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How smart are you, really?

Whether it’s a factory filled with connected systems or a sensor-equipped coffee machine, ‘smart’ is undoubtedly one of the most widely used phrases of the digital age. The term has also become nearly synonymous with agility, efficiency and productivity. But are industrial business leaders and plant managers focussing on the right areas of the smart revolution? Stephen Hayes, managing director of Beckhoff UK, explains why you might be looking at smart manufacturing in the wrong way.

Speak with most senior managers or leaders in industrial businesses about what the future looks like for their companies, and you’ll inevitably hear many of the same things discussed. Most businesses are familiar with digitalisation, the rise of the industrial internet of things (IIoT) and the need for adaptable processes to confront unpredictable market conditions. As such, most speak in vague terms about adopting automation or smart technologies to reduce process inefficiencies, bolster productivity or gain better insight into plant operations.

Unfortunately, digging beyond this level of understanding is where a lot of uncertainty surrounding the benefits and true value of industrial connectivity becomes apparent. Although we are now several years into the Industry 4.0 boom of smart systems and digitalisation of industrial processes, much of the conversation is dominated by brands selling the latest ‘smart’ machines and systems. Many conflate achieving the benefits they seek with investing in a new piece of hardware or automation software.

This narrative — of making more data available from industrial equipment by investing in more sensors or new smart equipment — is not inherently bad, or even wrong. It’s been a vital first step in helping more industrial businesses connect systems and develop intelligent networks that provide valuable insight into previously obscured operational data.

It’s particularly impressive that engineering businesses — which, over time, have developed a reputation for being risk averse — have made the strides they have in digitalisation. The problem is, these strides have created a situation where many plants have a piecemeal set up of automation systems and devices. This presents issues in terms of connectivity and interoperability.

PwC noted one such barrier to digitalisation in its Industrial manufacturing trends 2019 report: “Technology in most [industrial manufacturing] organisations is fragmented, and the sheer complexity of connecting machines from different vendors on a shop floor, where numerous information technology and operational technology systems may be in use, is a headache that many companies would prefer to avoid.”

This compatibility headache divides the industrial sector into two types of businesses. Firstly, those who push on with innovation and attempt to resolve the piecemeal problem by investing in unifying communications systems or new equipment. Secondly, those which become reluctant to invest further until these digital technologies prove their value.

If business leaders are to achieve what they want from connected systems and smarter factories — that is, greater efficiency and productivity for operational flexibility and a buffer against unsteady markets — then we must change the conversation. We should look at efficiency at the data level in order to really derive value from these smart systems, rather than looking towards new machinery and equipment with more sensors.

Once an industrial business has its most important processes and machinery connected to control or monitoring systems, to aggregate and analyse performance data, the next step is to improve the speed at which this data is accessible and usable. Contrary to popular belief, this doesn’t mean getting a new system to analyse data. Instead, it means looking at the network on a communication level, to ensure the fastest and most efficient industrial communication protocol is being used.

In most cases for industrial businesses, the best option is EtherCAT high performance industrial ethernet, which can process more than one thousand input/output (I/O) points in as little as 30 microseconds. It achieves this by transmitting frames of information in a highly efficient way, so that each node on a network can respond in real-time as the frame continues to move downstream. This eliminates send/receive delays within industrial networks.

EtherCAT also eliminates the need for hundreds of fieldbus terminals, because it can be deployed from just one industrial computer terminal running a PC-based control suite, such as our TwinCAT 3 software system. So, not only can a network operate at its most efficient, it can also do so within a less cluttered structure.

What this means is that industrial businesses can ensure their systems are communicating in a highly efficient manner, which underpins every other aspect of modern industrial automation systems. If digitalisation is all about getting real-time insight into complex industrial processes that were previously difficult to monitor, EtherCAT ensures that real-time data is as instantaneous as possible.

With this level of rapid data transmission, it becomes far easier for businesses to optimise their operations and adapt — and therefore realise the true potential of the smart revolution. While we would never want to brand EtherCAT as a ‘smart communications protocol’, it does sound like an intelligent choice to me.

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