All posts by sutton_precision

Political and Economic Reasons for Factories to Invest in Solar

Factory owners may be hesitant to proceed with previous plans to invest in solar energy due to a recent change in the ideological perspective of the current political environment in the U.S. and abroad.  But there is more to technological evolutionary change than surface political changes.

Contrary to popular perspectives, a surprising endorsement has emerged. Elon Musk has recently given his thumbs up to Rex Tillerson, the Exon Mobile CEO recently nominated for Secretary of State by our current president.  Yes, the industry leader of electric cars and solar energy, amongst others, is on the side of an individual who was the head of one of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies.  What’s going on here? Has the president managed to change the mind of one of the world’s most progressive and transformative energy individuals?

Elon Musk and Exon CEO

Surprisingly, Musk and Tillerson are both on the same page in many energy-related aspects.  They both have endorsed the idea of a carbon tax that encourages businesses to invest in sustainable energy and these seemingly diametrically opposed individuals are supportive of ongoing participation in the Paris climate accord which was signed by a total of 127 nations. Elon has actually joined the president’s advisory team and will possibly be working in conjunction with Tillerson to urge the administration to maintain the U.S.’s current position in the accord.

Government Renewable Power Projects

Additionally, in opposition to popular belief, the new administration recently released news of federal acknowledgement of renewable infrastructure projects that include a HVDC transmission line for moving wind power from Oklahoma to the Tennessee Valley Authority, another HVDC line from Wyoming for a wind farm to the southwest U.S. region, and another HVDA powerline transporting 1000MW of renewable energy from upstate New York to the Hudson in New York City.  These projects are all moving forward with the issuance of permits and some initial construction under the new administration.

China in Focus

With China investing in a five-year plan that includes the installation of 110 Gigawatts of solar power, the U.S. will need to keep up to be competitive by continuing to invest in renewable energy forms no matter what the political bend. Competition is a huge motivator when it comes to modernization.  Unless the U.S. wants to be left in the dark ages, we will be forced to keep up with alternative spending.

Because of anti-dumping laws and anti-subsidy duties in the U.S and Europe that were put in place to gain control over China dumping vast quantities of solar cells a few year ago, significant changes in the industry have developed.  The growth of solar cell manufacturers has increased throughout India and southeast Asia and has allowed increased solar manufacturing efforts to flourish. Although the anti-dumping protectionist laws are stabilizing prices in the near-term, it will eventually have an overall effect of increased competition, cell quality and cell efficiency through R&D along with lower prices through competition as time marches on.

Onsite Local Power Solutions

Additionally, the trend towards onsite local power storage solutions is moving forward with Tesla and Panasonic’s partnership Gigafactory in Nevada going online in 2016 set to pump-out 35 gigawatt hours of storage potential by 2018.  Not only will this factory be producing cells for Tesla vehicles, but also their Powerwall 2 residential storage and Powerpack 3 commercial and industrial scale power solutions.  Additionally, a company called Sunrun is ramping up its BrightBox residential solutions in California for battery storage to residential customers with visions for industrial solutions. These and other companies are developing connections with power utilities to help modernize the county’s energy infrastructure.  Solar storage solutions are becoming mainstream and with these storage innovations viable for not only the residential but the industrial factory sectors, growth will increase substantially.  From an industrial perspective, backup power for night and cloudy day use is becoming an affordable budgetary option. Combine this with the ability of factories to reserve their stored solar power potential for peak power pricing times and the affordability of storage solutions as an additional means of production cost savings is turning the tide for progressive manufacturing companies.

Conclusion

The world is changing in sometimes seemingly strange ways, but the one thing that will not change is the progress of solar, wind and other forms of sustainable energy no matter what occurs in government circles. Technology marches on and factory owners will always be looking for ways to leverage evolving technology to become more efficient and trim their operating expenses over time. Technology moves forward at an increasing clip and those not embracing it will be left behind in the old model struggling to compete with others who are pressing forward. With solar panels and their interface systems at an all-time low price-point and heading even lower with the push of nation states towards renewable sources, now is the time to consider investment in power from our perpetual, life-giving ball in the sky energy source.

Robotics Improve Sustainability in Factories

In today’s world of debilitating air pollution, acid rain, toxic landfills, acidic oceans and the ultimate environmental issue, climate change, as manufacturers, we are faced with doing our part to help overcome these earth imbalance and sustainability issues.  The question we must ask ourselves is: what can we do as manufacturing managers to make a difference?

While the word sustainability has been used and overused and may mean various things to different people, we address a multitude of sustainability as it applies to the industrial process control industry.  There is good reason to adopt a policy of sustainability as it will not only assist us in our factories being more efficient in addition to increasing our production and bottom line, but will also help to enhance our public perception as significant contributors to some of the problems listed above.

More Governmental Regulations

Worldwide governmental trends towards increased regulations along with new labor laws and continually increasing workforce expenses is making it tougher for manufacturers and product processors to compete.  Add to this hugely fluctuating and uncertain energy costs and widely swinging consumer demands for products, the manufacturing sector finds itself in one of the most difficult periods in its history.

Better Informed Consumers

Increased public awareness as a result of our vast sea of internet-connected resources in addition to the 24 hour news cycle has the allowed the average person to remain highly informed and become active in support of sustainable practices at an ever increasing clip.  Consumers are generally much more informed and in-touch with geo-politics and environmental issues than ever in the history of civilization.  Consumers are not standing on the sidelines any longer but driving policy and regulations. New environmental and product quality control legislation is evidence of this.

Robotics for Improved Sustainability

Modern industrial robotics can help manufacturers improve, not only sustainability, but better manage cost production costs and performance issues.

Sustainable practices can be significantly improved through the implementation of robotic automation.  Below you’ll find a list of issues supporting robotic capital expenditures.

Reliability

Vast improvements in product reliability and quality control resulting in improved consistency and better customer retention.  The happiness of the consumer is the ultimate goal. Through increased quality and consistency through the use of robotics, customer retention is maintained thereby promoting a more sustainable business model.

United Nations Report

Worldwide, the cost of energy is increasing at an extremely high rate.  Energy cost is one of the biggest expenses in the manufacturing world. Over the last ten years, energy has increased as much as 50%.  The need to reduce the use of energy as noted in a recent report by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) brings this subject to the worldwide audience.  The report discusses the urgent need for manufacturers to invest in energy efficient technologies in order to support sustainable growth, employment and the reduction of the effects of climate change.

Energy Usage Advantages

While many production managers errantly believe that robotics are responsible for a net increase use of energy, in the end this is not the case.  The fact that robots don’t need to work in bright lighting and don’t require the level of cooling a human workforce does during winter months, results in substantial savings in energy on factory floors.  The reduction of just 1 degrees centigrade in heating level can result in an energy savings of 8 percent.  Some factories report that robots save energy as much as 15-30% by optimizing the manufacturing process, reducing down-time, increasing throughput and helping to eliminate start-up phases that are almost always high energy intensive events. Some extreme examples of energy savings range in the70% range through the use of robotics in cold weather climate factories.

Reprocessing Improperly Made Products

Reprocessing reduction is another benefit of robotics implementation.   The increased reliability of robotics in avoiding the need to reprocess improperly made products will increase efficiency and sustainability.  Depending on the industry, improper product handling and procedures can result in a significant waste of source materials, energy, time to market and supply chain fulfillment schedules.  In the end the product that is not made properly the first time will result in reduced productivity, increased cost and cause sustainability to suffer. Robotics have a track record of consistent and reliable manufacturing ability that will dramatically minimize the effects of waste through reprocessing.

Small and Quick Change Processes

The ability of modern robotics to be much more easily programmed to handle production line changes in products and processes allows for much shorter downtimes of factory equipment.  This results in shorter change-over protocols between product process changes. The same robotics equipment can be used for multiple and readily-configured quick small change production operations. This factor as related to modern robotics automation is becoming increasingly important to maintain competitiveness and improve sustainability.

Twenty Four Hours

The implementation of advanced robotics enables longer and more consistent production times thereby better managing customer demands for products and retention of those clients.  The 24 hour production cycle is another advantage of robotics assisting with production cost reduction and better sustainability.

The Human Factor

Robots are making great strides in the areas of flexibility, maneuverability, speed, trustworthiness and other humanlike features as shown in the video below.  The increased use of robotics and automation is raising serious questions in relation to lost jobs and the eventual elimination of sustainable human capital and the ability for society to remain self-sufficient and stable.  There are historic examples that make for good arguments to this issue of human sustainability.  Throughout the eighteen hundreds and into the nineteen hundreds, the increased use of automation in dangerous, boring and dangerously toxic environments has improved the quality of life for industrial workers by retraining and freeing the labor force up for more dignified, safer and higher value jobs.  Retraining and the allocation of human resources to more advanced duties is crucial to a more adapted and sustainable workforce functioning alongside robotics.

Summary

In the end the evolution of robotics leading to a much greater prominence in all industries is inevitable.  The sustainability factor is one important aspect of the new age of robotics.  Production managers are encouraged to seriously weigh and consider the benefits offered to your plant and our environment in the implementation of robotics in your factory.


An example of the greatly improved speed and advanced capabilities of today’s robots is shown in the below video showing a competition pitting a very advanced robot against one of the world’s best table tennis players.

A Case for Smaller Food Processors to Deploy Robotics

The increased use of robotics in almost all industries is transforming factories into efficient and highly refined production centers, both across the nation and around the world. Breakthroughs in technology and robot manufacturing techniques have resulted in a more affordable generation of robotics.  Lower total deployment costs and other factors detailed below are increasing the prevalence of automated, efficient facilities at an ever-increasing rate.   The food manufacturing industry however lags behind in its robot automation prevalence.

The food manufacturing sector is one of the largest and most vibrant of all industries. In the United States it is responsible for about ten percent of all manufacturing shipments.  The diversity of the food industry is wide-ranging with small, medium and large providers located in large metro areas and remote locations.

In the lead-up to the mass adoption of robotics, food manufacturing managers found that the technology had some room for improvement as systems didn’t perform consistently enough, in part due to the inherent nature of the products handled.  Slippery, sticky, fragile and inconsistent size/shape food products resulted in handling issues and process variance that challenged the legacy robotic automation industry.

Small Verses Large Company Robotics Implementation

Food processing companies that fit within the smaller to medium size category constitute approximately 90% of the sector.   Deploying automation in these small to medium sized companies has been difficult.  Many factories have more modest budgets for both the initial investment and ongoing maintenance of these complex systems.  These smaller food processors have avoided or limited robotic technology due to cost of deploying top-tier robotics that can overcome handling issues.

Additionally, remotely located smaller companies find it difficult to obtain affordable maintenance and repair personnel who can respond in a reasonable amount of time. More remote factories are dealing with this additional deployment factor.

One further factor limiting smaller food processors from adopting robotics is that there is a tendency for smaller companies to acquire short-term orders rather than long-term fixed orders that larger food companies routinely handle. Short term orders lend themselves to more reconfigurations of processes. The expense of reprogramming and deployment of regular changing processes using robotics has resulted in a prevalence of a “difficult to justify” mentality for these smaller companies.

The confluence of the above factors have resulted in the continued use of limited automation with a resultant disproportionate larger human labor force for smaller food processors.

For these companies, packaging and palletizing operations at the end-line process has been one area that robotics implementation has shined, but with today’s lower acquisition and implementation cost for high performance robotics, many are considering expansion into their upstream processes.

Food Safety Factors Driving Increased Implementation of Robotics

In order to improve food handling safety and reduce contamination, the FDA implemented the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in 2011.  New smooth surface robots and improved designs allow modern robots to offer much better sanitary advantages over humans on food processing lines. The use of much tighter seals in modern robotics also provides for the improved locking-out of food contaminants resulting in safer food handling. The FSMA law in addition to the reduced cost of more sophisticated robotics will drive the deployment of these systems into a larger scope of industry in years to come.

Industrial Robots in Food Factories

Injuries and Worker’s Compensation Claims

Recent increases in worker’s compensation claims as a result of repetitive and heavy tasks are on the increase. The food industry in general has one of the highest injury rates in the manufacturing sector. * **   The injuries in the food processing sector tend to be more sever and chronic.  Some of the older, manual process equipment is faulty from repeated overuse, in a poor state of maintenance and at times incorporates defective designs.

Food Cost and Waste Reduction

Everyone is aware of the steady increase in food prices; it’s a significantly large factor of inflation in general. The cost of food is at a historic high for consumers and for factory owners alike.  Waste in food processing must be kept to a minimum.  In order to sustain profit margins and remain competitive, manufacturers are looking for every possibly advantage to minimize waist. Today’s advanced robotics offers unparalleled waste reduction protocols.

Conclusion – Consider all The Factors

Many owners and managers in charge of smaller factories may be hesitant to upgrade their processes to robotics due to some of the legacy issues detailed above.

Improvements in robotics handling and technology reducing the cost to implement are allowing otherwise previously minimally automated smaller food processors to justify the expense of installing robots in their factories.  Health and safety handling standards are additional motivators towards moving into the automation pathway.  A qualified workforce that does not succumb to injuries inherent with repetitive factory tasks and increased assembly line speeds are becoming more difficult to maintain.  Additionally, increased food cost and waste reduction processes robots empower are paramount to the bottom line.

If you are a decision maker of a food processing facility, it may be time to do your homework in order to step into systems that will help your company grow with the times, improve your product’s safety and increase net profits over the long-term.  Overall, it may be the competitive difference as to whether your company survives or thrives in the 21st Century.

* U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Injuries, Illnesses, and Fatalities in Food Manufacturing, 2008 (Jan. 21, 2011), p. 1 California Department of Industrial Relations, Cal/OSHA Consultation Service, Ergonomics in Action (2003), p. 2. ** BLS News – Injuries Food Manufacturing

 

Industrial Robotics in Today’s Factories

Factories in the U.S. and other manufacturing countries are preparing for the influx of lower priced, better and easier to program robotics to integrate into their manufacturing processes.  The current growth rate of robotic factory implementation is somewhere around 3% per year.  In the next couple of years, the growth rate is predicted to be 10% per year according to the global consulting company, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). By the year 2025, the BCG predicts that approximately 1,200,000 new robots will make their way to factories in the United States.

Factors Driving Industrial Robotics

Driving the new factory robotics trend are better manufacturing techniques, easier programming methods, improved robotic gripping and vision sensors, and more affordable robotic components in general. These factors are expected to dramatically reduce the price of factory robotics and their implementation, making them more reachable to a larger number of manufacturing companies and processes.

As an example to the above, the cost to deploy an advanced robotic spot welder has dropped significantly from $182,000 in 2005 to $133,000 in 2014.  The price is expected to drop another 22% by the year 2025.

The BCG says that the main manufacturing industries affected will be the transportation sector (autos and trucks), appliances, computers along with consumer and industrial electronics and electrical equipment.

Displaced Jobs?

Many experts in the field believe that by as early as the year 2029 robots will reach the level of human intelligence.  They also believe that up to one third of jobs will be replaced by robots. Gone are the days where robots were considered for such jobs as spot welding automobiles and doing only dirty, dull and dangerous work. Today’s and tomorrow’s robotics are poised to significantly affect almost all industries. Even fields that typically don’t elicit the consideration of robotic inclusion.

Using robots to replace employees is expected to result in a manufacturing workforce that’s 22% smaller than it would have been without robots by the year 2025. But the payrolls of these factories are still expected to increase due to increased economic demand and the new trend of manufacturing companies reversing their previous decades-long practice of sending jobs offshore.  Many large and small companies are engaged in returning these jobs back to America.

Robots in Medicine

One such example of new industry usage of robotics is where they have been unleashed in the medical industry for a multitude of applications. It all started in the year 2000 when the FDA approved the Vinci Surgical Assistant System which is used for remote surgery purposes.  Since then, tiny magnetic microbots are being used to scrape plaque from arteries and improve ocular conditions. Doctors use personal medical assistant robots to help care for patients in hospitals.  Additional robotic devices such as the Bestic Arm help disabled individuals eat.  While robots like Toyota’s Healthcare Assistant help others to walk again.

The Autonomous Vehicle

Essentially, the autonomous self-driving car introduced by Google is more of a robot than a car.  Capable of advanced decision, making in critical life-sustaining situations, these robots utilize artificial intelligence, sensors, GPS, along with radar, lidar and computer vision techniques to safely maneuver on public streets without an operator.

Given rapid robotics advancements and increased deployment, the vision of a jobless future seems very possible.  But history tells a different story as in the industrial revolution.  Many experts back then believed modern factories of the day would displace workers.  As it turned out, the jobs that were replaced simply gave-way to more advanced and diverse employment opportunities exhibiting a net-zero job loss or even job gain.
Industrial Robots in Factories

Industrial Robotics Arms

The robotic arm is used for most factory industrial work today. They are used extensively for welding, placing parts and painting operations. As of this writing, a typical 6 axis robotic arm made by a company called Fanuc may cost approximately $50,000 to $70,000. This does not include deploying the arm which adds additional amounts for programming and the tools used by the robot.  This could easily add another $200,000 to the total deployment cost.  In these situations, the actual robot itself doesn’t account for the majority of the entire deployment amount. These additional costs and time factors for programming must be strongly considered when replacing workers with robotics.

Easier Programming Methods

Many companies are hesitant to change from conventional CNC machines to robotics due to programming the expense and time-intensive nature of robots.  A recent glimmer of hope come from advances in robot programming techniques from a company called Robotmaster.  This company has vey innovatively found a way to utilize CAD/CAM software files to directly program and reprogram robots eliminating the high time and cost intensive programming phase for deployment.  Robotmaster’s system seamlessly integrate programming, simulation and program generation to any CAD/CAM platform. Manufacturers can program robots quickly and efficiently now with these new generation tools.  This recent development significantly contributes to the potential to spur growth of robotics in factories around the world.

Types of Industrial Robots and Robotic Companies

In most cases an industrial robot consists of a single articulating arm devoted to a specific repetitive process.  There are many types and manufacturers designed for various factory manufacturing processes and tasks.  This may include welding, painting, palletizing, material handling and assembly. The type of robot used depends on the job it needs to perform, its movement, precision and safety concerns.  As most robots are very fast and strong lacking the ability to safely work around humans, most currently require protective cages and/or other safety measures in order to limit possible human injury.  However, a new breed of robot is emerging that can safely work around humans called the collaborative industrial robot.

SCARA Robots

As of this writing Adept Technology is the largest robot company in America.  They lead the world with the most common industrial robot known as the SCARA.  This acronym stands for Selective Compliance Articulated Robot Arm. The SCARA is a single arm device that is commonly called a “pick and place” robot. Extreme precision is obtained by the use of three joints in the horizontal plane allowing it to be accurately positioned and oriented parallel to the plane. It also incorporates a linear joint for z positioning.

Cartesian Robots

A Cartesian or linear robot is an industrial robot that moves in three directions using linear slides and motors.  These robots move only in straight lines along specified points or coordinates rather than rotate as a conventional robot.  Think of a graph or plotter that moves in “x” and “y” coordinates and a “z” axis representing the “up/down” direction.  A typical application of this type of robot would be a computer numerical control (CNC) machine.  These are used for milling and drawing where a router or pen moves across an x-y plane as a tool is raised and lowered onto a surface to create a precision template or drawing.

Six Axis and Redundant Robots

Six axis robots allow for the full movement of their tool in a given position.  As the name implies, they have 6 axis of movement to include 3 translations and 3 orientations.  Redundant robots can utilize a tool in a specified position in various postures or attitudes. This can be compared to an actual human arm’s movement where the shoulder and elbow joints allow for many different attitudes or positioning of the arm while maintaining a tool in a given position.

Dual Arm Robots

Certain processes require the use of dual arms that work collaboratively together for a given purpose much like a human worker.  These are typically called dual arm robots.  Both arms can work together, yet perform separate processes on a specified piece.  An example of a dual arm robot in operation would have one arm picking up and holding a component while the other arm uses a tool to perform a specified operation on the component such as drilling or milling.  After the process is completed on the component, the first arm would place the component in a designated receptacle and then once again pick-up another piece for work by the second arm again.

Serial and Parallel (Spider) Robot Types

There are two sub categories or types of industrial robots, serial and parallel. Serial robots are comprised of a single arm with a series of joints and links along the arm from the base part of the robot to the end where the working tool is held and the tool’s movement controlled.  Parallel industrial robots, otherwise known as spider robots consist of a base with multiple arms that work in parallel with each other on a common tool at the end of the arms to perform a singular job.  These are usually used for assembly work and found extensively in circuit board assembly processes where the component such as an integrated circuit is inserted into a circuit board that moves below on an assembly line.  The arms work collaboratively together in a more limited space to perform a given job.  They will usually have less overall movement and are used in more restricted working areas along an assembly line.  Think of both of your hands holding a drill motor or other tool thereby adding more limitation to your area of work. Parallel robots typically have greater acceleration due to the fact that the actuators all sit at the base and don’t need to be moved.

Industrial Robot Manufacturers

Larger industrial robotic companies make a wider range of robots, while the smaller companies produce more limited and specialized robots designed for specific purposes.  Some popular brands of industrial robot manufacturers include Adept Technology, Yaskawa, Kuka, and ABB, Fanuc, Motoman, Denso, Comau, Kawasaki and OTC Daihen.

Summary

The automation world is changing fast and robots will play an increasing part in factory production and processes of the 21st century. It’s important for manufacturing managers and engineers to keep up with the latest in

Automation Process Control History

Introduction

From the very beginning when Henry Ford invented the first entirely human powered automotive assembly line for his Model T, the ongoing quest for better processes and ways to automate factories has been the goal.  While Henry could never imagine the automation systems we take for granted today, he and his contemporaries like Karl Benz of Mercedes Benz were continually looking to streamline and improve the process of building automobiles.  As electronics and the use of computers in control systems became the norm, factory floors and control rooms have become robotic and sophisticated marvels as they continue to evolve towards the future.

Today, we are able to automate and increase productivity far beyond the capabilities of the early pioneers utilizing modern developments of the computer and microprocessor age that includes programmable logic controllers (PLC), distributed control systems (DCS), human machine interfaces (HMI) and a huge variety of actuators, sensors, displays, lasers and other sophisticated technology that has transpired since those early factory days.

Before the assembly line, only the wealthy could afford an automobile.  Henry Ford was responsible for dramatically lowering the manufacturing price of automobiles and his early efforts helped to lay the foundation of our industrial automation systems of today. These processes and technology have evolved to the point that not only the automobile has become a common product for the masses, but almost all products sectors have become within reach of the average citizen.

The First Computer Based Industrial Control System

The first industrial computer control system used in a factory was assembled in 1959 at Texaco’s Port Arthur, Texas refinery.  This initial foray into the first industrial computer-based control system utilized a Ramo-Wooldridge Company model RW-300 computer. This computer was specifically designed as a control system computer. The RW-300 sported a state-of-the-art magnetic drum memory system.  After the successful deployment at Texaco, they sold this system to various companies with their focus on promoting the system in the electric power station and nuclear power plant control arena. The Ramo-Wooldridge Company created additional advanced process control computers but got out of the commercial marketing of computers about the same time as they changed their name to TRW Inc. in 1965.

Minicomputer Based Systems

Industrial automation systems of today have their roots in the late 1960s and early 1970s as minicomputer based controls became more prevalent. As central control rooms with their huge and complex analog relays, wire looms and control panels gave way to centralized computer mainframe control rooms, industrial automation began to see the benefit of computerization.

As the Minicomputers came on the scene in the mid-60s and early 70s, the large mainframes of the late 50s and 60s started to slowly disappear from factories in favor of more distributed control systems.  These distributed systems were being developed in the late 1960s but not perfected until the early 1970s.

The IBM 1800 was an early minicomputer that had input/output hardware to gather process signals in a plant.

Distributed Control Systems (DCS)

Distributed control systems for the most part took off due to the increased availability of microcomputers and the abundance of microprocessors in the world of process control. Larger minicomputer based systems had already been used for process automation prior to the microprocessor phenomenon mostly in what was considered direct digital control (DDC) and set point control.

The pioneering technology of distributed control systems (DCS) was the brainchild of engineers at Honeywell and a Japanese company called Yokogawa, which actually successfully installed a working DCS system prior to Honeywell. Honeywell’s first commercially viable product was the Honeywell TDC 2000 introduced in 1975, with Yokogawa’s being the CENTUM[3] in the same year. These systems were designed to integrated production control for petroleum refineries, petrochemical, chemical, pharmaceutical, food and beverages, paper and pulp, steel and non-ferrous metals, cement, power, gas, water and wastewater industries.

These systems were more distributed forms of control but not entirely a true distributed control system as we know today.  The TDC 2000 still had large clusters of computer hardware in giant cabinets containing huge amounts of input/output equipment.

This advance in technology quickly brought substantial profits to the Honeywell with almost $100 million in revenue obtained in the first year alone.  Besides Yologawa and Honeywell, other companies such as Taylor, Bailey and Foxboro jumped on the DCS bandwagon contributing to a new era in factory automation.  Back in the 1970s distributed control systems were widely responsible for the fastest growing segment of business in the automation industry.

The PLC Revolution

Almost concurrent with the development of DCS systems came the programmable logic controller (PLC).  Designed to replace less reliable and cumbersome relay logic, the PLC was designed initially to meet the continuously changing needs of the automobile industry.  This industry demanded regular model changes and factory configurations that required an easier method of reconfiguration.  The PLC met this need and helped to change and innovate both large and small industrial applications.

Prior to the advent of the PLC and DCS, yesteryears relay control systems encompassed huge walls of relays, terminal blocks and miles of wiring.  They were troublesome, inflexible, lacked easy re-programmability, and were power hogs.  The new technology of PLCs opened up a world of innovation and easy reconfiguration capabilities for factory automation.  Relay control systems were difficult to troubleshoot and maintain exhibiting continuous problems due to dirty contracts and loose wires providing a nightmare scenario for control engineers and technicians. Complex system documentation was typically not updated properly and difficult to decipher.  A saying was born amongst those responsible for maintaining and troubleshooting these systems as a result, “five hours to find it and five minutes to fix it.”

General Motors Specification

By 1968 one of the giants of the automotive industry had it with these troublesome relay control systems when a group of engineers at General Motors Corp, headed by Bill Stone delivered a paper detailing criteria for a standard machine controller at a Westinghouse conference.  The specification for this new technology detailed the desires of GM to include the following: full logic capabilities, extending static circuits to 90% of the plant machines, a modular design to enable future expansion and ease of replacement, inline programming capability using ladder logic and the need to work continuously in a heavy industrial environment impervious to vibration, dirt, moisture and electromagnetism.  These specifications were submitted to Allen-Bradley, Digital Equipment Corp, Century Detroit and Bedford Associates to come up with a solution.

The First PLCs

After entries from DEC, Allen Bradley and Bedford Associates were presented to GM, Bedford Associates, won out with its Modicon 084 programmable controller (PC) in 1969.  Dick Morley and his team of engineers at Bedford ended up creating a new subsidiary at Bedford Associates called Modicon as a result of their success with the 084 in 1973 which addressed a lot of additional needs of the marketplace.  With this success the parent company some tax issues called the dissolution of Bedford Associates and they simply became Modicon.

Allen-Bradley and other Companies Make their Move

Later in 1971, engineers at Allen-Bradley developed what they called the programmable logic controller (PLC).  It included many improvements that they missed in their first model presented to GM in 1969 called the programmable matrix controller (PMC). The new Allen-Bradley PLC was named the Bulletin 1774 PLC and became highly successful in the automation market.  The name PLC became the preferred industry as the acronym PC was more associated with the personal computer at the time.

The early 1970s witnessed the birth of the PLC model of factory automation and other companies joined-in with entries of their own. Some of the more well-known companies included General Electric, Industrial Solid State Controls and Square D.

Modicon and Allen-Bradley had their early leads in the industry and a new era of industrial PC and PLC automation was at hand.

Computers not trusted for Industrial Processes

Back in the early years, the acceptance of computerized controllers were difficult at best because of the perception at the time that computers were inherently failure prone to heat, vibration, dirty factory environments and software glitches.  Operating systems were known to lock-up from time to time and be unreliable. Many factories were hesitant to put their processes in the hands of such new and untested technology.  They also felt that a small box filled with microprocessors and software could not possibly replace a room full of cabinets filled with relays and miles of wire.

PLC Manufacturers Fight Back

A major effort was launched by the manufacturers to disassociate and realign the perspective that PLCs were run by computers. After all, while they were microcomputer based, they were in fact proprietary, specialized microcomputers that were designed from the start to be reliable, dedicated to their task and much less vulnerable to the ills of other computer systems of those days.

PLC Automation Company Changes

Bedford/Modicon was eventually purchased by Gould Electronics in 1977 and then to Schneider Electric in 1997.  Allen-Bradley was purchased by Rockwell Automation in 1985 yet their products and software still wear the Allen-Bradley name.

Third Party Software Companies

In addition to the above concerns, factory engineers didn’t like the fact that these early PLCs needed to be programmed via a dedicated and proprietary hardware terminals that were very cumbersome and difficult to navigate and program PLCs.

Scott Zifferer the co-founder of a company called ICON Software and Neil Taylor, owner of Taylor Industrial Software worked on software that allowed for a general computer interface helping drive acceptance of the PLC model of industrial automation. Previously, huge drafting tables were required for layout and programming of ladder logic and no troubleshooting and documentation abilities existed for using the original terminals.

Scott was focused on Allen-Bradley PLCs while Neil specialized in Modicon. They both successfully developed general computer interfaces for programming and documentation that dramatically improved workflow and eventual acceptance of the PLC as replacements for walls of relay panels and/or centralized computer systems.

This new software changed everything; Industrial automation was on a path of dramatic growth. ICON eventually was purchased by Rockwell Automation in 1993 and Taylor Industrial Software was sold eventually to GE Fanuc. Today ever evolving and easily programmed and documented PLC systems are part of industrial automation.

The 80s and 90s

Industrial automation continued with a vibrant period of growth and innovation through the 80s and 90s with smaller and smaller PLCs being developed due to the evolution of semiconductor integration.  True distributed, redundant and much smaller and easily scaled and systems with much greater reliability became the norm.

Distributed systems require highly reliable and fast digital communication methods as the distributed components must accurately talk to each other. The 80s witnessed the need for these distributed systems to become more open and interoperable in their communication.

Thanks to the Department of Defense, in the 80s, UNIX took over as the predominant standard with its TCP-IP network communication technology.  Concurrently and during that period, manufacturers began to develop Ethernet based systems with their own proprietary protocol layers.

The 1980s saw the beginning of PLCs becoming integrated into the distributed control system (DCS) infrastructure.

Internet technology had a profound effect on industrial supervision and control with most human machine interface (HMI) devices becoming fully TCP/IP compatible.

As far as input/output devices, digital FieldBus technology took over for the sensor 4–20 milliamp analog communications medium.

The 90s observed a huge transition in the move from the UNIX operating systems to the Windows environment. Microsoft ruled with the desktop and server layer Object Linking and Embedding (OLE) standard. This lent itself perfectly to distributed process control systems.  The standard “OLE for Process Control” or (OPC) was the result and became the industry standard connectivity method.

Commercial off the shelf (COTS) components and the large scale adoption of IT standards drove the 1990s evolutionary process.  Through the 90s previously PLC focused COTS suppliers such as Rockwell Automation and Siemens were able to offer lower priced DCS systems. In the meantime, the traditional suppliers of DCS systems were feverishly working on integrating the concepts and functionality of both DCS and PLC standards that they called “Process Automation System” (PAS). This utilized the latest Communication and IEC Standards of the day.

The next evolutionary step of PAS technology is called Collaborative Process Automation Systems (CPAS). This new technology will continue to allow for process control but will also turn also serve as the primary source of manufacturing data and information for what is called collaborative manufacturing management (CMM) applications. This integrated approach takes place all in one dynamic environment.

Back to Centralized Systems and New Connectivity Dangers

Ironic as it may seem, the move away from distributed systems towards centralization systems at the plant level is now the norm. Along with this, wireless communication protocols and embedded servers directly implanted in DCS controllers are a reality in today’s factories.  This introduces full wireless web access to the factory floor. The human machine interface (HMI) possibilities become much more flexible and remote with these innovations. Process control monitoring and even supervisory control are possible and readily available from many plant equipment manufacturers with remote computer and even smartphone accessibility now possible.  This opens up the world to our factories and begs for additional layers of security to address potentially serious safety and process sabotage concerns as a result of unauthorized access.

Innovative Stagnation Period

The negative growth as a result of the ushering-in of the Great Recession of 2008 has brought about much stagnation over the last several years in the world of industrial automation. A vibrant and dynamic trade show known as ISA drew tens of thousands of attendees in days gone past.  Unfortunately, this once transitional event that yearly featured evolving and exciting automation technology became more of a technical symposium for a period of time a few years back.  ISA was drawing only a small vestige of its former glory days of the 80s and 90s.

Moving forward today

Luckily, today in 2015, with a renewed thrust of economic vitality, we are seeing innovative technological ideas once again, but with some measure of hesitation and watchfulness. Driving this trepid leap forward is an economy that is still not quite sure of its footing. Renewed capital investment in the latest innovations in factory automation are limited with restricted momentum in manufacturing growth.

Industrial Automation – System Security Protocols

More than ever security is a crucial part of factory automated control environments.  When control systems are exposed to interconnect networks such as the Internet, potential intrusions and system hacks become an everyday concern. Even if a control system is entirely isolated from external access, malicious computer risks can enter a control system via a thumb drive or employee laptops.  Not only are system processes at risk, but in highly volatile industrial settings, potentially life and limb are in jeopardy.  Evolving and evermore sophisticated threats require evolving compliance with certain national and international security protocols.

Predictions for the Automation Industry

The Pew Research Center recently conducted a survey of 1,600 top experts with specialties in Internet services, networks and computer systems.  The result of the survey indicated from these industry experts say the writing is on the wall for the industrial process control industry worldwide.  Within the next 10 years these experts predict a major cyberattack will bring extensive harm to industries and include significant loss of property, equipment and facilities damages and other losses that will tap industries to the tune of tens of billions of dollars.

Recent Breaches at Large Corporations and the Government

Recent security breaches of major corporate and government networks lay testament to the fact that not enough prevention and proactive implementation is taking place. Recent news stories about intrusions into large retailers, motion picture companies, insurance companies and even the US governmental entities are indications of the sad state of cyber security. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Director Katherine Archuleta said at a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that “In an average month, OPM, for example, thwarts 10 million confirmed intrusion attempts targeting our network. These attacks will not stop — if anything, they will increase.” She went on to discuss the state of constant attack to both government and non-government entities by sophisticated and well-funded entities.

Most vulnerable

Some of the most critical industries at risk for potentially devastating cyber damage include power generation, water treatment, refineries and other essential industrial facilities.

Consistent Training

On the factory floor end, Industrial best-practice security standards along with consistent and updated staff training through reinforced efforts are crucial to prevention. On the hardware and software end, finding a supplier that is proactively and fully occupied in cyber security is an initial best practice.

Automation Security Standards Organizations

A standard’s body heavily engaged in the security industry is the International Society of Automation (ISA), the current leader in security standards and implementation. They have formed a specialized organization with the sole purpose of increasing standards of security called the Automation Federation.  Additional organizations include the International Electrotechnical Commission’s (IEC) security working group (TC65 WG10) and the Industrial Control System Joint Working Group (ICSJWG) established by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Control Systems Security Program (CSSP).

Factory Consultants is Dedicated to Security

When deciding on hardware and software control system purchases for your factory, today’s dangerous interconnected world insists that you align yourself with a company that is dedicated to security and a member of security standards development bodies.   Factory Consultants maintains a mindset of security first and that is why we align ourselves with vendors and systems that make security protocols a top priority.

The Job of the Systems Integrator

System integrators in the automation and control industry are essential to the modern factory environment to ensure their effective and safe operation. They bring numerous divergent factory subsystems together into a cohesive process that accomplishes specific factory production tasks. They are typically solutions-oriented individuals capable of programming, maintaining and repairing the equipment that is responsible for important factory processes.

Automations systems integrators must be capable of handling many diverse technologies and be proficient in a wide range of disciplines. They must provide results in a mission critical and time sensitive production environment where their services are directly linked to a company’s production capabilities—and ultimately—its profitability.

System Integrators typically align themselves closely with vendors in the automation industry. This is crucial as access to timely technical support, products and resources is critical as the factory and company bottom line is at stake.

Organizations

The organization in the United States for Systems integrators in the automation industry is called CSIA (Control System Integrators Association). This group provides a central point and implements best practices for the industry by bringing together a collective community of automation systems integrators. CSIA resources allow members the opportunity to improve their technical and business skills and interact with each other via online forums for sharing industry expertise and solutions.

Skills and Requirements for Automation Systems Integrators

  • Provides expert technical guidance and the ability to diagnose complex control system processes, ensuring proper operation of numerous factory automation and robotic systems with a limited amount of down time.
  • Performs installations, start-ups & commissioning of new factory systems as required.
  • Provides timely response to diagnose the source of a problem by analysis of system requirements, testing of components, and recommends corrective actions.
  • Troubleshoots communication wiring, programs and schedules local programmable logic controllers and human machine interfaces and identifies concerns to determine an effective corrective action.
  • Maintain a significant command of ladder logic using software such as RSLogix 500 and RSLogix 5000 used in PLC programming.
  • Be proficient with HMI development applications such as FactoryTalk and RSView 32 along with extensive familiarity with applications for programming HMI panels such as PanelView and Maple Systems.
  • Maintains proper set-points, sequences and ensures schedules-of-operation are correctly programmed.
  • Determines equipment needs and maintains a parts inventory required to ensure reliable system performance for various factory systems.
  • Performs inspections and preventive maintenance tasks for control systems including point-to-point check-out, sensor calibration, and software back-up.
  • Ensures proper Measurement and Verification (M&V) equipment functionality, including accurate data recording and storage.
  • Must be able to collaboratively coordinate work with other trades in a factory environment.
  • Due to the mission critical nature, these individuals must be available for on-call or emergency service response.
  • These individuals will many times work in a high pressure, mission-critical environment. They will be expected to maintain certain inherent qualities. These will include but are not limited to a sense of duty to maintain a safe and effective factory, a customer oriented focus, interpersonal savvy, a drive for results, efficient planning, priority setting, time management skills, superior organizational skills, a natural problem solving ability.

The Process Control Industry

Factory Consultants explores the process control industry with a growing list of articles surrounding the industry, trends and directions. Click on an article below.