Safeguarding operations with resilient automation

Jon Lawson

According to the UK Parliament’s Coronavirus: Economic Impact research briefing published on April 9, 2021, the lockdowns and new safety guidelines have led to the largest economic decline in several hundred years, based on historical estimates. Here, George Walker, managing director of industrial automation specialist Novotek UK and Ireland, explains the role of automation technology in safeguarding industrial businesses from unpredictable market conditions.

UK industrial business leaders will, by now, be very familiar with market uncertainty. In the past five years, the industrial sector has been subject to unpredictability due to Brexit, worldwide component shortages, and now a global pandemic. Uncertainty is undoubtedly a certainty for the years ahead due to the continued presence and lingering impact of the pandemic. As such, it has highlighted the need for resiliency in industrial operations.

For an industrial operation to be considered resilient, it needs to be adaptable, which often means having insight into existing processes and boasting a high level of overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). Fortunately, these two factors are directly linked. By using modern automation systems, alongside an effective data strategy, industrial businesses can improve their operations.

Creating industrial resilience from the ground up

For operations to be sufficiently adaptable to thrive in uncertain economic conditions, the underlying processes and systems need to be as efficient and robust as possible. Waste in processes and inefficient equipment lead to tighter margins, which leaves a business more susceptible to sudden fluctuations in demand or capacity. 

Therefore, the first step is for a plant manager to understand what their site is doing well and where there are opportunities for improvement. This insight is born on the factory floor, with the performance data of the machinery and equipment itself, as well as other operational indicators such as stock quantities and where resources are. 

Managing this data efficiently relies on sensors or specific software at the edge, allowing the initial collection of information. Collecting and storing the local data itself requires a historian software (like this) or HMI/SCADA system that is capable of handling the volume of data that is being generated. 

Contrary to popular belief, these systems do not need to be costly either. In fact, deployment can be incredibly cost-effective for businesses that understand what data they are looking to collect and analyse. To help with this, Novotek UK developed an online historian calculator that plant managers can use to accurately assess the cost of a system depending on data requirements.

However, the key to achieving truly resilient operations across an industrial business is to not look at data in isolation. While a historian or SCADA system is vital to collect field-level data and offer local analysis, it offers only a partial view of plant data. For a more comprehensive view, the next step is to install a manufacturing operations system to aggregate and visualise the data. Plant managers can then make comparisons and important evaluations about machine and production line performance.

This also allows other departments and senior staff in a company to view the same data set, but with bespoke views and dashboards that align with their focus areas. For example, details on the operating temperature of a machine’s servo-drive can, with the right calculations, contribute to a clearer picture of plant energy usage — something that might be of particular interest to anybody involved in sustainability.

The right systems in place allow even the most granular data to contribute to operational insights, which in turn highlight areas for improvement. An effective data strategy allows the right people to access these insights and act on them — improving processes, strengthening operations and increasing resilience.

The effects of the UK’s 9.8 per cent GDP decline due to Covid-19 will no doubt continue into the next year. Beyond that, there is no telling what events may cause future unpredictability in the market. Industrial business leaders must be prepared for anything — and so too must their operations.

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