success, such as with the concept of “big data – start small.” This means starting with analytics on a subsection of the data produced in a manufacturing plant so the organization can enjoy immediate results while growing analytics maturity over time.

Self-service industrial analytics are a great enabler of this approach. Focusing on process production data provides a manageable starting scope but delivers wider benefits. For example, insights from analytics can inform predictive maintenance and contextualize asset performance.
With deeper insights into the types of maintenance required, more of the maintenance work can be automated. This benefits the organization by reducing the maintenance costs, increasing safety, and leveraging human expertise across multiple sites and regions.

Bill Pollock, president at Optimation Technology Inc.

Robots and the dream of intelligent working robots have been with us for a very long time. As early as 1495, Leonardo da Vinci designed the first humanoid robot. It was designed to sit up, wave its arms, and move its head via a flexible neck. There were hundreds of other robots designed over the next five hundred years. In 2003, NASA used twin robots as Mars rovers. Robots were used in industry for activities like welding and painting automobiles. But until recently, most robots were fairly simple, single-application machines.

It is only because of rapid advances in artificial intelligence that robots are advancing to the potential uses we now visualize. If robots can learn, improve, and “think” in ways similar to humans, they can take on new sets of challenges. As part of this evolution, robots are taking on uncannily humanlike appearances. A robot recently advanced one step closer to human status when it was granted citizenship to Saudi Arabia.

Bob Willems, engineering manager, and Rob Velpel, application specialist, at Sure Controls

The workforce of today is becoming less and less interested in doing the repetitive and often tedious tasks that are found throughout a wide variety of manufacturing processes. Enter the collaborative robot, or “cobot.” Cobots, like Sawyer from Rethink Robotics, are a lower-cost, flexible solution that will make your manufacturing process more adaptable. They can handle a wide range of tasks, can be reprogrammed quickly, and can be moved to where they are needed. This new generation of robots meets ISO 10218 safety standards, and they are designed to safely work alongside people without the need to be guarded by expensive light curtains or cages that take up valuable floor space.

With cobots in operation, you won’t have to spend your resources trying to hire a disappearing workforce; you know the cobot will show up for its shift; and you can guarantee a consistent output. With repetitive tasks being handled by cobots, your employees can be tasked with more complex and meaningful roles. The lower cost of these robots makes them affordable for almost any size company, with a typical ROI of six to eight months. This long list of benefits is why many companies will be looking to take the capital gained from a solid 2017 and invest in this technology in 2018.

Paul Buckley, COO at Applied Sciences Group Inc.

The rapid advancements in artificial intelligence and electromechanical development of haptic systems have set the stage for the next major revolution in manufacturing. The question is, how long it will take before the manufacturing floor is cleared of all but “essential” personnel? Future robots:

  • Will be aware of their surroundings, rendering them capable of avoiding actions that could harm personnel in the vicinity.
  • Won’t have to be bolted to the floor, so the stationary constraint will disappear.
  • Will be highly adaptable to multiple operations, so they won’t be limited to repetitive or dangerous tasks.
  • Will continue to evolve better haptics, giving them dexterity that approaches that of humans.
  • Will monitor machine health to detect and predict their own downtime and maintenance needs.
  • Will deliver production data to wherever it’s needed.

There is good news in all of this. At the very least, we will need maintenance staff, highly skilled operators, planning teams to determine manufacturing line configurations based on product orders, programmers, quality control, and trainers to train them all. But we have to act now. Future robots mean future complexity, which means a shift toward greater skill set requirements for future workers. This conclusion begs for training, and lots of it. It will require us to provide better education and hands-on training to those who would otherwise not have the skills necessary to do the job.

John Kowal, director of business development at B&R Automation

A significant development will be interaction of robots with track technology, forming the core of the “adaptive machine.” Open robotics allows one machine controller to employ one IEC 61131-3-compliant automation program running on one processor to tightly synchronize robot movements to shuttle movements on linear track systems. The resulting system provides the flexibility and speed for assembly and packaging of customized products – batch size one – economically to customer order, shipping direct from the manufacturing line. With an extremely compact footprint and flexible mounting, these robot-enabled adaptive machines are ideal for use in existing plants, not just greenfields.

Doug Taylor, principal engineer at Concept Systems Inc.

Robots are more and more affecting automation system designs by the unequal service lengths of the components. PLC and motion systems are typically designed for 20 years of use, but robots are designed for 10 years of use. This tends to drive the system design into more reliance on the robot’s native capabilities rather than designing the robot into traditional control systems utilizing a more distributed control. Overall cost pressures already drive robot designs this way anyway, making it more difficult to maintain in a nonhomogeneous plant environment.

Chris Merta, product manager for automation at The Raymond Corp.

Material handling companies are relying on automation to make production and distribution processes quicker, easily repeatable, consistent, and cost-effective. Companies are investing in warehouse solutions software to help customers reach higher proficiency levels faster and make operations run more efficiently. Navigation solutions software is intended to help order-picker operators reach higher proficiency levels faster and make operations run more efficiently. The technology’s primary features include aisle and zone identification, positioning, and integrated point-to-point positioning. These solutions use RFID sensors mounted in the floor of a guided aisle to travel an optimal path upon command between picking and put-away locations.

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