If you think of the start of the 19th century when you hear the words ‘Industrial Revolution,’ it’s time for an update. Because we’re right in the middle of a new revolution. The latest wave of industrial automation is sparking a fascinating change, with amazing opportunities for industry.
The keyword in this movement is SIM: Smart Industrial Machinery. ‘The upshot of SIM is that we don’t just see the machine as a device that performs production activities – we can also collect data about the machine’s performance. Based on that data, we can learn how to use the machine and the entire production system more effectively’. Theo de Vries and Mark Lendering are the department head and junior software engineer in VIRO’s Software & Control department. Theo de Vries also works for one day a week as a senior lecturer in the Robotics and Mechatronics Group at the University of Twente. They both give us a brief glimpse of the future of industrial production.
Focus on the customer
Theo de Vries has spotted a number of important trends: ‘The cycles in which products are manufactured are getting shorter all the time. If you want to come up with good solutions as a machine builder, it’s vital that you think in a flexible and modular way. You have to add extra software and you need to be able to adapt the mechanical design to the customer’s requirements. The second trend is that customers are asking their machine builders contribute ideas regarding the chain. The customer wants to deliver a product; the machine is nothing more than a means of achieving that goal. Machine builders are now expected to be involved in the entire product life cycle. We can help with that. For example, if particular production errors occur repeatedly, during which production step are things going wrong? The production network can collect, combine, and analyse the necessary data. We can use that data to explain why particular things aren’t working and which improvements are possible.’
Spotify is an excellent example of this: ‘Spotify keeps track of your musical choices. Then it makes suggestions: you might also like this. Based on data analysis, Spotify invites you to do something new. The entire service is structured around the user’s musical experience. The same is possible with mechanical engineering. Strictly speaking, customers don’t want a machine as such; they want to produce things. In the future, machine builders will gravitate more towards supplying a production facility.’ So, it involves more than collecting production data. It also involves proactivity. ‘As soon the subject turns to SIM, the Internet of Things also comes up. That typically involves collecting information. But it’s too passive. If we add automation, we can also include the optimisation process. How can you intervene in the production process? The customer also needs to look at that and think about it.’
Focus on safety
The Internet of Things is one of the many trends that are converging in Smart Industry. ‘The addition of communication facilities to machines is central to this. In every project, you can see that openness is increasing. People want access everywhere and from every location. In the past, the automation of a production plant was a completely separate activity. It is a piece of customisation, with its own network system. Smart Industry is trying to break that open. In itself, a positive goal, but it must be done securely. Because what is actually happening? You’re opening up your production device to the world. You can use it to do many useful things, but it’s also making you vulnerable. Look at hackers, the world has had plenty of examples of what they can do in the past few years. Added to that, you’re very reliant on the quality of your network. As soon as it fails, your production facility stops working. If, like VIRO, you specialise in Smart Industrial Machinery, you also have to know how to resolve these types of issues.’
Robot versus human
Robotisation is another trend that is closely related to SIM. Efficiency is wonderful, of course. But are robots not a threat to working people? ‘Robots certainly triumph over humans as far as manual production activities are concerned. But I hope and expect that different types of work will emerge. How can you add value as a human? There’s no doubt that young people need to think hard about their skills so that they continue to be attractive as employees in the future. When the cost of human labour is no longer a factor, it’s quite possible that production will be brought back to the Netherlands thanks to robotisation. That could be a great opportunity. The emergence of robots is also stimulating a demand for development activities. For VIRO, that’s a positive trend. We could also help bring back production to the Netherlands or Europe.’
Machines in a production environment are examples of systems in which the performance of the whole is not determined by one single technical discipline, but precisely by the synergistic combination of multiple disciplines: information and communication technology, but also mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and process technology. VIRO has traditionally built up extensive expertise in mechanical engineering, but over the past twenty years it has developed into a multidisciplinary service provider that is ideally equipped to support machine builders in all the relevant disciplines. Not just by deploying experts of numerous disciplines, but also by adding a system architect to the project teams that can create this synergy. For example, this type of system architect can identify the extent to which the mechanical engineering structure fits in with the proposed measurement and control-based solution; or where there are opportunities to achieve a better performance from the total machine and at the same time make savings on realising the electrical system by choosing smart solutions for the cables. The role of the system architect is therefore to optimally harmonise the disciplinary subsystems with each other and define and protect the related interfaces. That gives him or her a decisive influence over the ultimate total system.
If you would like to find out what VIRO can do for you, then contact:
Theo de Vries (+31 6 292 491 79, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Department Head Software & Control
Associate Professor in Intelligent Control & Mechatronics
Robotics and Mechatronics
University of Twente
Edwin Brunenberg (+31 6 535 841 23, email@example.com)
Department Head Industrial Projects
They would be happy to help you.