The effects of COVID-19 have forced manufacturers to modernize their automation systems
Manufacturers are currently reevaluating their automation systems due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Some manufacturers are taking notice as they are having to manufacture items that are completely out of their normal scope while others are having to evaluate the effects on production due to social distancing constraints on workers within the facility. Regardless of the reason, it is forcing manufacturers to assess their operations and determine where improvements need to be made.
Upgrading your controller is not as simple as it used to be. Features and technological advancements vary, even among brands that consider their controllers “modern.” While it may be easy at first to just specify the latest-released processor from your current controller vendor, this might not be the best choice for your digital transformation journey.
There is a lot of pressure to make sure your choice will provide optimal ROI today and tomorrow. To be sure you’re not stuck with a controller that won’t allow your plant to modernize and become more efficient, your controller choice should offer these 7 essential digitally-optimized features:
Advanced Digital Twin Capabilities
The “Digital Twin” is not a new concept however many control vendors are still decades behind in their digital twin and virtual commissioning offering. Look for a PLC that offers a digital twin solution that can aid with virtual commissioning and truly represent your automation system to provide real-time co-simulation capabilities with 3D models of your plant. Also look for PLC simulators to work with a variety of 3D modeling software, allowing you to have maximum flexibility. Don’t compromise with PLC emulators that require PLC configuration or project modifications to work. The same applies to non-real-time co-simulation with other software for 3D CAD model simulation or process simulation. Compromising on this feature would mean compromising on the integrity of your acceptance tests, ultimately leaving opportunity to increase on-site commissioning time, startup time and therefore overall costs.
You want to make sure the controller you select has the processing power not only to handle your existing manufacturing or production process but to also optimize it to realize a greater potential. With technology changing very quickly, processors are integrating features such as OPC UA, integrated cloud connectivity, edge processing, neural processing a.k.a. artificial intelligence (AI), and integration with digital twin and modeling software. With all these emerging technologies, you do not want to have a processor that is short of resources when you need it to adapt easily – especially if you just paid for a so-called “state-of-the-art” processor!
Safeguards against illegal copying, execution & manipulation, additional passwords & credentials for network and controller access, program checksum validation, certificate-based encryption and disabling of unused Ethernet ports should all be standard features of your controller without the need for additional licenses or software. Look for a vendor that also has strong alliances with international cybersecurity partnerships such as Charter of Trust and organizations such as FIRST, ANSSI and ICS-CERT. Ensure that your control vendor also protects their development and production of automation components by certified compliance with international system hardening standards such as IEC 62443-4-1. Although many vendors share security bulletins, they may have vulnerabilities that are undiscovered in their manufacturing process which could ultimately leave you vulnerable to cyber threats!
Totally Integrated Engineering Framework
If you are going to transform your factory into a digital enterprise, it is imperative that integration across all levels is seamless. A scalable, integrated engineering framework should allow you to seamlessly integrate multiple controllers, HMIs, SCADA, remote IO devices, VFDs and manage networks without the need for additional project files, engineering software or require manual synchronization. You shouldn’t need a separate software for smaller controllers that handle simple machines – this should be in the same environment as all your controllers to promote interconnectivity, scalability and familiarity when troubleshooting or commissioning. This feature will ensure you reduce your time-to-market and have consistency across your engineering and maintenance teams.
Safety PLCs have been around for decades and it should be a standard offering for a control system where there is potential harm for workers. To realize maximum benefits of truly integrated safety, look for a controller that has all of the necessary safety functionality built-in, so no extra “safety partner” processor is needed to achieve maximum safety performance – this will also ensure maximum savings in cost, space and flexibility with system design. Coinciding with feature #4 above, the engineering environment for both standard and fail-safe communication and programming should be a single engineering framework to reduce engineering and maintenance efforts. In short, look for a safety solution with one controller, one engineering framework, one communication for standard and fail-safe automation.
Flexible Connectivity Options
With any automation system upgrade it is very likely that not every system will be upgraded all at once. For this, you should ensure that your controller can play nice with existing controllers by supporting commonly used and open industry protocols. Systems should have built-in communication options, protocols and connections allowing the ability to share data without code modifications to your current installed controllers. Commonly used protocols are OPC UA, TCP/IP, UDP, Profinet, Profibus and Modbus, just to name a few.
Technology is constantly changing and evolving. When selecting an automation system, it must have the capability to incorporate forward-looking technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), edge, motion, predictive maintenance and energy management. The last thing you would want after purchasing a new controller is for it to not be compatible with future advancements in technology.
An opportunity to upgrade a controller is also an opportunity to benefit from the competitive advantages of digitalization and move your plant closer to optimal efficiency for more profitable performance. Don’t make the mistake of assuming all “new” controllers will come with the most advanced features available. This checklist can help you identify a controller that will continue to return benefits long into the future.
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