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Southern Manufacturing & Electronics

Farnborough, Hants(GU14 6XL)

11/02/2020 - 13/02/2020

Southern Manufacturing and Electronics is the most comprehensive annual industrial exhibition in the (more)

Adopting a multi-disciplinary approach to automation

Adopting a multi-disciplinary approach to automation

There was a time when the worlds of discrete manufacturing and process production shared very little common ground. But are the boundaries blurring? We pose this question to Phil George, Solution Architect at Rockwell Automation.


Machine builders may not be aware of it, but they are gradually using more technologies that would traditionally have been perceived as being process control. At the same time, key technologies from the discrete control environment are developing and encroaching into the process world. What is becoming evident is that a multi-disciplinary approach to automation in projects of almost any scale can reap benefits, simplifying the optimisation of plant and equipment, reducing maintenance and ultimately boosting productivity.

Looking at the simplest examples of PID control, it is easy to see where this blurring of boundaries begins. Any machine with sophisticated servo driven motion control is inevitably going to be using some form of advanced PID control to optimise the performance of the axes - a classic process technology being brought into the discrete arena. By the same token, many packaging lines will incorporate a shrink wrap and heat sealing section, probably under some form of heat/cool control or PID again. But machine builders don't think of themselves as moving in a process control field; multi-disciplinary it may be, but in the end it is simply control.

Coming from a process perspective, there are many machines supplied as process skids into the food and beverage industry or other process sectors. Much of the approach to control and the technologies used would certainly be very familiar to anyone working in the discrete manufacturing sector. At the same time, there are many sectors of industry - whether traditionally regarded as discrete or process - that will be employing batch control strategies.

So there are very few areas of industry today that be described only in terms of process and discrete control, as Rockwell Automation Solution Architect Phil George explains: "Wherever you have a process that is taking in some form of raw materials, and outputting some form of packaged final product, it is almost inevitable that there will be a mix of process and discrete automation involved. That might be producing milk powder or making crisps or brewing beer or making bricks or filling bottles. So it makes sense to take a multi-disciplinary approach to control, to look at areas of commonality in control, and to adopt a coherent strategy for the automation platform." Certainly this has become easier in recent years. There was a time when our hypothetical shrink wrap machine would have featured a control panel featuring a PLC for the machine sequence control and a separate PID controller for the process aspect. Today, with the emergence of programmable automation controller (PAC), all of those same sequence and process aspects can be provided within a single platform.

This PAC approach has brought increased capability and sophistication to machine building applications, but also brings many advantages to classic process control applications. "If you look at some of the known disadvantages of traditional DCS systems, it is easy to see how these can be addressed by a PAC and SCADA system running on a common automation architecture," says George. "Not only is the control system itself simpler to implement, but getting information out of that automation system and into higher level databases is also vastly simplified, giving improvements in traceability, logistics, enterprise resource management and productivity.

"Just looking at the simplest example of a standalone PID controller, it can be quite difficult to get meaningful information out of that controller, and to feed back control improvements back into the system to optimise the process," he continues. "Typically, you might set the process loops once, and then let the system run. But if you can't easily optimise the process continuously based on real feedback, then you're never going to have a consistent product."

But is it possible to adopt a single, coherent control strategy across a whole plant, and bring all of the discrete and process control aspects under one automation platform?  George argues that it is, and that there are far reaching benefits in doing so. "If you look, for example, at the Logix technology of Rockwell Automation's Integrated Architecture system, this offers one control platform with a common control engine and a common development environment. It is designed to deliver world-class control capabilities for all disciplines from process to safety to motion."

A single control platform across any discipline helps to eliminate the need for separate controllers and systems, dramatically simplifying the control architecture. The convergence of multiple manufacturing disciplines into a single platform gives you greater access to real-time information on the plant floor, remotely or throughout the enterprise. Reuse of engineering designs and a common, tag-based system database reduces your development and commissioning time. A common control engine and development environment helps to reduce maintenance, spare parts holding requirements and commissioning time. And program segments or tags can be reused for new applications, helping companies to optimise productivity by reacting quickly to market and business changes.

We can see, then, that because so many different production processes will have hybrid operations all under one roof, in a majority of cases it will no longer be appropriate to think only in terms of discrete control and process control. Today's automation platforms embrace multiple disciplines, and by adopting a single, coherent automation platform across the whole plant, manufacturers across all sectors of industry can boost productivity, reduce waste, enhance product quality, reduce costs, simplify maintenance and ultimately improve profitability.
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