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So long clipboards, hello data logging

09 December 2021

Every area of manufacturing requires different technologies to make Industry 4.0 a reality. For process heating applications, data logging is the key, says Austin Johannes.

SURVEY DATA from Deloitte suggests that businesses with a comprehensive Industry 4.0 strategy will become more profitable. Every area of manufacturing requires different technologies to make 'the Fourth Industrial Revolution' easier to realise. In process heating applications, one of the most important technologies manufacturers must be aware of is data logging.

Industry 4.0 has caused numerous changes to factory automation and data exchange. Machines have become increasingly connected, with information created, calculated and shared across various communication points in real-time. With the right tools and experience, Industry 4.0 can optimise a facility’s production, making it smarter, more efficient and more profitable. In sectors that use process heating, such as medical equipment, semiconductor processing and food manufacturing, one of the most useful technologies to implement is data logging.

A data logging transition
In the past, facilities were manned by technicians with clipboards who would manually monitor equipment and processes. For obvious reasons, this method was inefficient compared with the technology available today.

Advancements in analogue electronics brought strip recorders into the industry. Using strip recorders, technicians relied on small pens and rolling paper to record vital processes. While this freed them from continuously monitoring a single machine, the machines were bulky and expensive to implement. 

Today, the average smart factory generates millions of gigabytes (GB) of data per week. With that in mind, it’s vital that facilities collect and understand their data so that it can be used to benefit the entire production line. Digital data loggers avoid the time and expense of sending a technician to take measurements in a remote location, and they enable much higher data recording density than is achievable through manual recording, providing higher quality data. 

Today’s equipment is dynamic, offering solutions that enable multiple zones and varying signal types at affordable costs. Multi-channel data loggers support numerous inputs and can be compatible with different types of temperature sensors such as thermocouples, thermistors and resistance temperature detectors (RTDs). Users can download and share recorded information via built-in communication channels, such as USB, WiFi and Ethernet, enabling cloud-based storage and access to big-data analysis — supporting Industry 4.0. transformation.

The benefits of digital data logging
So why should data logging be an essential part of any manufacturing facility that wants to advance with Industry 4.0? Greater insight into areas for improvement allows design engineers to optimise systems and understand which steps in their process are most critical to achieve the desired outcome. Digital data logs also make it easier for information to be distributed and shared, which improves communication among team members working on a system. When the inevitable gremlins emerge, having a historical log of what caused the incident ensures the problem can be identified and addressed, preventing future downtime from overlooked issues.

Perhaps the most significant benefit of data logging, however, is that it supports efficient preventative maintenance. Having access to real time data, engineers and technicians can act before issues spiral into downtime. It’s estimated that the average factory loses at least 5% of its productivity because of downtime. Eventually, this adds up to extreme revenue loss.

The data collected can highlight variations or anomalies, suggesting that something has changed in the system. Take for example, a foam sheet manufacturer who used a Watlow controller with built-in data-logging to quickly react to a quality issue indicated by specific temperature variations in their curing process. This information allowed engineers to identify and resolve the cause of the problem, saving costs and minimising waste.
Instead of issuing alarms for staff to react to, temperature data monitored over a period of time can demonstrate that implementing better thermal uniformity at a key stage in the production process can reduce, or even eliminate, issues. Because they are receiving data in real time, engineers can resolve problems before equipment failure occurs — minimising downtime, saving costs and increasing productivity.

Logging options
Depending on the application, data loggers can be incorporated as one integrated solution or as an extra to a system. Watlow – which is continuously piloting and implementing Industry 4.0 technology programmes – manufactures advanced heating products, including sensors, controllers and data logging equipment.

Manufacturers looking to implement digital data logging can choose an integrated system such as the F4T® temperature controller, with built in data logging, or the D4T™, a dedicated data logging device. With these solutions, customers can log parameters that are preconfigured, saving setup time and complexity. Watlow’s solutions also feature a list of popular setup configurations to help manufacturers optimize data logging that’s tailored to their specific needs.

For demanding applications, the RMA PLUS™ module dynamically connects with other devices providing measurement capability and can record data with onboard SD cards and also push data to the cloud.

Leveraging these technologies, Watlow is automating data-gathering and analysis to anticipate issues earlier and speed up implementation of solutions. Our experience of Industry 4.0 has increased the efficiency and productivity of our operations, equipping us with the knowledge that helps us provide support to our customers who are implementing Industry 4.0 solutions.

What will data loggers of the future look like?
Industry 4.0 is significantly transforming the way that data is exchanged. The increasingly rapid rate of digital transformation may well lead to mainstream integration of artificial intelligence (AI) data logging capabilities. This would give manufacturers the advantages of advanced algorithms that calculate and rectify value discrepancies, without the need for routine manual intervention.

With the incorporation of wireless and cloud-based technology, data loggers of the future may be able to broadcast real-time data to the cloud and may also present themselves as smartphones, tablets and web applications, offering greater remote control of data.

Data loggers will eliminate hourly inspections on an autoclave and free engineers’ schedules from periodic logging. The future will see these devices become smarter and more reliable. This will enable workforces to focus on more value-added tasks, such as product development and system improvements, to promote growth and scalability across industries.

While data collection is crucial in any facility, it is understanding how to act on that data that is key to realising the benefits of Industry 4.0. Gone are the days of engineers with clipboards in hand. Data loggers do the work so that engineers don’t have too, freeing up schedules to improve performance and streamline operational efficiency. By providing engineers with information in real-time, systems can be improved, and errors can be resolved before equipment failure, minimising downtime and increasing productivity.

F4T is a registered trademark ® and D4T and RMA PLUS are trademarks ™.

Austin Johannes is controls specialist at industrial technology company Watlow