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Should SMEs be pushing for more process automation?

01 May 2017

Many large scale food processing plants have grasped the advantages of improved automation and are using it to minimise production costs and boost productivity. Do SMEs risk falling behind? 

According to Mark Lilley, field segment manager, hygienic - Food and Beverage for Bürkert Fluid Control Systems, some medium and smaller scale businesses, although appreciative of the benefits, are still reticent about implementation and he says that there is a lack of understanding about how the latest technologies can be integrated into an existing installation.

Lilley says that one of the most common misconceptions about introducing automation is that the entire manufacturing process needs to be revised at once. However, one of the most fundamental principles of automation is scalability – with sufficient planning during the initial stages of an automation project, it is possible to develop a plan that can be deployed in just one area and then gradually rolled out to include other processes in due course. In this way, it is possible to start to reap the benefits of automation on a smaller budget through improvements in productivity.

The term automation covers a wide spectrum of technology; everything from a level sensor opening and closing a valve to PLC-controlled pneumatic valve stations working with robots to deliver micro–accuracy in production. For most, the solution will be positioned in the middle ground, with a possible eye for additional development in the future. Developing the most appropriate automation plan does, however, require an understanding of what is possible and knowledge of what is already in place in the plant.

One of the first steps to automating any process is to agree on the control infrastructure for the business so that it is able to accommodate future expansion. In some cases this will be governed by an existing system, while for others, a clean sheet allows a number of options to be considered.

The modular nature of automation solutions makes them suited to those looking to expand on a pre-existing installation. Provided the communication protocols are maintained. It should be possible to install standalone control systems based on a centralised control concept that contains all of the necessary components to operate valves, including a PLC, input/output systems and valve islands.

For those starting from scratch, the possibilities are only constrained by the size of the business and the extent of the processes to be automated.

As the scale of a business grows and the level of automation increases, it should be possible to ‘bolt-on’ a new module without interfering with the existing installation. Adding an Ethernet module, for example, can give an engineer access to the process control system from remote locations and if necessary the ability to change parameters remotely too.

Introducing automation can be a daunting prospect for those with no experience of it, but with the proper foundations it is possible to create a process control system that can deliver the needs of the business today and its changing needs in the future.

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