The fourth industrial revolution is well underway, and as state-of-the-art technology drops in price, more industries are benefiting from smart plants. With a recent survey finding that 72 percent of companies expect to achieve advanced levels of digitization by 2020, the reach of these technologies is only set to increase in 2018. However, as industrial digital technology continues to play a significant role in the transformation of the sector, many manufacturers are asking what they should be investing in.
Virtual reality (VR), which digitally simulates a product or environment, and augmented reality (AR), where the digital product or information is projected onto a real-world background, have traditionally been consumer-focused applications, intended mostly for gamers. However, with equipment such as the Microsoft HoloLens now being aimed purely at business applications, this is changing.
Virtual reality can provide a unique opportunity for people to immerse themselves in their projects, develop designs more clearly prior to beginning construction work and reduce mistakes. It is expected to become more prominent during the design of a facility and could even have applications for building information modelling. Inputting computer-aided design (CAD) files into a VR application could allow the designer, engineer and client to move around the product and facility, viewing it under a different light without the need to produce expensive prototypes. VR also has the potential to revolutionize training, particularly when working in hazardous environments. In addition, engineers can explore and mange a range of scenarios without any risk to themselves or equipment.
Maintenance is where augmented reality comes into its own. AR can instantly provide important information to maintenance engineers wearing AR headsets while enabling them to keep their hands free. For example, when combined with remote monitoring and dashboard user interfaces, the status of a drive or motor-control center can be visualized next to the system in question.
This type of technology is already being employed by companies with multiple sites, allowing for the comparison of key performance indicators (KPIs) between plants to learn from one another how to improve process efficiency and asset lifespan. Similarly, when combined with a risk-based maintenance schedule, each piece of machinery can be color-coded according to the risk it poses to the plant.
Machine learning is a concept that has been around for decades. This is where the computer doesn't rely on rule-based programming but instead operates using algorithms that can adapt and learn from data. Closely related to this is artificial intelligence (AI), a branch of computer science aiming to build machines capable of intelligent behavior. One of the major benefits of AI is advanced data analysis, where data is collected, stored and analyzed automatically.
Dependent on the results of the analysis, processes can be automatically altered, increasing productivity, reducing costs or even preventing production downtime. Combined with trend prediction and predictive maintenance schemes, efficiency and yield rates can be greatly increased across a manufacturing plant.
Legacy systems were traditionally designed to operate in isolation and are often unable to connect to the wider network and the internet. However, since the advent of Industry 4.0, many plant managers are keen to connect systems and take advantage of the benefits of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), including enhanced data collection, interpretation and use. The answer for many is to retrofit their systems to enable IIoT capabilities.
Smart sensors, data analysis systems and connectivity to the IIoT are just some of the benefits promised by the range of retrofitting options on the market. The popularity of retrofitting existing equipment with these technologies using a maintenance budget is only expected to increase. As equipment wears and requires replacement, the best choice for many will be a smart sensing motor or motor-control center that can connect to the IIoT.
In conclusion, the introduction of Industry 4.0 technologies has left no stone or industry untouched over the past few years, particularly given recent price drops. This year is shaping up to be one in which new and exciting technologies such as VR and AI make their way to the plant floor, creating a true factory of the future.
Nick Boughton is the sales manager for Boulting Technology, a leading systems integrator.