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PROCESS AUTOMATION THE CYCLICAL NATURE OF SMART


many cases, that means making sure that the connected factory can ‘speak’ to the cloud where the data is stored, and then distribute it to the platforms, machines and humans where analysis takes place. Newer machines can do this more


conventionally, with built-in capabilities connecting neatly to purpose-built platforms, but that doesn’t mean that legacy equipment needs to be removed. A company that produces retro paper using authentic 1940s equipment, for example, can retrofit that equipment to monitor performance and pre- empt repairs, despite its age. Don’t make the mistake of thinking


automation is machine-only, either. Despite the advantages of remote automation in the smart factory, on-site employees are still part of the process and directly benefit. In most cases, the biggest gains can be


Stephen Edginton, VP for manufacturing, Epicor, says automation and autonomy on the smart factory floor result in a self-optimising process


W


hen it comes to business evolution, the term ‘unprecedented’ has been overused to the point of apathy in


the last 12 months. Businesses scrambled to first stave off extinction and then pursue excellence, with many taking a leap of faith into entirely new strategies. In such a rapidly evolving business environment, Deloitte’s suggestion that 90% of CFOs weren’t confident as of May 2020 comes as no surprise. For nearly every business, the vast majority


of changes that were made were technological. With lockdown restrictions impacting virtually every customer and employee, we’ve seen years of e-commerce development take place in months. You don’t have to be on-site to use technology and it’s been the only way to guarantee that businesses can continue to operate. This is true for manufacturers too, with


organisations looking to automate many of the processes that employees once needed to physically oversee. In an ideal world, an investment should be made in a solution that is an infrastructure of smart equipment that speaks to one another, collating swathes of operational data as they do so. If this can be achieved, manufacturers have laid the foundations for machines that are in constant communication with one another and relay this to human decision makers: the smart automation of the factory floor. However, most manufacturing floors still only do the basics when it comes to


26 APRIL 2021 | PROCESS & CONTROL


automation – think robotic arms on product lines or directing products on a conveyor belt. Tasks and processes take place based on pre- defined rules and a linear set of options, saving unambitious amounts of time in predictable ways. It’s an inflexible, static process. However, when your manufacturing


equipment is capable of continually collecting operational data, the results paint a comprehensive picture of strengths and weaknesses across the factory floor. That data is hugely valuable for contextualising how processes can be further improved to increase efficiency. For example, machine learning (ML) allows


equipment to predict outcomes with greater accuracy, and those predictions continually improve as new data ‘teaches’ the system to learn to define patterns and monitor outcomes. What’s more, the process is cyclical. The smart factory is a self-optimising process – the more data you can put back into the tweaking of your system, the more efficient the factory floor becomes. So, what are the technologies that allow us


to automate most effectively? It’s tempting to look to the most forward-


thinking or exciting technologies when it comes to automation. The image of drones flying around the factory floor is exciting, but not necessarily practical. The cornerstone of the smart factory is ensuring that you’re collecting as much data as possible and getting it to the people that need to see it. In


made by making simple technological tweaks to day-to-day processes – a root and stem approach simply isn’t needed. The most effective organisations will identify the manual processes that drain time and money, or increase risk, and eliminate them as a priority. Examples of this can be quite simple. One


manufacturing organisation was able to save over £120,000 simply by replacing on-premises terminals; it was safer and cheaper to equip employees with an individual tablet that did the same job. Without the physical requirements of a fixed terminal, employees no longer wasted time trekking to a specific terminal to clock in to work, and the risk of COVID-19 transmission on the terminal surface was hugely reduced. A more flamboyant example would be


using augmented reality (AR) to provide digital support directly into an employee headset. The consumer examples of an AR guide in supermarkets, guiding shoppers to the individual ingredients for a recipe, also applies to the factory floor. Imagine the potential to save time if new employees can’t get lost, or if old veterans don’t have to walk to a shelf to check stock. Imagine a factory in which every machine is


capable of reviewing its own performance, both individually and in relation to those around it. All of that data is sent to decision makers within the organisation, while at the same time teaching those machines to better recognise the patterns and parameters of its own performance. Meanwhile, employees on the factory floor


are having their experience partially automated, with machines pre-empting mistakes and eliminating time-consuming tasks. The tasks left are where employees can add-value and are made more efficient than ever, thanks to the guidance of technologies that augment their experience.


Epicor www.epicor.com


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