The lines between plant control systems and Information Technology systems are blurring. Even more than I previously thought. Consider the latest from Rockwell Automation;
Rockwell Architecture and Software business grew more than twice as fast as the Control Products and Solutions group in the second quarter of 2014.
Which suggests that companies are recognizing the value of this relationship. Mid size companies can reduce their costs by 20% over 5 years by applying automation and information systems strategically in their organizations. Rockwell’s own manufacturing has been impacted by 33% reduction in inventory and 30% reduction in capital expenditures as a result of better utilization of assets. These are big benefits that businesses everywhere can relate to.
The science fiction daydream of automated factories turning out products may still be a few years away, but you can see the trend in action. Robots, now called collaborative robots, soon to be called “associates” if we’re not careful, have fallen in cost and implementation is ever easier. Control system costs continue to fall in the presence of inexpensive embedded processors.
The missing element tying them all together is not multiple layers of proprietary information systems, but inexpensive Ethernet and variants that incorporate Precision Time Protocol. The neat thing here is the Precision Time Protocol can be backward compatible with existing non-real time Ethernet. So there is no need to rip out existing hardware. In some cases, wireless infrastructures using cell phone bands and Internet provide the virtual data “pipeline”.
The estimated annual output of businesses between $10 million and $1Bil, a segment composed of 200,000 companies and 44.5 million employees, produces more than $10 trillion dollars in output annually. These are the companies that will adopting advanced manufacturing strategies to increase their profitability. On a statistical basis of 3.4% of gross domestic product, it represents a potential $340 billion in technology.
What remains is a 1+1=3 solution that combines the hardware, infrastructure, software and customization to deploy a mix of solutions that are based on as many existing components as possible. Manufacturing floor control systems will need to be able provide status reporting to customer relationship management inquiries. Scheduling programs will have to be able to estimate capacity in near real-time and optimize complex manufacturing inputs based on supply chain information about materials availability.
The next few years will be a sea of change driven by huge underlying forces. Getting more productivity and predictability.
Quite the challenge.