Jonathan Wilkins looks at managing obsolete automation components in the factory of the future. Oh, did we mention that this factory could be ordering your replacement parts for you?
In 10 years’ time robots will cease to be subservient/submissive, manufacturing won't exist as we know it and we'll be 3D printing our own clothes before we go out. Do any of these sound like familiar predictions you've heard over the past five years? We thought so. With this in mind, we'll tread lightly when talking about what the highly interconnected future has in store for industrial automation.
At this point, it’s worth explaining the Gartner Hype Cycle – a theory that says a new technology first experiences a period of speculation and excitement before settling into a plateau of actual use.
Sometimes this excitement manifests itself in the form of highly ambitious predictions that probably won’t become widespread in the near future. More than 30 years ago, General Motors dreamed of creating factories where robots made robots with minimal human supervision. Lights out manufacturing, the stuff of sci-fi, was going to revolutionise the manufacturing industry and in the 1980s there was a buzz of anticipation.
Fast forward three decades and we're only recently starting to see advanced automated systems that need minimal supervision. This is hardly the norm though, with many manufacturing facilities still exhibiting minimal levels of industrial automation.
Concepts such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and Industry 4.0 are driving industrial connectivity to profound new levels, aided by the standardisation of communications protocols and a collapse of traditional automation architecture.
Don’t crack open the bubbly to celebrate just yet, though. There is still a long way to go before we’ll start seeing the fully-automated smart factories of the future.
Not everyone is in the position to upgrade their entire manufacturing line. We're hardly living in a world where every factory looks like a snapshot of the future. In fact, the majority of plants currently rely on obsolete parts to keep critical systems up and running, which is where higher levels of connectivity can really help plant managers in future.
Current computerised maintenance management systems (CMMS) are an invaluable platform for plotting when replacement parts need ordering. They analyse best outcomes with regards to risk and generally aid a human supervisor in keeping track of thousands of components.
Now comes the part we promised we weren't going to do: the hype. With increasing interconnectedness thanks to the wonder of the internet, smarter sensors and deep machine learning, is it wrong to believe replacements and upgrades will soon be taken out of human hands?
This would be at the stage whereby a smart factory lived up to its name – an automated cyber-physical system. A central computerised brain - a super CMMS - would contain analytics on all systems and know at what point in their maintenance lifecycle they were at.
Replacements or upgrades would be scheduled just in time to ensure maximum efficiency, which in turn would minimise downtime. When the plant's analytics on average part lifespan, wear and product lead times dictates there's the likelihood of downtime, spare parts could be ordered automatically from suppliers. It certainly is the lean manufacturing dream - realised through combining the art of obsolescence management with highly interconnected and intelligent machines.
We certainly don't think this is too preposterous a prediction. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but in 20 years time we could see similar systems in place as the one described above. Because if it's one thing we've seen over the last decade, it’s how important obsolescence management is becoming to an increasing number of industries. Just because new and advanced tech is being manufactured all the time doesn't mean everyone is able or willing to buy it. If anything, it's making perfectly good products obsolete at a faster rate.
If you're looking for a concrete prediction, here it is - obsolescence management will not become obsolete anytime soon. It will however, become more automated and technologically intelligent as engineering and IT advance. But don't trust your factory to order that obsolete drive just yet, you might be waiting a while.
Jonathan Wilkins is marketing director with EU Automation.