Automation / Business models / Decision Support / Productivity / Standards

PC architecture opens plant data silos

Base your automation foundation on open industrial PCs, and IT/OT convergence is a fait accompli

By Mike Bacidore

tim mcfadden rxit

“If one production system is getting more throughput than another, we can finally figure out why.” Tim McFadden of R/X Information Technology on how the use of PC-based automation controllers has streamlined the integration of plant-floor and business systems.

The ongoing convergence of information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) is as much an issue of culture as it is of technology. But if both responsible parties build from a common foundation of PC-based computing and Ethernet communication, the cultural divide—and the islands of information created by yesterday’s proprietary systems—can be bridged much more readily.

Such is the experience of Timothy McFadden, director of business development for R/X Information Technology (RXIT), a maker of machines and integrated systems for automating the fulfillment of mail-order prescriptions. He addressed attendees of the recent Smart Industry 2015 conference in Chicago.

“We once had 30 different proprietary software tools used in our machines that every year dispense, verify and deliver some 600 million prescriptions across the United States,” McFadden said. Performance data was effectively locked within the machines; it couldn’t be viewed remotely or readily compared to other machines’ performance.

Business system connectivity

Enter Beckhoff Automation, whose PC-based automation controllers helped bridge the information gap for RXIT. “Now, remote connectivity is a game changer for us,” McFadden said. “The Beckhoff CX2020 [an Intel Celeron-based industrial PC] has connected the factory floor to the business systems, and if one production system is getting more throughput than another, we can finally figure out why.”

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Standardization requires using a common language for everyone involved, and that’s a top challenge for implementing advanced manufacturing concepts represented by the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) or Industry 4.0, said Aurelio Banda, CEO and president of Beckhoff Automation’s North American operations. To facilitate horizontal communication across groups, as well as vertical communication throughout the enterprise, data must be understood. “One of the mediums we use is OPC-UA, an open communications platform that’s vendor-agnostic,” said Banda. “For example, when SAP utilized OPC-UA and our embedded architecture, they were able to readily move data up and down.”

“With the IIoT we’re entering a world of cyber-physical systems and lots of data points,” said Banda. “A cyber-physical system represents the ability to move data into a cloud and make decisions around that data,” he explained. “In this fourth stage of smart automation, you have this convergence of IT and automation where they’re becoming blurred. You can’t automate the plant without the IT guy and the OT guy involved in the conversation. To stay competitive, manufacturing needs to be flexible and create secure connection points.”

Service-oriented architectures also makes it easy for computers connected over a network to cooperate, Banda noted. “At the end of the day it’s all about OEE, overall equipment effectiveness. You want those efficiencies, so you can be more flexible to meet that customer demand.”

The factory floor continues to become more and more of a software environment, added Rama Karamsetty, segment marketing manager for Intel’s Internet of Things Group. “That’s what the future’s going to be: an end-to-end platform will connect the factory floor to the supply chain and to consumers,” Karamsetty said. “On the manufacturing floor, the ability to connect sensors to the gateway and then out to the data center is going to create real value. This data can also help with predictive maintenance. It will reduce your spare costs and downtime and increase your efficiency.”

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