IT in Manufacturing

Towards the Smart Factory

February 2019 IT in Manufacturing

With much of the reported paradigm of Industry 4.0 resting on self-configuration of machinery and production lines, Omron’s Victor Marquess looks at what can already be achieved to get on the path to an Industry 4.0 future and the promise of the Smart Factory.

Mass production is giving way to shorter batch runs, just-in-time production and increasing levels of customisation, which demand the flexibility of the Smart Factory. Not only does this require more intelligent and sophisticated production processes, but also the ability to reconfigure everything from individual machines to complete production lines, without incurring delays between batches. And, as batch sizes become smaller, so the need for shorter changeover times becomes more acute.

Production line changeovers have moved from mechanical readjustments to a button push on an HMI, dramatically reducing reconfiguration times. But as the requirement for more frequent changeovers has grown, so has a need for greater intelligence in the self-configuration process. There is now increasing pressure on machine builders to deliver machines that are ‘Smart Factory ready’, and which can configure themselves quickly and with less operator interaction.

With the advanced integrated functionality of components such as PLCs, drives, servos, sensors, HMIs and robotics, plants already have the means to implement a Smart Factory production environment as everything required for self-configuration is already available.

Software is the key

For machine builders, programming self-configuration capabilities within the machine cannot be an afterthought. “Addressing self-configuration late in the machine design process always results in a less capable system, compromising competitive advantage and increasing development costs,” explains Marques.

Traditionally, programming this added level of functionality into the machine has been a challenging and time-consuming process, adding cost. And if there is little commonality from one machine design to the next, the economics of increased programming time might not add up. However, help is at hand.

Omron has focused on making the software side of development quicker and easier for those machine builders and end-users committed to the Industry 4.0 paradigm. The company provides a complete library of pre-written, pre-configured and pre-tested function blocks that dramatically speed up the programming of advanced functions at every stage in the machine development – not just at the end of the project. Modular and reusable, the function blocks can be dropped into the design as needed, and then simply embellished to meet the needs of the specific Smart Factory application.

There are currently more than 40 function blocks, to choose from, with more being written, tested and added all the time. Examples include motion control, path control, tension control, temperature control, servo settings, sensor set-up, vibration suppression and device operation.

While today’s requirement may be for shorter batch runs as a minimum requirement, the mass customisation envisaged by Industry 4.0 might be the base requirement in just a few years’ time. Indeed, many industries are already looking at so called ‘batch size one’ requirements, where every product coming off the line might be subtly different to meet the needs of individual customers.

“Omron’s function blocks mean that even the most sophisticated machine applications no longer need to be last minute considerations as an afterthought value add proposition,” concludes Marques. “Machine builders can begin to add advanced functionality such as self-configuration as part of the standard machine development process, helping to deliver all the competitive advantage that the Smart Factory concept promises.”


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