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Automation: holistic approach needed

25 January 2013

The UK, in some areas, is lagging behind the rest of Europe in the race to automate. If manufacturers are to both bridge the technology gap and move towards achieving what can be termed OEE+E - or overall equipment effecti

The UK, in some areas, is lagging behind the rest of Europe in the race to automate. If manufacturers are to both bridge the technology gap and move towards achieving what can be termed OEE+E - or overall equipment effectiveness plus energy efficiency, an holistic approach is needed. Jez Palmer at Schneider Electric, explains

Alack of funds, aversion to risk and in some cases, a lack of knowledge all have a role to play in the reasons behind the slow uptake of automation in the UK. Combine this with pressures to reduce carbon emissions and energy consumption and manufacturers are finding themselves in a very challenging situation.

Despite these issues, there is a strong appetite for automation. With stricter targets for CO2 emissions here to stay in the UK, manufacturing industries need to take steps to become more energy efficient in order to meet these. Automation is a key ingredient to attaining a sustainable plant, ensuring flexible and resilient future growth and achieving OEE+E. So why the hesitation? The reason for the delay in uptake often lies in how to modernise existing plant, which is still deemed as overly daunting and one which needs proper consideration and expert advice.

In recent years, rapid manufacturing change has driven the need for higher flexibility and speed with shorter product lifecycles and shorter production runs. This has presented a challenge to older production lines where stand alone or dumb control equipment lacks the intelligence needed to alert or prevent abnormal situations, breakdown or unscheduled downtime, as well as the flexibility to expand and adapt to the constantly evolving market.

The key to surmounting these challenges - and to provide a solution which is in line with the financial constraints of the UK manufacturing industry - is to begin to embrace open, future proof architectures.

UK manufacturers' automation systems have evolved over time, leaving them with a multi-generation installed base which may not be uniformly synchronised to meet today's and tomorrow's needs, meaning complex decisions have to be made. Not all parts of the control legacy will need replacing and the real challenge is achieving flexibility in solutions that allow the manufacturer to preserve the resources worth keeping.

Manufacturers need to conduct detailed audits, address obsolescence challenges, review lifecycle plans of their installed base products, determine future goals for their plant and develop an action plan for modernisation of their control systems. When the installed base is audited, it is easy to discover varying degrees of maturity as well as multiple generations of products and operating systems all potentially controlling a single process. Systems develop over time with modifications, upgrades and expansions which may not be well documented by the users and only become apparent on closer inspection.

Working towards using technologies which operate in an open and collaborative production environment that embraces standards and can address the full scope of applications is essential. This will ensure that the move from legacy to new solutions is seamless as the technologies will fully integrate and communicate with each other, regardless of brand and age.

Enabling parts of a plant's control assets to be conserved in this way paves the way for a step-by-step program of system migration to integrate new technologies over time - 'bridging' the technology gap as opposed to a complete and daunting system overhaul.

This also ensures costs of migration are kept to a minimum for the manufacturer, due to a gradual phased approach and costly downtime being avoided through ease of integration.

New technologies, such as energy monitoring systems, can then be integrated over time within a plant, to generate an holistic picture of the plant's processes for plant managers to streamline its activities in line with peak energy times. This results in a plant operating at a high level of OEE+E, where each process can be harmonised to provide the most effective production system which is in-line with the current market forces.

Dedicated solutions providers, like Schneider Electric, are able to offer solid project management and help operators understand all levels of their system in order to make these difficult decisions and minimise costly downtime and risk.

It can seem daunting for a manufacturer to consider these processes, but by addressing the issues in detail and with a little help from the experts, system migration to an automated, open, energy efficient and collaborative production environment is achievable and logical. With the focus on providing continuous operations, increasing plant maintainability and efficiency, the result is reduced energy wastage and lost revenue, leaving users with manufacturing flexibility that will stand the test of time.

Failure to bridge the gap and modernise now will only leave a larger gap in the future and a growing challenge for the UK manufacturing industry to keep up with Europe in the race to automate and maintain valuable market share.