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Preventing Extensive Downtime From Equipment Failure

When updating or maintaining older equipment, it’s important to have maximum visibility into plant operations and make every investment dollar count.

As a company that specializes in automation controls, we field a lot of different requests from clients who want a quick budgetary quote to retrofit an older piece of equipment. These requests usually come in after a piece of machinery has failed and the company has encountered one of three scenarios: 1) The company doesn’t have any documentation. 2) The last person to work on this machine has retired, and no one has been trained. 3) Replacement parts have finally become too difficult to find, even on eBay. There are other reasons, of course, but most often a client is responding to some situation that has left the company exposed to a much larger downtime risk than previously thought.

I want to discuss two different prevention techniques in hopes of providing some insight for companies to consider as they wrestle with keeping equipment current—and we all do! First, don’t be caught off guard with not knowing how and when a piece of equipment is likely to fail. There are several software options available today that provide performance data and maintenance scheduling, helping companies avoid unplanned downtime. Second, consider a machine retrofit as a way of preparing for tomorrow’s manufacturing instead of just reacting to a problem with a rush to update the machine.

Software solutions for machine monitoring have come a long way in the past five years. I don’t know if it can be considered a “mature” market, but there are many established providers that have proven their solutions. Conveniently for users, there are several options available from complete software platforms that monitor everything from CNCs, robots, PLCs and test stands to simple offerings that are designed to provide real-time monitoring per single device. Regardless of your specific needs, be assured that you have options that can be found with some basic Google searching. To make matters easier, a lot of these software providers offer their solutions via a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model, which reduces the risk of overcommitting and lowers upfront costs.

All this to say that it is wise to seriously consider employing a machine monitoring software tool of some sort sooner rather than later. The advantages of doing so far outweigh the risk. Consider some of the benefits: scheduled maintenance events based on known wear, use or observed conditions; dashboard monitoring and/or reporting available via desktop computer or mobile devices; uptime and throughput reports to monitor trends; and automated alarming provides alerts that will send alert condition messages to supervisory personnel to facilitate an immediate response. With so many software solutions available provided as flexible options like SaaS, it is a good time to develop and implement a strategy that takes the guessing out of machine monitoring.

The second key aspect to keep in mind when maintaining or updating older equipment is when you evaluate a retrofit investment, consider what you can do to make that piece of machinery or that production line ready for the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). In the not so distant future, experts predict whole manufacturing floors will be populated by intelligent machines that are able to monitor themselves, schedule their own maintenance and provide constant monitoring. This future state will allow machines to interoperate and create dramatic efficiencies not possible today. Machines will do this by dynamically adjusting to manufacturing conditions to ensure maximum efficiency. Although all of what is predicted is very exciting, we won’t get there overnight. The clear majority of manufacturers will use a phased approach to slowly migrate equipment to Industry 4.0 requirements over the next decade, since very few companies have the luxury of starting their production strategies from scratch.

Companies can prepare for the future by utilizing their automation roadmap, or 3- to 5-year manufacturing plan, to ensure that any investment made in a machine retrofit will not only be applicable in the future, but will also be an advantage as they phase in more Industry 4.0 equipment. Learn why an automation roadmap is essential to remaining competitive. Not sure how to get started? Learn how to get started on an automation roadmap.

There are several software options available today that provide performance data and maintenance scheduling, helping companies avoid unplanned downtime.

Here are some important things to consider with a retrofit: network compatibility, whether wired or wireless; security protocols to ensure all data is protected; virtualization (consider server consolidation and thin client architecture); and an interface that provides operators and decision-makers with valuable information to make appropriate, timely decisions.

In today’s world, the information coming at us is unlimited and it can feel like we are constantly reacting to issues and scenarios. When updating or maintaining older equipment, it is crucial that we take a proactive approach. To do this, ensure you have maximum visibility into plant operations as described above and make every investment dollar count when you retrofit equipment to be fully prepared for tomorrow’s manufacturing.

As a final comment, integrators certified by the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA) can be an invaluable resource whether you are considering manufacturing software or creating an automation roadmap. Often, integrators have worked in a vast range of manufacturing scenarios and they can leverage that knowledge to the benefit of the client.

Michael Lindley is vice president of business development and marketing at Concept Systems Inc., a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association. See Concept Systems’ profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.

Automate Showcases Future of Industrial Robotics, And It’s Remarkable

Attending the recent Automate Show in Chicago was an extraordinary experience that allowed me and more than 20,000 other attendees an opportunity to peer into the future of industrial robotics. Being part of a company that is at the forefront of the industrial robotics and manufacturing automation industries still provides only one perspective, and Automate brought together leaders from all corners of the industry, such as Fanuc, ABB, Kuka, Keyence and Cognex, to showcase advances and share insights. The range of technologies on display that were designed to enhance processes, improve product quality and lower manufacturing costs was astonishing. I walked away from the show with a deeper sense of awareness of two notions: the rise of robots is upon us, and machine vision provides robots with the artificial intelligence that will forge the future of robotics in our increasingly globalized society.

The Rise of Robots

Material removal, end-of-arm tooling by Concept Systems

As many in automation are aware, robots are becoming an increasingly popular answer to completing dangerous or repetitive tasks: grinding, deburring, bin-picking, part inspections, etc. Several manufacturers and esteemed integrators assembled elaborate booths displaying various robot capabilities, many currently in use and others as possible future applications. This alone is indicative of the rise of robots, but it is only the beginning. The leading robot manufacturers all appear to be focused on making robots simpler to program/configure and easier to integrate with technologies that create incredible functionality. The result: collaborative robots.

The show floor featured a number of collaborative robots performing a wide variety of tasks from part handling to packaging, some even bagged candy to hand out or served ice cream in a cone. Using various sensing technologies, the applications for collaborative robots to work with human counterparts are infinite. Long gone seem to be the days of robots in hard guarding and being tucked away in the corner, wrapped in ominous metal fencing. Today’s robots are becoming more flexible in their range of applications, friendly in their interface, and free to be placed anywhere on the manufacturing floor.

Forging the Future

machine vision, part inspection, Concept SystemsAfter seeing the surprising versatility of machine vision applications on display at Automate, it became clear that machine vision is the technological advancement that will launch industrial robotics into the future. When combined with the interconnectivity of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and other smart tools such as mobile analytics, machines equipped with technologies like 3D embedded vision, multispectral and hyperspectral imaging, and deep learning will possess a primitive form of artificial intelligence that allows greater flexibility in application and the ability to actively learn processes without programming.

For example, Cognex and Keyence both have solutions that can compare 8-10 different part characteristics in a fraction of a second. These are designed to be mounted on the end of a robot so you have a complete solution that is capable of part picking and inspection. Part picking and part inspection are tasks that are often hard to fill and results can vary widely as operators tire throughout long shifts.

In another instance, Fanuc is working on developing the ability to configure a robot through learning instead of programming, specifically the capability to give a robot a task, like picking objects out of a bin and putting them into another container. In this scenario, once the robot it is configured it will spend some amount of time figuring out how to complete the task via trial and error, and within a short time the robot will have mastered the task as well as if it had been programmed by an engineer. It seems apparent that as we continue to combine advancing vision technologies with low cost, power processing abilities the future is endless as to what can be accomplished.

Although the next Automate isn’t until April of 2019, I highly recommend that you get this event on your calendar early and plan to attend. The Automate show attracts more than 20,000 visitors, all looking for new ways to enhance their manufacturing processes, lower production costs, and increase their competitive edges.