“Perhaps the most important feature of the smart factory, its connected nature, is also one of its most crucial sources of value. Smart factories require the underlying processes and materials to be connected to generate the data necessary to make real-time decisions. In a truly smart factory, assets are fitted with smart sensors so systems can continuously pull data sets from both new and traditional sources, ensuring data are constantly updated and reflect current conditions. Integration of data from operations and business systems, as well as from suppliers and customers, enables a holistic view of upstream and downstream supply chain processes, driving greater overall supply network efficiency.”  Deloitte

With the advent of Industry 4.0, connecting your plant or plants becomes critical to gaining needed visibility, collaboration and insight into your operations. For new or greenfield sites, this is a simpler task — you can build in the correct integrations, use newer equipment that has standardized, published protocols and leverage automation hardware and software that has native communications and visualization capabilities.

But what about plants that are older — that have reliably produced for years, but need upgrades or strategic replacement of parts? This is a more challenging scenario, and it’s one that the majority of high tech manufacturers face on a daily basis.

There are several ways to address the modernization of a plant to be more ‘Industry 4.0’ ready: you can invest in new equipment; you can partner with a services provider to add the needed capabilities; or you can create an information infrastructure that allows you to flexibly add capabilities, scale to demand, and leverage the newer communications protocols to lower development costs, infrastructure complexity and minimize customization

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One of the most prevalent interfaces for creating that connectivity infrastructure is to use OPC-UA. The OPC Unified Architecture (OPC UA) is a machine to machine communication protocol for industrial automation that was developed by the OPC Foundation. Distinguishing characteristics are:

  • Focus on communicating with industrial equipment and systems for data collection and control
  • Openness – freely available and implementable under GPL 2.0 license
  • Cross-platform – not tied to one operating system or programming language
  • Service-oriented architecture (SOA)
  • Inherent complexity – the specification consists of 1250 pages in 14 documents
  • Robust security
  • Integral information model, which is the foundation of the infrastructure necessary for information integration where vendors and organizations can model their complex data into an OPC UA namespace to take advantage of the rich service-oriented architecture of OPC UA.

There are over 35 collaborations underway with the OPC Foundation. Key supported industries include pharmaceutical, oil and gas, building automation, industrial robotics, security, manufacturing and process control.

The second most prevalent technology for a Connected Plant is the ubiquitous Internet of Things (or IoT). Active since the late 90’s, IoT has the promise of interconnectivity using a variety of technologies, from the Internet to wireless communication, micro/sensors and embedded systems. Fueling IoT’s growth is the proliferation of inexpensive sensors, which makes it economical for the connection of ‘things’ to track operations performance, analyze equipment productivity, institute predictive and preventative maintenance, and a host of other plant performance improvement activities. Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence owe, in part, the creation of IoT to bring analytics to a level that can not only be analyzed, but predicted, improving practices like asset and resource management.

Of course, you can’t talk about a Connected Plant without bringing MES (Manufacturing Execution Systems) into the discussion. MES, a technology around since the late 80’s, brings visibility and control into a plant process. Its overall operations governance allows users to manage the flow of goods, people and equipment as the material transformation takes place. There is a wealth of information on MES; one of the best industry sources is MESA International, a consortium of suppliers and practitioners whose goal is to promote the use of operations management systems.

Lastly, the proliferation of platforms enable the interconnectivity of a plant; bespoke solutions from the leading automation and MES providers offer a means to easily integrate both machines and applications for easier data gathering and analysis.

There are many documented case studies of the benefits of a connected plant; a Cisco study identifies a few: improved customer satisfaction (70%), operational efficiencies (67%) and improved product / service quality (66%). In addition, improved profitability was the top unexpected benefit (39%).

A connected plant is an important way of ‘future proofing’ your organization. It provides you with the infrastructure to assimilate new technologies, methodologies and products. It ensures that you have the visibility within your operations to identify improvements as well as potential bottlenecks that may impact productivity. It’s a first step towards Digital Transformation/Industry 4.0.