Taking the first steps to connectivity
03 January 2020
In this article, Paul Streatfield, Strategic Product Manager at industrial automation experts, Bosch Rexroth explores how & why sensors provide the ideal starting point on the journey to digitalisation – and shares advice on how to realise the business benefits of the internet of things (IoT).
This article was originally featured in EPDT's 1H 2020 IoT & Industry 4.0 supplement, included in the January 2020 issue of EPDT magazine [read the digital issue]. Sign up to receive your own copy each month.
With all the talk of IoT, Industry 4.0 and the wealth of benefits digitalisation can bring to manufacturers, it’s easy to get swept up in the potential and overlook the essential first steps of digital adoption. With connectivity at its heart, an effective Industry 4.0 set-up brings together people and machines throughout the manufacturing process to enhance flexibility, boost robustness and optimise resource allocation – effectively creating a waste-free value stream which makes businesses more productive and profitable.
Alongside the trend of digitalisation, manufacturers are faced with a host of challenges in today’s fast-paced, global marketplace. Increased international competition, shifting customer demands and the need to meet stringent environmental goals are all placing ever greater pressure on manufacturers. With Industry 4.0 offering potential solutions which prepare manufacturers to better handle these hurdles, the challenge lies in how to successfully implement Industry 4.0-ready technologies to achieve the best results for the bottom line.
Sensors: the starting point for your digital journey
As the front line of the fourth industrial revolution, sensors enable the fundamental collection of data and process monitoring which can empower clear planning decisions, validate connectivity predictions and help to manage the risks associated with change.
It’s for this reason that the correct installation of sensors should form the first stage of any digitalisation strategy. Fitted onto an assembly cell, machine or tooling equipment – either new or legacy – these sensors can be connected to software which can measure variables such as temperature, pressure, vibration and power consumption. For businesses experiencing digital connectivity for the first time, sensors deliver a highly controlled, manageable and cost-effective first step to a connected environment.
Equipping those on the factory floor with an inside view into machinery, sensors – together with accompanying measurement and analysis software – gather and interpret data, facilitating a greater understanding of the complex dynamics at play within critical equipment, in real time. With this detailed insight, the digital strategy can be specifically targeted to those areas which will deliver the greatest return on investment (ROI) – either through improved productivity, predictive maintenance or automation of processes.
Defining the problem
With sensors capable of being retrofitted to equipment quickly and cheaply, those in charge of the digital strategy first need to identify where digitalisation can deliver the most effective results. In virtually every production process, there is room for improvement – be it increasing efficiency, improving quality and consistency, or maximising uptime. By identifying these challenges early on, manufacturers can save both time and money by targeting their digital adoption strategy on specific parts of their processes.
Connecting the inputs
Once the focus areas for initial digital investment are decided, it’s necessary to reduce the complexity of data formats and protocols, which often differ between individual pieces of equipment. Gateway software – such as Rexroth’s IoT Gateway – provides an easy-to-configure solution to help get manufacturers up and running as soon as possible. Featuring open interfaces and manufacturer-independent solutions, Gateway helps future proof systems and make it possible to connect all machinery within a facility quickly and easily.
Once sensors have been installed and configured to collect the data required within each of the processes being monitored, their functionality can be further enhanced through higher level systems. Enabling data to be transmitted and displayed in real time to a central location, these systems elevate sensors from being simple plug-and-play devices to an integrated system, which is integral to the business’ infrastructure and allows manufacturers to leverage the full suite of benefits provided through connectivity.
With data now visible from a strategic vantage point – rather than just at plant level – machines and processes can be controlled and optimised to deliver higher levels of performance and productivity for the business. The introduction of smart sensors also facilitates a plant’s requirements to quickly adapt to demand, enabling actions such as rapid product changeovers. It is these immediate benefits – even at the early stages of a digital adoption strategy – which begin to prove the effectiveness of Industry 4.0 for manufacturers and support the need for additional investment further down the line.
Once a network of sensors is in place, it’s not enough to simply take stock of their initial benefits. Rather, by taking a continuous improvement approach, data should be continually analysed for its full potential to be realised.
This is where defining problems in the early stages of digital adoption really pays off. If a manufacturer’s goal is to cut down on downtime through an optimised digital strategy, data can be geared towards identifying problems which commonly cause downtime – such as abnormal levels of machine vibration or increased operating temperature.
An incremental approach
Rexroth has first-hand experience in implementing such systems through its own Factory of the Future. Based in Homburg, Germany, improvements have already been seen in areas such as product quality, productivity and energy efficiency, while costs associated with downtime have been reduced by 25%.
It is here, in the Factory of the Future, where Rexroth proves the viability of digitalisation and an incremental approach to achieving Industry 4.0 success. For many businesses, the idea of delivering a complete digital overhaul in one go is almost impossible to achieve, requiring considerable levels of investment and a period of shutdown to install new technologies.
A more successful alternative is a step-by-step and highly strategic approach, which allows businesses enough time to make well-researched and soberly considered decisions regarding their digital adoption strategy. The key is that Industry 4.0 is an evolution, not a revolution – making sensors the ideal first step to leveraging the benefits of connectivity.
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