Industrial Automation Is Sneaking Up On You … Fast
According to data collected by PwC, the giant professional services network, manufacturers aren’t particularly optimistic about the future. Their data suggested that optimism has been slowly leaching out of the sector for the last couple of year at least (although that trend may have ended with the election of Donald Trump) and that manufacturing businesses are in trouble.
But this bad news has been somewhat counteracted by new trends in automation. Manufacturing companies may be able to shield themselves from rising input costs by removing thousands of tasks from their production process, currently undertaken by the human workforce.
Here are some of the industrial automation technologies that are sneaking up on us, fast.
Multi-touch was something that was first developed for the consumer world to enable customers to better interact with their laptops and tablets. But now the technology is increasingly making its way onto factory floors. Employers are becoming less accepting of traditional, button-based interfaces and single-touch panels and are demanding that their employees have access to superior, multi-touch technology.
Fortunately, the entire ecosystem is moving in this direction. Windows 10, for instance, includes multi-touch as part of its primary programming language, allowing businesses to transform consoles on their machinery and make them more interactive. Applications like Point of View from Automationdirect, mean that industries can now design their touch applications in a way that allows them to get the most out of them.
Industrial Automation Apps
Just as there is an entire ecosystem of consumer-facing smartphone and tablet apps, there’s also now emerging an ecosystem of apps for industrial purposes too. The hope with these apps is that they will take some of the guesswork out of running a plant and that they will give plant operators the ability to control their production lines from any location. Industrial apps provide owners and managers information about the state of their lines, as well as a quick dashboard overview of their status. The ability to control production means that, in theory, it will be possible to have a remote control factory. All processes will be overseen by a central app, and then that app will be able to either make changes on the fly, according to the user’s pre-programmed instructions, or send alerts to managers telling them that the need to intervene.
The Wireless, Industrial Internet
The ability of sensors in the production line to communicate with apps requires some sort of transmission mechanism. Given how many sensors there now are along modern production lines, simple wires can’t cut it anymore. Modern factories, just like the modern home, will be controlled through the Wireless router. Sensors will continuously communicate with the router in the plant, and then the router will transmit any data it collects to mobile apps.
The benefit of all of this are lower costs, thanks to the fact that factories no longer have to install wires connecting their sensors to a central computer, and up to date data. According to some estimates, the sector has grown from practically nothing in 2011 to over $500 million annually in 2016.
It used to be the case that if you wanted a fully automated production line in your factory, you had to start from scratch. But that’s no longer the case. One of the cool things that is happening at the moment is the fact that automation is coming to traditional production lines. Even things like electric coating ovens can now be integrated into fully automated environments. Integrating legacy equipment with modern production practices means that businesses will be able to save on their capital costs and keep their production methods consistent over time.
Unlike many of the new technologies now coming into the manufacturing sector, robotics is home grown. The first robots were put to work on a General Motors production line back in the 1960s, and now hundreds of thousands are employed, especially in China, Japan, and the US. Back then, robots could only be used in highly controlled environments and could only perform rote tasks. If conditions in the factory setup were altered even slightly, robots could not adapt, limiting their usefulness. Not much changed for about 50 years until around 2014 when technologists started applying deep learning to robotics. Before long, robots were learning how to adapt to new environments, ones that they hadn’t seen before. And this year, these systems are dramatically more advanced, thanks to improvements in machine learning environments.
Computer vision is allowing robots to see the world in which they operate and make decisions based on sensory input. They’re no longer blindly going about their business without a clue about what’s out there in the real world. Instead, they’re using things like sight and tactile feedback to work out whether they are getting closer completing tasks to which they have been assigned. This new technology is already being experimented with by companies like Amazon. Amazon already has more than 40,000 robots working in its fleet of warehouses in the US, shifting goods from one location to another. But it still has to use humans for part of the process, namely picking and packing products. The company wants to eliminate this element of human labor too by using robots that can adapt to differently sized, shaped and weighted packages, through extensive machine learning. Once its robots have the ability to grasp packages with different properties and put them in the right containers to be shipped, Amazon will then be able to save hundreds of millions more dollars in wage expenses, driving down prices for consumers.
Grid Computing And Virtualization
A large cost facing many businesses is the cost of computing. But with the rising power of individual computers, that cost may be about to plummet. According to Automationdirect, one particular type of industrial automation involves consolidating many server functions onto a single PC. But what does that mean in practice?
Essentially, it means that multiple instances of an operating system can function on a single PC. Virtual environments mean that other devices can access the PC, use it as a platform, and then disconnect when the service is no longer required. Businesses, therefore, don’t need to buy a new PC each time they want to give a user Windows functionality. Instead, they’ll consolidate the cost of intellectual property and use a single system to provide virtual environments for all connected users. Neat, huh?
Self-Directed Online Learning
Training employees used to be something that was almost exclusively done in-house and en masse. But now, thanks to the rise of internet learning, old-fashioned training is on the way out. It’s being replaced by a new wave of online courses and videos, compartmentalized in a way that is amenable to self-learning. As companies develop, the training needs of individuals across the organization will differ dramatically. Professionals in industry, therefore, will become increasingly responsible for their own learning needs. They’ll have to seek out the material that they need to master and put it into practice on the shop floor. E-books, video tutorials and even pre-recorded messages from head office will form the backbone of online learning. Professionals will become more like research students, focusing on a specialist area and honing their skills.
Manufacturing research used to be a slow process. Often it required going to distributors, getting them to send over the prices and catalogs, and then pouring over them before making a decision. But today, those in industry are moving to the internet, just as consumers have already in the consumer market. According to a Control Design survey, it turns out that industrial users now prefer to find products through the internet, mimicking what has already happened in the regular retail space. This is all thanks to the fact that search is much easier and because it’s possible to filter results by price, an important consideration for business.
Bring Your Own Device To Work
Employers were once skeptical of the benefits of BYOD policies. But after so many businesses have experienced so much success with them, it’s fast becoming mainstream practice. The obvious benefits of BYOD include employees being more familiar with their own systems and the fact that they will probably be more productive using their own devices. But there are also some significant additional benefits for business.
Notwithstanding a recent law in France the gave employees the option to ignore emails from work in the evenings and at the weekend, BYOD policies make it easier for businesses and employees to stay connected. On top of that, it’s also far cheaper to allow employees to bring their own devices to work than it is to supply each of them with a mobile device. Thanks to the ubiquity of various apps and platforms in the cloud, it’s easy for employees to access the relevant business services as and when they need them.
Industrial automation is sneaking up on us. Things will change slowly at first, but they’ll soon accelerate. Businesses need to be prepared; otherwise, they risk being left behind.