Most people know that incorporating some form of industrial automation into their manufacturing facility or business is beneficial. It can reduce production costs, increase efficiencies, improve product quality output, and nearly eliminate human error. Therefore, it is not surprising that automation is now popular across multiple industries.
Industrial automation involves several different types of machinery that benefit the manufacturing process. Manufacturers often choose to automate assembly and manufacturing lines because they involve moving or manipulating physical products and do not require the addition of chemicals or some other liquid. Since these lines often require a lot of manpower and can be dangerous and slower than other lines, automating these types of lines helps the manufacturer cut production costs. While most manufacturers are aware of the advantages of automation, they often struggle with how to actually go about implementing it into their facilities.
Find the Right Control System
Control systems are the basis of all modern automation. Therefore, manufacturers looking to automate their facilities must have control systems that are reliable and capable. Control systems are made up of input devices (photo-eyes, pushbuttons, pressure switches, limit switches, etc.), a programmable logic controller (PLC), and output devices (valves, actuators, motor starters, drives, etc.). There are also other peripheral devices involved in control systems such as HMI, but these are unnecessary for smaller systems of less complexity.
The first step in creating a control system and automating your process is to analyze your manufacturing process to identify the types and number of inputs and outputs required. Having that information in hand will make it easier to determine the type of PLC needed. Given the multitude of vendors and wide selection of equipment available today, specifying control system components without blowing the budget can prove daunting. Thus, many manufacturers choose to hire a controls system design expert to select the most appropriate and cost-effective device and controller to fit their needs.
Know your Manufacturing Processes
Manufacturers who want to implement automation in their facilities must also have a thorough understanding of their businesses’ manufacturing processes. This is because the manufacturing process dictates the types of devices needed as well as how the logic is programmed into the PLC to accomplish the Manufacturer’s objectives. Since the manufacturing process at most facilities is complex and involves more than one machine and PLC, manufacturers must have an intimate understanding of how their systems work together. The process of integrating the machines and other components of a system is referred to as systems integration and is accomplished through the use of machine to machine network communications. It’s not unusual to come across a situation within a facility where, for example, a system is networked so that packaging line Machine A sends product to downstream Machine B only when it is in a predefined condition.
Machine B talks to the PLC so that Machine A knows that the product cannot be released until the predefined condition is reached. Without this communication in place, a jam or some other error could occur. As this example illustrates, how the machines are integrated together over the network determines how they share production line information. Manufacturers who want to automate their facilities must therefore be aware of every aspect of their manufacturing process, including how the machines integrate, to successfully implement an automated solution.
Understand Network Management
Because multiple controllers and machines must be integrated together for a process to run correctly, manufacturers must also understand how to set up and manage a control network. There are numerous network communication protocols currently used in industrial and process automation systems throughout the world. A few examples include EtherNet/IP, ModBus TCP/IP, ControlNet, DeviceNet, and ProfiNet. While it is possible to convert one network protocol to a different one, it should be avoided if at all possible, since a conversion adds to the complexity of the system and necessitates the use of additional devices. The best practice is to simply design a system that uses only one network protocol for every network device unless the use of multiple network protocols is necessary.
A network switch is a required piece of hardware that acts as a network hub for every device connected to a system. Examples of devices commonly placed on a network include PLCs, HMIs (Human-Machine Interfaces), motor drives, and remote I/O chasses. Network switches are also often linked together to further grow the network. A network can get messy when there are too many devices. Therefore, another good practice is to isolate local devices specific to one machine onto a local network, and then provide separate network connections for higher-level devices, (like PLCs), to be placed onto a global (or plant-wide) network. This restructuring ensures that any controller in the plant can be accessed from any network connection as long as it is connected to the global network. The local networks ensure that machine-specific devices can communicate without bogging down the global network.
Consider Process Automation
Most manufacturers have systems that are critical to the operation of their facilities but that do not directly impact their manufacturing processes. Examples of these systems may include fermentors, water treatment systems, and systems that transport steam, hot water, or cleaning chemicals throughout the facility. Manufacturers who want to automate their facilities should consider how automation can be used to optimize these systems and processes. For this reason, they turn to process automation. Process automation differs from industrial automation in that it deals with the automation of a specific process (typically chemical or non-physical) that can be harmful to humans.
Typically, the process employs devices such as flow valves, differential pressure switches, and temperature probes. In some industries, ingredients used in the final product may rely on process automation. Similarly, certain machines may require utilities other than electricity to function properly (such as ovens, fermentation vessels, and air handling units). These automated processes typically get incorporated into the overall control system.
Many manufacturers are unaware of the process automation systems that already exist in their facilities. Electric power generation and air conditioning can both be considered applications of process automation. These types of applications are monitored by control loops, which allow for more or less of a medium into the process based on the physical measurements taken throughout the system. A good example of a small process automation system is an air conditioner. As the temperature within a room increases, the air conditioner works harder and uses more coolant to chill the incoming air to cool the room down to the desired temperature.
Process Automation Systems
Process automation systems are typically designed using P&ID drawings. These drawings detail how the control devices are laid out within the system. They facilitate the ease with which a complex system is visualized and are very useful in its construction. Once built, a P&ID layout is oftentimes employed to build the HMI screen used to monitor the system. Therefore, given how critical P&IDs are to ensuring the entire system works as intended, manufacturers who are looking to implement process automation into their facilities should consider using professional engineers. These professionals are not only trained in process automation, but they understand how the entire system interconnects at both a micro and macro level.
Given how automation has been shown to increase the profitability and efficiency of manufacturing facilities, it’s clear that manufacturers will continue to find ways to automate their facilities in 2020 and beyond. As detailed here, implementing automation in a facility is complex. Manufacturers must not only understand the ins and outs of their facility, but they must consider how each of their processes, networks, machinery, and control systems interconnect to meet their production goals. Manufacturers that want to implement automation in their facilities must take into consideration a variety of factors, from knowing which control systems to select, to deciding how their manufacturing processes and networks are managed, to knowing how to incorporate process automation. All these important decisions are best made with the help and guidance of a control system design expert.
Design experts can sift through the noise to find the best control system for a manufacturer’s facility. They can help determine the level of integration required to automate the manufacturer’s processes. They can identify how the machines involved in the production line interact with one another to provide the Manufacturer’s facility with a robust control network. And, perhaps most crucially, they ensure that this network seamlessly integrates all of the control systems into one single, cohesive system.
Making The Leap
In this fast paced and technologically mediated world, it is more important than ever to stay ahead of the game. Although automating a facility is a challenge, the return on investment is definitely worth it. Manufacturers who make the leap will quickly enjoy the benefits!