Electronic Design

Industrial Automation: Improved Networking Will Be The Key

Voice recognition and Ethernet arrive on the factory floor.

Three developments, each advancing separately, will join in the next few years to significantly improve industrial electronics: radio-frequency identification (RF ID) tags, an improved man-machine interface, and better ties between a plant's front office and its manufacturing arm. The result will be a more efficient manufacturing, distribution, and warehousing environment, as well as a faster time-to-market in an increasingly competitive world.

RF ID tags have been used on both industrial and automotive factory floors for years. But their prices keep dropping (now down to a few cents) and their capabilities are increasing, making them more pervasive in industrial settings. They contain a chip and a tiny antenna. Usually, they're powered by either an internal battery or an external signal (Fig. 1).

Compared to bar codes, the 30-year-old industry standard for product identification, RF ID tags need less manipulation by human beings, though they hold more useful data. Instead of the 12 or 15 characters a bar code can handle, future RF ID tags are expected to support thousands of characters. Already, some devices on the market can store hundreds of characters of data in a small key fob. This ability means more accurate and faster tracking of industrial supplies for greater productivity.

The industrial world will also benefit from an improved man-machine interface thanks to enhanced head-mounted displays and better voice-recognition capability. Expect voice-activated devices that can be worn on the head and PCs worn on the wrist combined with wireless communications.

These advances will give machine-tool operators hands-free access to plant-floor data. They will have an instant view of their operations via a virtual-screen display on the head-mounted unit. Thus, machine-tool operators can keep their hands free while positioning the workpiece, changing the tooling, or setting up jigs and fixtures. They can go from machine to machine with the same headset and control and monitor machine status from hundreds of feet away. Furthermore, inventory control, time clock, and punch-card data can all be integrated into one database.

An operator can bark into the microphone the words "tool room," and a tool-room inventory will pop up on the display. The operator then chooses the tools needed by spoken commands, and someone else will be directed to pull them out of the tool room and get them ready. The system would recognize the operator because it has been trained with the individual's voice.

With advances in wireless communications like Bluetooth and improved voice-recognition technology, it's not inconceivable that more than one machine operator can be linked together, working as a team, to coordinate their operations. The end result will be more accurate and efficient manufacturing.

Linking Things Together: An ongoing challenge in industrial manufacturing has been to establish a better link between the front office of order entry and inventory with the plant floor of machinery and equipment. One of the most exciting developments for this link has been the gradual infiltration of industrial-hardened office Ethernets onto the factory floor. Increasingly more Ethernet products, expressly designed for industrial Ethernet applications, are becoming commercially available from hundreds of companies.

While many issues remain unsolved, industrial Ethernets are poised to complete the missing connection between assembly and process control lines and other entities like management, suppliers, dealers, and design engineers. This will expedite time-to-market for many products because everyone in the design-manufacturing loop can share the same data.

How so? Consider, for example, a new car, customized to the buyer's taste, right down to the choice of upholstery, stereo system, tires, paint, and whatever extras are desired. Imagine being able to order such a vehicle online, and getting it right from the plant in a few days.

This was precisely the premise back in the early 1980s, when General Motors with its Manufacturing Automation Protocol (MAP) and Boeing with its Technical Office Protocol (TOP) spearheaded the idea of rapidly developing and producing products like airplanes and cars, from the design concept stage to the final finished and delivered product. Industrial Ethernet is certainly not expected to achieve the automation levels envisioned with MAP/TOP over the next few years, but it's moving in that direction.

Ethernet's popularity for the factory floor stems from its openness. Companies in the manufacturing and process-control arenas are working on the adoption of the Ethernet/IP. This industrial-networking protocol includes TCP/IP and a control information protocol (CIP) that permits remote monitoring, troubleshooting, and control. Unlike other mostly proprietary industrial automation protocols, it benefits from constantly advancing technology, such as data-handling speeds up to gigabits/s versus megabits/s just a few years ago. The Industrial Ethernet Association, a group of industrial automation companies and suppliers, is trying to expedite the development of products that meet industrial Ethernet requirements.

Ethernet's high-speed and routable data capability in local- and wide-area networks, thanks to the TCP/IP protocol, has made it the network of choice for data transport. Industrial-networking engineers are now asking, "Why not adopt TCP/IP to networking for sensor and actuator control?"

Ethernet isn't necessarily the most ideal network for industrial automation, at least from a technical performance viewpoint. But presently, it's the network best suited to existing plant structures. (Few companies are going to rip out and retool their machinery.) Ethernet can readily work with other industrial network protocols that already exist on the factory floor (Fig. 2). Most major industrial equipment manufacturers are now producing equipment, like programmable-level controllers (PLCs), with built-in Ethernet interfaces.

A New Manufacturing Paradigm: As Ethernet makes its presence felt, plan on witnessing a closer working relationship between a plant's front office and its production facilities. This will engender more efficient operation and faster time-to-market. Control engineers, whose domain has largely been the factory floor, will be expected to work closely with information technology (IT) specialists whose efforts have until now been confined to the business and commercial world.

The technology is here to keep the industrial world up to date in a competitive global environment, and it can only get better. It may take time, but it will happen. When the concept of industrial robotics was developed in the late 1970s, many predicted the technology would be dead on arrival because manufacturers would be loathe to rip up existing infrastructures to accommodate this new and expensive way of doing things. Although it took a couple of decades, industrial robotics is now part of just about every plant that needs to stay competitive.

In the 21st century, it's no longer possible to rely on traditional technology, taking refuge behind the cliche "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." We must move forward.

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