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Is your automation architecture holding back your business?

Author : Chris Evans – Marketing & Operations Group Manager

08 November 2011

When considering automation in a typical food production plant it would be easy to focus on the obvious areas such as production machinery, conveyors, packaging machines etc.

This is where everyone is comfortable and engineers from suppliers and users can revel in the wonders of the technology and how clever their application programs are.

From a senior management and business perspective, this is all very well but this is the detail that every senior executive should be able to take for granted. Of course reliable control of production is vitally important but the real challenges centre on data retrieval and production management.

For the business, the main issues are increased yield, reduced waste, improved quality, reduced costs and increased profitability.The automation equipment resident on every production plant has the capacity of delivering not just control but also information to help achieve against these business mantras.

If we consider that every machine or conveyor on the plant is an asset, then every asset that is controlled by a programmable device has the capacity of delivering a wealth of information about its performance and vital information for predictive maintenance techniques for example.

All these devices contain “data” which may or may not be being utilised further up the chain. This may be largely dependent on the scope of supply given to the original system supplier but it is fair to say that in many cases this data is simply lying dormant in the local control device.

The next obstacle to retrieving this data is a solid communication and network architecture to bring the data back to a single “mother ship” or data collection “hubs.” One challenge in the past has often been that different machines coming from different OEM machine manufacturers favour different automation supplier’s equipment.

Stronger end users will specify a particular automation platform and “force” the machine supplier to follow suit but for the small to medium enterprise the argument of increased cost put up by the machine supplier to adopt perhaps their “non preferred” automation platform is difficult to win.

This has led in many cases to disparate automation platforms spread across the production facility which on the face of it at least, makes gathering data efficiently and cost effectively more difficult.

The adoption of an open network strategy has offered the possibility of overcoming this issue but only if the chosen network is supported by all the disparate automation platforms.

If the end user sees each machine or asset as an “automation island” and no-one has responsibility for the overall network strategy, then all this vital data will remain dormant and the business will suffer as a consequence.

Many of the leading automation suppliers favour a particular flavour of open network.
At Mitsubishi Electric we took a different approach and have Mitsubishi manufactured interfaces for all of the leading open network standards.

This creates end user choice and also means that the Mitsubishi automation platform can be used as a data collection hub, with interfaces to our own or other manufacturers equipment made very easy.

Indeed, there are many examples where we have added our automation platform on top of production plants to act as a data collector that contain no other Mitsubishi equipment.

Having collected your data to a single or multiple hubs the next issue is the interface to your business systems. In many ways this is the most important stage, as this, if done correctly will change the “data” into “information” that will serve the needs of the business.

In the recent past Mitsubishi has developed innovative solutions to link the plant directly to the enterprise level of the business using technology that is resident in the automation platform, rather than using “gateway PCs,” which has been the typical architecture in the past.

This provides a robust, secure and reliable link for that vital production and maintenance data. Having overcome all these stumbling blocks the data can finally start to deliver real value to the business and the business can finally unlock the information that may be sitting at asset level which could make such a difference to the efficient operation of the production plant.

In summary, the message is that even if you are faced with what seems to be insurmountable problems for gathering data on your plant, due to automation platform incompatibility and an undefined network structure, there are ways by adopting on open, flexible and innovative approach to overcome these problems.

The benefit to the business for investing in this area is immense and once analysis can be carried out on real production data, improvements in operational efficiency, waste reduction, traceability and cost reduction (including energy costs) are some of the immediate returns on that investment.

We believe at Mitsubishi Electric, that we have solutions that can help you achieve this and would be happy to discuss your needs and requirements with you.


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