Improving manufacturing resilience through industrial automation

Author : Stefan Reuther | Chief Sales Officer | COPA-DATA

01 August 2020

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For manufacturers, maintaining plant productivity without any workers being present to operate the machines is a daunting prospect. But, with the current coronavirus pandemic highlighting the present need for plants to be managed both remotely & seamlessly, this challenge has now become very real.

This article was originally featured in the August 2020 issue of EPDT magazine [read the digital issue]. Sign up to receive your own copy each month.

Although remote working has not previously been common practice in manufacturing, digital technologies are helping to ease the transition. Here, Stefan Reuther, Chief Sales Officer of automation software provider, COPA-DATA explains how industrial automation software can help manufacturers stay resilient during times of crisis.

Right now, industrial companies are facing the challenge of not being able to send workers into the plant. For the average office worker, common everyday technologies such as Wi-Fi equipped laptops and online conferencing tools make it possible to continue business as usual; but the prospect of remote working is considerably more complex for manufacturing plant managers and workers.

How can manufacturing plant and facility managers still access all the data management and control capabilities they need – especially given the vast reams of data, and numerous machines and processes, that go into running the average plant? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is that, actually, remote plant operations needn’t be difficult in times of crisis – even if this involves supervising a whole plant.

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Reduced workforce

In short, remotely managing plant processes entails bringing all of the data into one place where, ideally, it can be controlled by one worker rather than by a team. This idea pushes the Industry 4.0 concept into new areas – and specifically, new ways of remote working.

As it is, many plant managers overlook the importance of industrial automation software as a way to realise Industry 4.0 practices. Instead, they tend to focus on hardware aspects, such as modular systems. Actually, software has a crucial role in interconnecting data between equipment to overcome issues that typically arise from isolated machinery.

Even in a normal plant operating situation, isolated machinery makes it difficult and expensive to implement the best levels of data management and integrity. A time of crisis will make these challenges even greater – especially if, as is the case right now, the scenario demands unprecedented levels of homeworking. So, what can plant managers do to overcome the challenge?

Fortunately, new information technology and operational technology (IT/OT) convergence systems have opened new possibilities and new levels of security in the direct control and complete monitoring of a plant. They also enable easier analysis and secure sharing of data.

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Smart software

One approach is, rather than deploying an expensive plant-wide manufacturing execution system (MES), to instead build a smart software structure. This structure groups machines into logical units, which makes it is possible to keep the intelligence decentralised – as it already was – while also consolidating the information into a single point of truth. Doing this can increase transparency and improve the manager’s – and operator’s – ‘bird’s eye’ overview of the system, without needing to adapt the software within the machine itself.

This has been demonstrated by zenon, a software platform that is designed for use with manufacturing and production infrastructure equipment. The automation software, developed by COPA-DATA, is designed for security, efficiency and user-friendliness, and can be applied to running all operating systems within a plant and its critical infrastructure.

Even if plant managers and workers are based from home, their obligations for effective plant management remain the same. This is where automation software is shown to provide benefits in terms of control, efficiency and compliance. With COPA-DATA’s zenon, it is possible to generate line-based user management, audit trails, data acquisition and reporting – which can all help to ensure that a plant stays on-line and productive during times of crisis.

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Moreover, by using such software in a line execution system, it is possible to operate a complete manufacturing line from a single point of control. In other words, the line can remain productive even without any workers being present to operate the machines (enabling ‘lights out’ or ‘dark factory’ operation). These are among the advantages of intelligent industrial automation software platforms that many plant managers overlook.

Effective production

Machine and production outages have huge consequences – be they financial losses, reduced stakeholder confidence or unhappy customers (or more likely all three!). Ensuring the smooth running of manufacturing plants is essential, but this is heightened when there are fewer people present on site to fix an error. Durable construction, easy operations and robust software are the basic machinery needs that must be supervised. To this end, applications based on COPA-DATA’s zenon software platform can help ensure that these requirements can continue to run in a stable and secure manner.

Requirements for reliable, secure and error-free systems have always been important – but recent events have shone a bright light on the need for seamless, yet also remote, plant management. For manufacturing plants, automation software experts like COPA-DATA can help guide companies in implementing Industry 4.0 digital technologies, while also increasing the security of their data.

With the right industrial automation software in place, maintaining manufacturing plant productivity, even with less workers being present to operate the machines, needn’t be such a daunting challenge.


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