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Advanced Engineering 2021

NEC Birmingham(B40 1NT)

03/11/2021 - 04/11/2021

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Actionable information holds the key to increased productivity

Actionable information holds the key to increased productivity

In the face of ever increasing operational pressures, manufacturers across all industry sectors are working hard to boost productivity, focusing on areas such as OEE, process optimisation, smart manufacturing, improved asset utilisation, improved agility and increased flexibility. We talk to Mark Daniels, business manager for automation at Rockwell Automation, who argues that the key to uplift in all of these areas is 'actionable information'.

Regardless of sector, it has become a fact of life that today's manufacturers are having to contend with increased global competition, reduced technical and operational resources, higher raw material and energy costs, stricter environmental regulations and growing customer demands. A key factor in how successfully a company deals with these pressures is the effectiveness and efficiency of the production process. The companies that can boost productivity will see the greatest returns in profitability.

But what do we mean when we talk about increasing productivity? It is not simply about lines and processes that run faster, although that will always be an element of the argument. More importantly, it is about lines that run more effectively, with greater uptime, reduced waste and lower energy consumption. It is about making the best use of the assets available. It is about rethinking the production methodology, enabling the introduction of a greater variety of higher value products, more frequent changeovers and shorter production runs. And it is about tying the production line in more closely with higher level systems and the wider supply chain to enable a transition from product-driven to customer-driven operations.

Viewed as a whole - as a single-step transition from current production methodologies - this new vision of increased productivity might seem nigh on impossible to achieve. But actually it can be managed in any number of steps, either small or large, and the key in every case is 'actionable information'.

Mark Daniels, business manager for automation at Rockwell Automation, comments: "Actionable information is all about getting the right information in a timely fashion to the right people or systems, so that the right production decisions can be made. And we can look at every aspect of a plant's operations, see what information can be made available, and how we can use it to improve different aspects of productivity."

Overall equipment effectiveness

A key focus for businesses large and small as a starting point for improved productivity has become OEE (overall equipment effectiveness). Taking an OEE-led approach, businesses monitor a number of operational parameters and look at how incremental improvements can be made. It is driven by metrics, and as such has information at its core - data pulled from the production line and put into context as an enabler for enhanced operations or improved production decisions.

"The beauty of looking at OEE is that you can start small, so it is easy for anyone to start making improvements. Looking at the information from sensors, or from the diagnostics built into variable speed drives, or from the data held as standard within the PAC (Programmable Automation Controller) can all provide useful sources of information that will enable more informed production decisions to be made. A level up from that, there are software metrics packages that will collect and analyse information from a myriad of different sources. With packages such as Rockwell Automation's FactoryTalk Metrics providing accurate reporting of real plant-floor activity, manufacturers of all types and sizes can very quickly begin to increase production, reduce costs and increase quality."

As a complete solution for efficiency monitoring, event collection and analysis, FactoryTalk Metrics provides all the detail necessary to prioritise the improvements needed to increase efficiency. Although it is much more than just an OEE tool, it enables OEE can be addressed in an easily scalable manner, starting as small as may be required and scaling up as quickly as required.

For companies looking to take a complete, fully integrated, top level approach to OEE in a single step, these solutions are typified by Rockwell Automation's RAPID integrated line control and performance management technology. RAPID addresses the challenges of the complexity of modern plants and the costs of integrating machines into the production line from different OEMs, and brings performance management to the fore where previously it would have been an afterthought.

RAPID provides a flexible approach to integrating discrete manufacturing lines, allowing for a single location to set up, control and analyse the performance of an entire line. This approach lowers the total cost and time of deployment and optimising manufacturing equipment while providing a platform that interfaces with production machines and operations management systems in a consistent manner. It provides a simple solution for coordinating and controlling the flow of materials through a discrete manufacturing line, and for managing the collection of specific equipment data and associated network communications. It enables reporting of equipment and line level key performance indicators (KPIs), and collection of equipment and line level events for downtime and root cause analysis.

"RAPID addresses the key question of how you expose important data, and make it usable to the right people," says Daniels. "The food and beverage industry has been one of the first industries to really pick up on it, probably because it's an industry where margins are very tightly squeezed. But the beauty of the approach is that there is no significant cost addition; most applications will already have the required visualisation through PCs and HMIs."

Of course, maximising productivity is about much more than focusing simply on OEE. But optimising other areas of the production process is still very much about actionable information. "If you consider industries working with powdered products for example, then factors such as moisture control are key considerations," says Daniels. "Those products might be cement or powdered milk or pharmaceuticals, but if too much moisture gets into the process, product quality will be compromised, while if there is too little moisture, you could end up giving away too much product. So monitoring parameters such as moisture content and acting upon them is crucial."

There are some parameters that cannot be monitored. In the power utilities for example, it is desirable to monitor for noxious gases in the cooling towers, but how do you do that when the harsh environment would destroy the sensors? Even here there are solutions to providing actionable information. "Increasingly we find we can accurately model processes, and use inferred values to optimise the process. In the cooling towers example, if we can't take a direct reading of the noxious gases, can we monitor other parameters and infer the noxious gas levels? That inferred value can then be used within the control system."

Leveraging the power of its Pavilion8 software platform, Rockwell Automation's solution for this is Model Predictive Control (MPC) technology. Providing an intelligence layer on top of basic automation systems, this continually drives the plant to achieve benefits such as cost reductions, decreased emissions, consistent quality and production increases.

To be effective, robust process models are critical to any MPC-based solution. "The Rockwell Automation MPC technology uses hybrid modelling capabilities that enable each model to incorporate all available knowledge about the process to deliver the most accurate, highest fidelity models possible," says Daniels. "The hybrid modelling is based on empirical data, first principles equations, operator knowledge or any combination. And it allows 'soft sensors' to integrate with MPC to provide timely in-process measurements that increase the accuracy of control actions. All this data provides actionable information that drives improvements in the process.

Importantly, Pavilion8 is a platform-independent control system, so anyone can reap the benefits. But Daniels reports that the technology has now been embedded within Rockwell Automation's Logix controller platform, delivering the technology at a lower level to provide a starting point for any business to begin reducing variability and improving overall efficiency, for example through the use of Advanced Process Control (APC), which addresses some of the limitations of traditional PID control,particularly with long deadtime processes.

Improved asset utilisation

Another area where actionable information plays a key role in boosting productivity is in asset utilisation. "We can think in terms of monitoring the operational parameters of individual assets to minimise downtime, but also in terms of how we make best use of individual machines or production lines to optimise production costs, minimise energy consumption, maximise flexibility, etc," says Daniels. "If we look at the ability of equipment to deliver diagnostics information, and at the capabilities of modern condition monitoring technologies, then there is a lot of information that can be fed back into the control architecture that can deliver significant increases in productivity."

Sometimes it will be simple data that enables operators to make specific decisions; sometimes it will be information delivered to the higher level business systems that enable more strategic production decisions to be made. But reaping the benefits always comes down to actionable information.

Of course, it is impossible to measure everything, but we can do so much more than has ever been possible, and the great enabler for all this has been improvements in network technologies - in particular the adoption of Ethernet across the plant floor and as the link between the production environment and higher level business systems. Most recently, machine-to-machine communications has begun to play a role, deploying wireless technologies to get information to the right people at the right time, and driving a new paradigm of connected intelligence.

"It wasn't so long ago that the ability to send an SMS text message when a particular alarm was generated was state-of-the-art," says Daniels. "Now we can run products such as Rockwell Automation's FactoryTalk VantagePoint performance and visibility software on smart phones and mobile devices, moving essential information away from fixed HMIs and straight into the hands of the people who really need it. Taking data, channelling it, and making it real time and relevant gives businesses much more of an insight into their processes, wherever they are."

And Daniels argues that there is much more to come in this arena that will benefit those tasked with boosting productivity. "The crossover between business, commercial and consumer technologies has never been greater," he says. "This technology crossover is driving a new way of thinking about aspects such as asset optimisation, condition monitoring, diagnostics, remote monitoring and even remote operations."

Increased global competition means customers have more supply alternatives than ever before. The manufacturers who are successful will be the ones who can respond most effectively to changing customer demands and optimise their processes to reduce costs and raise productivity, and actionable information holds the key.
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