Wireless Communications Improve Safety and Efficiency in Manufacturing
18 Apr. 2017 Information
Manufacturing is a tough business. The ability to ship containers full of mass-produced goods all over the world means that factory owners are competing in an international marketplace. This puts such pressure on margins that companies either adopt a laser-like focus on incremental efficiency improvements or go out of business. At the same time manufacturers have a duty of care to their employees, who work with heavy machinery and alongside industrial processes that use chemicals and extremes of temperature and pressure.
Wireless communications can help boost efficiency through speeding up response times and removing the delays associated with trying to get through to engineers on cell phones. However, according to Klaus Allion, managing director of ANT Telecom: “Some manufacturing companies are still working in very antiquated ways”, with employees not having access to communications devices.
Integrated communication systems
, such as those supplied by ANT, allow users to press an emergency button that sends a text message to multiple potential first aiders, allows them to acknowledge it and say if they will respond. If no-one can the message is escalated and the system supplier can provide location data to other staff or the emergency services, if required.
Tips for manufacturers
What advice does Klaus Allion, managing director of ANT Telecom, have for manufacturers? “First look at your work and safety processes… to fully understand them and see where efficiencies can be gained so you know what you want to do. Also assess what you might want to do in a year or two’s time, and then look at all the available technology, ideally across a number of plants set in maybe slightly different environments and see what the best solution would be.”
He adds that not every plant is the same in terms of cellular coverage so one MNO might not provide adequate coverage to all the plants a manufacturer operates. “Not every plant is the same, so you need to look at your requirements reasonably diligently before you [decide] where to invest your money.” The same holds true for devices: “Look at where you use the equipment in a little bit more detail and make sure you are not going to provide your staff with equipment that you’re going to replace in half a year’s time; either because it’s broken or because no-one is using it.”
Machine learning and simulation
There’s growing use of machine learning to provide users with greater visibility of industrial processes. Andrea Carcano, co-founder of and chief product officer at Nozomi Networks, says that this has several benefits. From a cyber security perspective it allows a system to interpret commands and understand if someone’s attempting to disrupt the manufacturing process. A classic example of this type of attack is Stuxnet – a worm identified in 2010 – which is believed to have altered the behavior of uranium enrichment centrifuges to slow down Iran’s nuclear development programme.
In manufacturing there’s a danger that malicious changes to automated processes might not be detected until the affected products enter use, potentially creating huge reputational damage.
Carcano adds that operational benefits from using machine learning to understand industrial processes include faster troubleshooting, which reduces the need for emergency maintenance when misconfiguration damages a component.
One of the big ideas in this realm is the ‘digital twin’ concept; in which processes and products are simulated using data feeds from sensors on the field equipment, giving engineers much greater insight into what is going on internally to better optimise performance and maintenance in real time. This approach is being pursued by companies such as GE, Ansys and Siemens.
While sensor readings alone may be enough to determine that there is a problem, the digital twin allows users to see the effects changing various parameters would have without altering the machine’s physical process. GE demonstrated a digital twin in combination with an augmented reality headset and voice recognition at its Minds + Machines conference to show wear and tear in a steam turbine, where the trouble spot is, and two options to address the issue based on the turbine’s history, with the idea that in the field it would be possible to overlay the digital simulation on its physical counterpart.
The greater visibility and understanding provided by digital twins might also lead to new business models, such as expensive machinery being supplied as an asset under a service model (machines as a service). This is because it could give manufacturers the information on availability, costs and yields that is needed for drawing up contracts and make it easier to address issues remotely.
The international nature of some large companies is also creating a desire to manage assets across continents.
In November 2016 Nestlé announced it is using Telefónica Business Solutions to provide IoT communications for its coffee machines in more than 50 countries, which allows the firm to control the machines’ parameters remotely to optimise the end user experience.
Those looking to embrace the full potential of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT) shouldn’t forget that there are costs as well as savings.