It’s time for manufacturing companies to get ready for Industry 4.0. New companies have to invest in Operational Technology (OT) and Information Technology (IT) solutions. These must leverage developments taking place in Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), Cloud Computing, Big Data and Analytics, Artificial Intelligence, Autonomous Robots, and others to maximize returns from technology investments.

These tools are touted as the building blocks of self-managing production processes. Thus, they will provide answers to the challenges of the Industry 4.0 era. Ready-to-use and integrable open platform-based and standards-supported solutions are not yet available.

Therefore, end-users and suppliers have to adopt system integration approaches to custom build them. Ultimately, the success of this will lead to wider industry acceptance by providing proof-of-concept and the development of open standards. The ExxonMobil – Lockheed Martin initiative is a good example of such an approach. The industry will be watching the outcome with interest, and this may well set a trend.

Manufacturing companies aim to achieve business excellence, improve profitability, and create shareholder value. Thus, they typically leverage technologies so that all decisions and results are based on information from the production floor and board room. Information is required to determine the deployment of resources, sourcing of input materials. It also ensures safely processing products, conforms to specifications, manages costs, quality, and ships products to customers in time.

Therefore, gathering and processing real-time data in a timely manner is crucial to manufacturing companies. That plays an important role in ensuring their success. Manufacturing companies use instrumentation and control (I&C) for decisions relating to plant-floor operation management and enterprise solutions, such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) for board room decisions. These systems and solutions evolved separately over an extended period of time.

Instrumentation and Control Systems

I&C systems may comprise of an array of instruments and controllers, programmable logic controller (PLC), distributed control system (DCS), or these in combination. They monitor process parameters and automatically control some of them in real-time. They also gather plant or operational data, generate information, and control shop floor production operations to serve the plant-specific requirements. While we are entering Industry 4.0 era, in large process plants like refineries, electric utilities, and chemical plants, one often encounters I&C systems of all types.

I&C systems ensure a modern plant’s operation works in accordance with process requirements and produces what is intended, without compromising plant and human safety, productivity, and efficiency. While derived demand for I&C systems spurs automation companies to develop and supply these systems, the imperative-investment need drives manufacturing companies to provide for them in their initial capital budget.

Enterprise Solutions

Enterprise Solutions like Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), Supply Chain Management (SRM), Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) address specific board-level information requirements. Most often, they come in after the plant goes into commercial operation and over a period of time.

Successfully applying enterprise solutions involves extensive customization. This requires the help of information technology service providers or system integrators who have extensive domain knowledge and industry-specific practices. Enterprise solutions evolved after the arrival of digital computers to meet specific functional needs. They work as independent entities.

Holistic Integrated Information

As business operations became more complex and geographically dispersed, companies needed to enhance overall productivity and efficiency. This required holistic, real-time information. Industrial companies felt the need for more shop-floor operational information and to achieve lots of collaboration, not only among the various I&C systems but also with enterprise solutions.

Thus, operational excellence comes from sharing information between the control systems and enterprise solutions.  In turn, Computer Integrated Management (CIM), Machine to Machine (M2M) integration, and Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) evolved. These approaches essentially involved finding ways to achieve exchange or flow of information amongst numerous systems & solutions and that resulted in the development of OPC standards.

Emerging Technology Tools

Numerous reports, commissioned to forecast the future landscape of manufacturing, are predicting the emergence of a new era of manufacturing. We describe this variously as Industry 4.0, Smart Manufacturing, Connected Enterprises, and Digital Manufacturing. Rapid technological advancements relating to Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), Cloud Computing, Big Data and Analytics, Artificial Intelligence, Autonomous Robots will greatly influence the future of manufacturing. These powerful technological tools could also enhance the capabilities of plant-level automation systems and corporate-level enterprise solutions.

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System-Engineered Automation Systems of the Future

Creating automation systems that leverage these technological tools requires systems integration and an engineering approach. Manufacturing companies that wish to be ready for the future will have to engage with system engineers who have skills in I&C systems, enterprise solutions, process knowledge, communication and information technologies, cybersecurity, project engineering & management, and others. The other skills required include deep knowledge about OT and IT architectures, communication protocols standards, and problem-solving capabilities.

Above all, deep domain knowledge and industry practices are critical for manufacturing companies to realize their full value. System experts are necessary for developing the scope document, defining the final deliverable, and its evaluation, which present serious challenges.

One example is the ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company’s (EMRE) agreement with Lockheed Martin. This will serve as a system integrator in the early-stage development of next-generation automation systems for process industries. This engagement requires Lockheed Martin to design an automation system architecture that ensures modularity, interoperability, expandability, reuse, portability, and scalability. It will also provide intrinsic cybersecurity protection that is adaptable to emerging threats.

By investing in systems that leverage these technologies, manufacturing companies can evolve to be truly information-driven organizations that are self-managed, demand-driven, and customer fulfillment-oriented. Though ready-to-use solutions that incorporate these tools are not yet available,  with a system engineering approach they can be built. A system engineering approach is a roadmap to for end-users to become Industry 4.0 ready and for suppliers to meet their expectations.

To know more about engineered automation systems, you can get in touch with our engineers and we will be happy to help.

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