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DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION Realising the immediate and future benefits of digital transformation

Jun 24, 2021

Shaun Taylor, President, Global Machine Automation & Fluid Motion and Control Europe, Middle East & Africa, Emerson - Change is the only constant, and the evolving manufacturing industry is a testament to this. Digitalisation has turned into a radical phenomenon, without which one will lose out on business and eventually cease to exist. The article explores how manufacturers can properly leverage IIoT and connect islands of automation, unlock trapped machine data and empower their workers to deliver greater value.

The devastating effects of the global pandemic have radically changed the way we live and work. Manufacturers are no exception. In addition to the competitive pressures they faced before the pandemic, their day-to-day operations also include remote workforces, social distancing and reduced labour efficiency. However, these concerns coincide with the era of digital transformation in manufacturing, a time that promises ever-greater reliability, efficiency and sustainability. By leveraging the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), manufacturers can effectively face – and overcome — compounding challenges today and positively transform their operations for the long term.

Answering today’s pressures and demands

In addition to the pandemic-related challenges, new technologies, the environmental crisis, labour shortages and operational efficiency have concerned manufacturers for some time. The first step to solving these intersecting pressures now and in the future is by fully comprehending them. The great variety of connectivity and analytic options in hydraulic, pneumatic and electric motion systems is both exciting and staggering. However, while these new technologies offer the opportunity for operational improvement, they must be properly integrated and adopted for manufacturers to realise their full benefit.

One benefit such connected, monitoring technologies often provide is improved Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE). This is achieved through real-time, intimate knowledge of individual devices, their health and related processes. By analysing data and making decisions that maximise the productivity of each machine, manufacturers can better understand how to improve overall efficiency and reduce costs. In addition to improved efficiency, digital transformation solutions can also attract a younger generation familiar with dashboards, as the ageing workforce, along with their wealth of knowledge and experience, leaves manufacturing facilities. The data and insights these solutions provide can make it possible for this younger, digitally native workforce to enter the factory floor with more confidence and ease.

The remote capabilities of digital transformation solutions provide comfort and ease in another way, too. As COVID-19 has resulted in the need to reduce unnecessary foot traffic and person-to-person exposure, manufacturers have responded with social distancing practices, remote workforces and other protective measures that have reduced labour efficiency. Digital transformation can help manufacturers adjust manual and time-intensive, in-person work processes to be safer and more efficient.

Process efficiencies can also translate into energy efficiencies. Today, sustainable practices are no longer optional; helping customers reduce their carbon footprint and achieve their sustainability goals is expected. Manufacturing practices that use excess energy and generate waste by running systems out of range, for instance, are unnecessary and unacceptable.

Digitally transforming operations

In a typical manufacturing facility, dozens of machines work together to create a finished product, and inefficiency in one can affect the others. By connecting these individual machine ‘islands’ and the data they provide, operators can identify any machine inefficiencies and respond to potential issues before they can become larger problems.

While gathering data is an important part of connecting these islands of information, it’s not the only part. It starts with establishing a scope that is reasonable and understandable. Once parameters have been selected and the resulting data has been gathered, the most valuable insights are extracted. These insights form a clearer, more complete picture of operations that helps operators make informed decisions.

For example, for manufacturing plants that depend on pneumatic operations, the benefits of digital transformation are realised most effectively by monitoring air usage within systems — a scalable process that can easily be accomplished on just a few machines. When sensors, like Emerson’s AVENTICSTM Series AF2, measure airflow, the system can pinpoint the equipment experiencing issues and deliver notifications directly to the maintenance staff. By starting at an individualised, machine level, operators can obtain actionable insights without heavy data analysis — and very quickly lower costs, improve production quality, increase throughput and, in the case of pneumatic systems, improve sustainability.

Achieving the benefits of digital transformation today and tomorrow

The valuable information that digital transformation provides empowers manufacturers to ready their operations for future challenges while realising a quantifiable return on investment (ROI) within a year. However, success hinges on the right partnership. To effectively support digital transformation, it’s important to work with an experienced device manufacturer that knows the most appropriate solution to implement for a manufacturer’s unique needs.

The ideal partner will have a clear understanding of a manufacturer’s long-term vision, not just individual devices, gateways, cloud services or other singular systems. Manufacturers should also expect their device partners to assist with scoping a solution, including ROI estimates, device implementation, start-up commissioning and long-term support. By focusing on a specific problem or challenge, they can help the manufacturer control the initial project scope to quantify the results easily. This scope can also narrow down the most effective devices that can scale for potential needs and expectations, minimising the need for additional devices in the future.

Together with scalability, device flexibility is critical. It’s important to choose devices that rely on open communication systems and architectures. With how quickly the industry is evolving, being locked into a proprietary solution can prevent an operator from taking advantage of the latest technologies. In the fluid power and motion control sector, there is not yet a single, industry-wide set of IIoT standards, so it’s crucial for any solution to be as open and flexible as possible.

In addition to compatibility, technologies and solutions that use open IIoT protocols also make it easier to gather and share information. A manufacturer should look for edge devices that, in tandem with open protocols, can handle various technologies to help avoid unnecessary complexity in either operations or system architectures. The Emerson RXi2-LP industrial PC is one such device with vendor-agnostic PACEdge software that runs nondeterministic applications to reduce latency and meet a variety of application-performance needs (Image 2).

As many manufacturers begin their journey to digital transformation, most IIoT applications are focused on streamlining maintenance, increasing efficiency and monitoring processes. But over time, the discussion will shift to become less about the devices and more about the insights they can deliver. What will matter is how a device manufacturer can help an operator maximise their IIoT investment and release the generated data. As a result, IIoT-powered intelligence will become accessible to more businesses, and the companies that have not digitally transformed will be left behind.

As we find ourselves at the intersection of a changing world and ongoing competitive pressures, it’s time to reimagine old methods and leverage the power of digital transformation. Operations can then advance with greater confidence and a renewed ability to meet the needs of today and the future.

Image Gallery

  • Image 1: Emerson’s AVENTICS Series AF2 flow sensor monitors air consumption in pneumatic systems. By capturing information about pressure, temperature and flow, this sensor can help manufacturers optimise energy consumption, prevent machine downtime and reduce costs.

  • Image 2: Emerson’s RXi2-LP Industrial PC (IPC) edge computer delivers compact, rugged, low power and cost-effective performance computing capabilities to run HMI, historian and analytics applications right at the machine. This enables improved real-time control of operations and better integration into plant-wide systems.

  • Shaun Taylor

    President, Global Machine Automation & Fluid Motion and Control Europe, Middle East & Africa


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