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Big data doesn’t have to be big problem

Big data doesn’t have to be big problem

The ongoing conceptual and hypothetical discussions about Industry 4.0, the Industrial Internet of Things and Big Data are leaving many SMEs cold, and indeed are detracting from the wider debate about the importance of automation. But as Paul Wilkinson of Pacepacker Services explains, even the most modest automation platform can help SMEs up the first rungs of the Industry 4.0 ladder, making better use of data to drive up productivity.

There is no doubt that Industry 4.0 has been gaining momentum over the last twelve months, with most manufacturers, SMEs included, developing a picture of what the smart factory of the future might look like. Given that SMEs in the UK food sector account for 96% of businesses, 30% of employment and 24% of turnover, it’s vital that enterprises of all sizes recognise that Big Data isn’t just for the multinational elite organisations and that there are scalable options available that fit the needs of every manufacturing plant.

Taking in the wider automation picture, all processes on the plant floor can derive greater value from Big Data and strengthen their overall supply chain strategy, with seamless communications to and from higher level business systems for more tightly integrated production. Upstream and downstream logistics processes and supply chain management forms part of this integrated system, ensuring production is optimised to match customer demand and raw materials supply.

Already, we are beginning to see terabytes of plant floor data being transmitted to Cloud-based servers, with intelligent databases scouring this Big Data to uncover production trends, maximise throughput and availability, minimise energy usage and eliminate unscheduled downtime. In the ultimate picture, we anticipate seeing the ‘lights out’ factory, completely unmanned, with production lines able to optimise and reconfigure themselves to further boost availability and productivity, while delivering the flexibility for ‘batch size 1’ product delivery.

For the larger, multinational, multi-site food manufacturers, this may be a close reality, and perhaps the bigger picture represents a roadmap for automation. Yet, for most SMEs, the realm of Industry 4.0 and the potential for Big Data can seem like little more than a pie-in-the-sky fantasy factory. And for SMEs who are still taking their first small steps in automation to replace some previously manual processes, Industry 4.0 can look like a complete irrelevance.

Building on information

Firstly, let’s start by breaking down some simple goals of Industry 4.0. Some refer to it as Smart Manufacturing, others the Industrial Internet of Things or Big Data. Essentially, they are all general terms that have similar ambitions, improving system connectivity to support better decision making. The first premise is that businesses want to be able to see information from the factory floor within higher-level systems. But this is nothing new; as soon as a PLC is linked over Ethernet to a PC, SMEs begin pulling production data into spreadsheets for analysis and production management.

Big Data doesn’t necessarily mean more data. Every device connected to the PLC is creating data – from the humblest field component to the most sophisticated variable speed drive. Under the banner of Industry 4.0, we’re not creating new information, we’re just making it more accessible. Once we start looking at the data that’s being generated, we can begin to interact with our processes in a more sophisticated way, and control those processes to much finer tolerances. In effect, we are creating additional knowledge built on the information we already possess.

Big Data, then, doesn’t have to be a big problem. Industry 4.0 doesn’t have to be overwhelming – or, indeed, underwhelming. Even taking baby steps with information, SMEs can extract more from even the simplest automation systems and quickly move beyond just automating a manual process. Rudimentary data imported into higher-level spreadsheets or displayed on HMIs can highlight productivity weaknesses that SMEs can quickly tighten up. Those same trend charts, without any extra effort, can begin to allow SMEs to predict the performance of their machines, flagging up impending problems on production lines that will enable maintenance to be scheduled. There is nothing more clever than that in achieving preventative maintenance and so maximising availability; it’s just making use of the data already being generated.

First steps to Industry 4.0

Whatever level of automation you have, however unsophisticated your communications strategy might currently seem, chances are that without knowing it you’ve already taken your first steps on the Industry 4.0 ladder. Big Data is therefore not a new big investment but building on and utilising the tools and systems already in situ.

A vast array of different factors and processes all impact on productivity. At the simplest levels, SMEs can kick things off by exploring their established automation platforms to optimise productivity. Perhaps it’s using the data logging and graphical display capabilities of an HMI to highlight factors that are limiting a line’s running speed. Or it could be analyzing data in a spreadsheet to uncover why fewer products leave the plant on some days than others. Alternatively, it’s logging into the control system from a remote PC or tablet or even a smart phone. By utilising the in-built web server now common in PLCs, HMIs, variable speed drives and more, factory managers can view an alarm generated by the control system to identify and schedule maintenance of a component to minimise machine downtime. 

While it is true that the world of Big Data can seem daunting, and it is understandable why many SMEs may feel indifferent towards Industry 4.0, in today’s contemporary manufacturing environment, it’s not an investment black hole, nor an automation blind alley. 

Whether it’s product handling, bagging or palletising, the automation journey for food SMEs is underway. Reality is, it takes very little to draw on the sophisticated data that every automation system is already generating and to apply these analytical proficiencies to make some very real production improvements. In fact, SMEs rarely have the cumbersome constraints and internal protocols that slow technology adoption in a larger corporation. This means that with scalable options to select from, SMEs too can bang the Big Data drum.

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