Guest Post: Why 2020 Will be Better Than 2019 in Automation
December 26, 2019      
Stefan Reuther

The automation of manufacturing processes is at a turning point. Since the advent of the programmable logic controller (PLC), a number of automation islands have evolved that automate isolated steps in the manufacturing process. For example, a six-axis robot can stack and palletize products in a factory, but a manufacturer would need to invest in several different types of automation to fully automate its production line. This process-specific approach can result in some increases to operational efficiency. However, this does not provide a comprehensive, integrated view of manufacturing, and thus doesn’t harness all the benefits of a complete automation system.

While it has been years since the emergence of the term Industry 4.0, we are not quite ready to leave the buzzword in its founding decade. Here are three predictions for major trends in industrial automation for 2020 — manufacturers take note.

Vertical integration — with actionable insights

Vertical integration in Industry 4.0 looks to unite all logical layers in a business, so that information can be free flowing. Increasingly, organizations are demanding a seamless connection between IT and OT to provide an integrated and holistic view of manufacturing and business operations. This infrastructure has been deployed successfully in many facilities, but in 2020, we can truly begin to reap the rewards.

Vertical integration delivers multiple streams of data, but it does not make decisions. Successful deployment should enable organizations to respond to changing markets and spot new opportunities seamlessly. We are already collecting the data — let’s do something with it.

Improvements in software addresses this trend with platforms that are highly scalable, simple to use, flexible and easy to implement. Linking data from the sensor to an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, intelligent software that has been specifically developed with vertical integration in mind can provide operators with a clear visualization of how to use vertical data.

Data gets bigger

Trends such as vertical integration prove that data is an invaluable asset for manufacturers. According to a 2017 IBM study, 90% of data available at the time of the study was created in the last two years. An ever-growing amount of data is being extracted from manufacturing processes, providing important information about quality, maintenance, and process optimization.

Unfortunately, many of today’s solutions offer little flexibility in the collection, evaluation and analysis of these data points. If the information from production processes cannot be properly evaluated and used, manufacturers are unable to reap the benefits. In 2020, automated reporting and analytics functions must become standard. This technology is no longer a luxury, but is now essential to allow for effective interpretation, turning data into valuable information and providing important insights for process improvement.

Strengthening security in heterogeneous technologies

Production today is an integration of many heterogeneous technologies developed using different standards. While most manufacturers are aware of the security needs of increasingly smart factories, the presence of multiple communication standards on the factory floor can make security a complicated task.

To ensure machines, sensors and software systems can communicate effectively in the long term, choosing one software platform that can communicate across all platforms is beneficial. Furthermore, manufacturers should not overlook the need for this software to uphold the same security standards as information technology — encrypting communications, ensuring binaries are signed and developing regular updates.

It is clear that software will play a significant role in the future of production automation, and could be a main driver of Industry 4.0 for the next decade. Data collection certainly is not a new practice for manufacturers, but what they choose to do with this data is set to change.

From SMEs to large corporations, implementing cutting-edge software should be a priority, no matter the size of the business. Manufacturers should focus on selecting technology carefully, focusing on scalable platforms that are easy to understand and implement.

Looking forward to 2020, digitalization should be approached in a practical manner — ultimately a steady, incremental transformation is better than a failed one.

About the author: Stefan Reuther is the chief sales officer of industrial software provider COPA-DATA.