Intelligent Automation for Manufacturing: Part 1

Conveyor belt running through lightbulb

This article is a guest post from Alex Marcy, President of Corso Systems. If you have any questions for Alex about manufacturing automation, please contact him here or at 775.750.0540

Welcome to our three-part series where we will show you how to use process data, information from your business, and your team's talents and skills to improve your bottom line.

  • Part One: The path most manufacturers take to optimize their processes and business as a whole.
  • Part Two: Information and data analysis systems used to turn your operational data into useful information.
  • Part Three: How one of our customers has used these ideas and tools to improve their business across multiple facilities, and integrate with their corporate ERP system to simply workflows throughout their organization.

After reading this series, you will understand how information systems can help your company optimize its people, processes, and profitability.

Most of today's technology buzzwords, internet of things, industrial internet, situational awareness, manufacturing operations management, describe tools with a similar goal - provide more insight into your manufacturing process while integrating information from your plant floor with the rest of your company's systems.

Despite differences in implementation, the end result is the same - giving you information to make intelligent decisions about how to improve your manufacturing process, the business systems running your company and ultimately your bottom line.

A diagram called the automation pyramid describes the path manufacturers travel as they use automation and intelligent information systems to grow from producing hand-made goods to fully-integrated enterprises.

automation pyramid

Process Equipment

The first level of the pyramid, and the foundation of automation, is your plant floor equipment:

  • mixers
  • tanks
  • pumps
  • conveyors
  • bottling lines
  • packaging lines, etc.

The primary purpose of your plant floor equipment is to do the work someone would otherwise be doing by hand, saving time, resources, and OSHA paperwork.

Control Systems

The next level of the pyramid is process control systems, which reduce the amount of hands-on time required to operate your processes. Moving to this level requires the use of PLCs programmed to execute your process the same way day-in and day-out.

In addition to PLCs, staff-members need a way to interact with the process: this is where HMI/SCADA systems come into play. HMI/SCADA systems are the software your operators use to run the process. They give you a way to change process setpoints, monitor and respond to upsets, and give you basic historical trending tools.

Up to this level, all systems optimize the throughput of staff.

  • Process equipment removes the one-to-few throughput of producing goods by hand
  • PLCs make it possible to control multiple pieces of equipment at once
  • HMI/SCADA systems enable you to operate an entire process from one location

The bulk of time and resources will be spent getting to this point. Adding additional production equipment, processing lines, or facilities will be somewhat cheaper as you expand (due to the potential savings of reduced design/engineering time).However, you will still be incurring the cost of purchasing, installing and maintaining the equipment.

Instead of only optimizing the throughput of your staff, what if you optimized the throughput of your process? Using your existing infrastructure, you can expand production capacity without having to buy new equipment or hire new operations staff. This is the focus of the higher levels of the pyramid.

Making Information Work For You

The first level above HMI/SCADA is information systems, which includes process historians, advanced trending tools, computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS)/predictive maintenance, and reporting systems.

Process historians collect and store all of the relevant data from your processes for future analysis. The data can easily be analyzed using trending tools, giving you the ability to find interesting correlations between various pieces of equipment in differing process conditions.

A CMMS can be used to streamline maintenance workflows, giving operators the ability to quickly input work order requests, monitor their status in the HMI, and give maintenance staff information on process conditions leading to the initial upset. Predictive and condition-based maintenance tools allow you to maintain equipment based on actual run-times or conditions instead of on a calendar schedule, reducing the wear and cost of over- or under-maintaining equipment.

Data Analysis

As you collect more data, the burden of turning it info useful information is higher; data analysis provides tools to do this. Commonly categorized as a manufacturing execution system (MES), the insight gives you the ability to track overall equipment effectiveness (OEE), and other key performance indicators used to monitor the health of your process (“data analysis" is the focus of the next post in the series).

ERP Systems

The top level of the pyramid is where your process information systems are tied into the rest of the company through ERP systems. This typically includes inventory management, scheduling, shipping/receiving and tech support. You can use process data to give other departments real-time updates on production, while monitoring other systems for potential upsets such as late raw material shipments or low parts inventory.

The automation pyramid simplifies complex technology choices into a handful of categories. While the pyramid doesn't explain what software platform will work best for your operation, it gives you the ability to look ahead and start planning what tools you will implement next.

Looking at the technology landscape through the lens of the automation pyramid, we see most buzzwords are all part of the information system and data analysis levels. They are simply ways to collect data from your process and give you the tools to turn that data into useful information you can use to optimize your process.

This article is a guest post from Alex Marcy, President of Corso Systems. If you have any questions for Alex about manufacturing automation, please contact him here or at 775.750.0540