From the editor's desk: Manufacturing software and drone technology – two to watch

August 2015 News

Knowledge is the basis of any manufacturing endeavour. Therefore, when process nous is lost through the bulk retirement or resignation of skilled workers, one of the inevitable results is a drop in productivity.

In fully industrialised regions, like those of western Europe and the USA, the problem relates to the generation of baby boomers who have been running things since the late 1960s, and are now about to trigger a mass retirement event. In emerging economies, like those of Africa and Southeast Asia, there is a shortage of skills to start with, often compounded by political and socio-economic factors which drive the existing talent to find more desirable circumstances elsewhere.

Either way, the end result is a new generation of manufacturing workers, often tech-savvy, but without the process smarts hard-won through experience by their predecessors. Software assistance is at hand though, for those companies ready to use technology to preserve their manufacturing ‘brains’. To avoid the inevitable loss of capability experienced when the lion’s share of a skilled workforce departs, producers can now retain this expertise through the intelligence of a collaborative manufacturing execution system.

But, the problem is multi-faceted. On the one hand, process expertise gained over 30 or 40 years must be preserved through documents, while on the other, the next generation of workers is attracted by modern computer technology, not by ancient paper trails and the dirty side of manufacturing.

Enter the latest interactive manufacturing software platforms. These can help companies electronically capture the wisdom of the experienced process worker, while at the same time meeting the tech expectations of the next generation of production staff. When a worker undertakes a task that requires accuracy and precision, electronic tutelage delivered on an immersive HMI eliminates uncertainty and provides everything the line needs to work in an uninterrupted manner. Engineering specifications, safety directives, machine set-up and more are only a screen touch away. With all the information they need at hand, workers become more efficient and confident as they complete tasks. A system that guides operations seamlessly from one process step to the next greatly increases overall performance efficiency on the factory floor, much as an experienced operator would have done in the past. The ARC Advisory Group’s Janice Abel has more in 'MES and the new worker generation'.

Drone technology

In his report from Europe this month, Nick Denbow writes on another subject much in the local news lately. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) have been deployed in military applications for many years now, mainly for aerial reconnaissance, but sometimes also for deadly missile attacks against targets on the ground. For commercial purposes, Amazon brought the technology to the public’s attention with its bold idea to use drones to create an airborne courier system for the delivery of customer packages. Locally, the technology has also been trialled in crime fighting applications. Specifically, drones are used to follow suspected offenders fleeing from the scene of a police raid, which enables them to be recaptured before they evaporate on foot into the back alleys.

For industrial purposes, drones offer enormous potential in routine maintenance where inspections are required on equipment that is difficult to reach any other way. Typically of multi-rotor helicopter design and fitted with a camera platform, one of the first examples was a gas flare inspection at a UK petrochemical facility.

Apart from the development effected by the US and other military, rapid advances in wireless data communication and lighter battery and camera technology are opening up applications in the industrial space. Companies like Cyberhawk in the UK and South Africa’s own Knysna-based SteadiDrone are among the early adopters. Drones have the potential to reinvent the way remote inspection is accomplished, read all about it in 'Nick Denbow's European report: Drones for remote inspection'.

Steven Meyer

Editor: SA Instrumentation & Control


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