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Choosing software for the smart factory

24 November 2017

Lee Sullivan discusses one of the key choices manufacturers will need to make during their digital transformation — software. 

According to the ‘Smart Factories and the Modern Manufacturer’ report, investments in smart manufacturing are set to drive a 27% in efficiency over the next five years. Central to the success of a smart factory is the technology that makes data collection from plant floor sensors and devices possible.  

Typically, a manufacturing facility will comprise an array of equipment that will differ in terms of vendor, age and the communication standard used. To collect the necessary data for smart manufacturing, the hardware within the facility – like PLCs, HMIs, consumption devices or PCs – need to be communicated with at the same time – a difficult task for machinery and facilities designed around varying communication standards. 

However, successful integration of these devices can be achieved without a complete equipment overhaul. Instead, organisations should consider choosing software that is platform independent. In an industrial environment, ‘hardware-independent software’ describes software that can be implemented into any industrial automation system, regardless of the hardware used in the facility. 

Truly independent software can be integrated seamlessly into any device within the facility — irrespective of the age or manufacturer of the equipment. This will give the freedom to quickly integrate new or existing shop floor machines, new buildings or production areas into the data system, regardless of the communication standard used. 

Reduced downtime
Choosing industrial software that runs on a variety of different communication protocols means that manufacturers can reap the benefits of a smart factory. it will be possible to scale the system to visualise the full value stream map over time. However, the benefits of scalability go beyond improved flexibility.

Production downtime is a costly inconvenience for many. In the food processing industry, unexpected production stoppages can create a significant drain on budgets and logistical resources. Usually, if an HMI panel is damaged or fails during production, the machine cannot be operated and the entire production line must stop.

Waiting on the delivery of a new HMI panel that can run the same software and projects is not always a viable option. However, using automation software that is truly independent means that any generic HMI panel can be used as a replacement.

Hardware-independent software will be able to run on different hardware platforms, regardless of the screen resolution. This means that, in the event of a HMI failure, any generic HMI panel can be used as an interim solution. 

Future flexibility
Extendibility is also a key requirement of a smart factory. The ability to internally optimise factories to provide growth ensures that improvements can be added at any time, using specific modules. For a systems integrator or machine builder choosing hardware-independent software can remove future limitations for themselves and for their customers — and could potentially help grow the business into new industry sectors. 

Choosing software that is platform independent provides the end user with a more flexible approach to automation architecture. This way, systems can be designed in a way that best fits the facility and can be changed quickly and cost-effectively. It can also reduce the time and costs associated with internal training for different systems. 

As a key enabler for the digital transformation of manufacturing facilities, choosing the right software should not be an afterthought. 

Lee Sullivan is regional manager at COPA-DATA UK. 

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