Industry 4.0 and what’s been called the Fourth Industrial Revolution have been hot topics in industrial automation and technology for several years now. As we near the second decade of the new millenia, technology that was once experimental or hypothetical, even bordering on science fiction, is now reality. The practical implications, and some challenges, of Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), augmented reality, industrial robotics and other high-tech gadgets are now appearing as these devices roll out on factory floors. As industrial automation and control builds up to 2019, here’s a look at what this new tech may bring.
Industrial Automation and Control Trends in 2019
Increasing Use of the Digital Twin
Not all industrial automation control changes in 2019 will take the form of robots and futuristic factories. The use of the Digital Twin, a predictive model that has long been used in construction and aeronautics, will gain more usability and versatility in 2019.
Digital Twins combine several different types of Industry 4.0 technology and, though they may not appear as amazing as huge industrial automatrons, their computational power is impressive. Ideally, the Digital Twin is a real-time virtual replica of a product, machine, process, or facility. It combines complex predictive and computational formulas to factor in any number of environmental factors (for example wind speed and velocity) with sensors to gather real-time data. These programs show how a product or device is doing and can predict what will happen with the data provided. Finally, 3D modeling builds a virtual replica around the simulation, turning internal and environmental data into a Digital Twin you can actually see (at least on a computer screen, or maybe even in virtual reality).
The Digital Twin has been successfully used in the development and optimization of vehicles and buildings, and will be further adapted to industrial automation and control in 2019. Before automating a process and building a machine, developers may build a Digital Twin first to optimize performance and detect issues before they occur. Once a machine is installed, a Digital Twin may continue to run prognostics to detect any shutdown threats. In some cutting edge facilities, Digital Twins are even used as machine learning models, allowing automated machinery to “learn” about threats, avoid them, and optimize themselves, as well as incorporating new data or commands entered by engineers.
More Integrative, Portable TechnologyWith operative technology (OT) and information technology (IT) growing closer and more interconnected in industrial automation, separations through branding or proprietary design will be more burdensome in 2019. For automation technology, including all the opportunities of IoT and Industry 4.0, to provide the most benefits, it has to be usable without too many knowledge gaps or functional roadblocks. This means software, hardware, and programming languages must communicate and integrate better.
When technology doesn’t work with other technology, it’s a problem for customers and a threat for businesses, whether it’s an app that doesn’t work on a particular device, or a software platform that won’t sync with an industrial sensor. Equipment manufacturers that move away from proprietary systems and intentional design roadblocks will ultimately win customer approval. Though these suppliers may sacrifice revenue that comes from captive customers, they will win more by providing convenience and support. Multivendor interoperable open systems with the ability to cross and connect different devices and software will pave the way for better communications and maximum efficiency gains at the lowest cost.
Tech Does More (And Needs More)
The increasing performance and functionality of industrial automation and control in 2019 means higher efficiency, less waste, and fewer shutdowns, but this new technology also has requirements to work. Facilities that utilize state-of-the-art robotics, augmented reality or IoT tech must first have a system which can support them.
More capabilities means more sophisticated system architecture and more capable controllers to integrate with new devices. Electrical engineers will be tasked with integrating these new devices safely and effectively, protecting both assets and people. IoT devices will require either a strong and far-reaching wireless network with minimal interference from other networks or structures, or a reliable wired network to function properly. Enterprise software must be able to communicate with these devices as needed, and may require changes. Any devices connected to the internet will need additional bandwidth to support them, which may require upgrades through an ISP. These sensors will also require data storage, either through edge computing or cloud computing. To maintain cybersecurity, all systems must be updated and patched on a regular basis, which may require moving away from any software that is no longer supported. Finally, additional staff may be needed to maintain the network, with experience in both IT and OT.
Collaboration, Not Replacement
A common fear surrounding Industry 4.0 and new industrial automation and control trends is the widespread replacement of people by robots. While some jobs, particularly those that are monotonous or dangerous, are better suited to robots alone, the use of collaborative robots (AKA cobots) working alongside human counterparts is a rising industrial automation and control trend that will increase in 2019.
Many industrial robots performing automated tasks are too dangerous to be near people, and too expensive to be used in many shops. These are also specialized for a given task, with little versatility, and they require a lot of space. Collaborative robots are the opposite; they are designed to work safely alongside people, they are reprogrammable and versatile, have a lower price point and a smaller footprint. For businesses that wish to partially automate or hand off monotonous tasks to robots without the need for large enclosures, cobots are the solution.
Industrial automation and controls in 2019 are filled with new possibilities, with some technology becoming widely available for the first time. The Internet of Things, robotics and sophisticated computing will continue to grow and change throughout the year, and present new opportunities as well as new challenges. Businesses that embrace technology and take care to implement it thoughtfully will be the first to win competitive advantages.