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Four examples of the evolved, digitally enabled industrial control room

May 8, 2023
#1: Control system support as a service.

 By Richard Phillips, director of smart manufacturing with Polytron, Inc. and CSIA member

Programmable control systems such as PLC and DCS systems have been around for 50+ years with improvements being made each year courtesy of faster processors, more memory and greater functionality. The key trends that we are seeing related to control systems are not so much about the control-system technology itself, but more affected by changes with skilled labor availability and emerging Industry 4.0 technologies.

Here are some of the key trends we see that are affecting control systems:

  1. Control system support as a service: Manufacturers are seeing a significant labor and skills gap when trying to staff plant positions. This is caused by multiple factors including the great resignation, the financial independence retire early (FIRE) initiative, etc. In addition, the trend of re-shoring of manufacturing to alleviate supply chain issues has further strained limited workforces.

To partially solve this issue as related to control-systems support, manufacturers have turned to more centralized monitoring of control systems in order to enable fewer qualified resources to effectively support a wider manufacturing footprint. This is being deployed in various ways including:

  • Control-room monitoring within a facility—For large facilities, we have installed central or even satellite (for very large facilities) control rooms for monitoring manufacturing equipment across full departments. This approach requires fewer resources and enables a shift from reacting to problems to a more proactive approach of addressing early indicators. The use of situational awareness design concepts that highlight items that require attention has helped call immediate attention to problem areas.
  • Remote control monitoring for multiple facilities—Same concept as above, but in this case a larger team of corporate-wide support personnel monitor multiple plants across their enterprise 24/7. Resources at the plant are engaged for issues requiring boots-on-the-ground support with the expert resources providing support remotely.
  • Third party remote-control monitoring for multiple facilities—Same concept as above, but in this case a systems integrator or third party is providing the support. This is more ideal for manufacturers who are not able to cost-justify their own staffing and control room, but want to benefit from a fractional control-room concept.

2.      Increased automation: Labor shortages and re-shoring of manufacturing have driven manufacturers to increase their level of automation to address issues with workforce reliability, skills gap, performance, quality, and to help ensure productivity goals are met. This increased automation takes several forms including:

  • Traditional automation—Adding automation equipment such as case packers, case erectors, palletizing and conveyors to automate previous manual tasks.
  • Collaborative robots (Cobots)—Cobots provide a lower-cost alternative to traditional robotic arms, where a generally slower, lighter and less complex repetitive motion is required.
  • Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs)—AMRs replace forklift drivers and long conveyor systems while providing greater flexibility, as they can be more easily programmed for alternate paths. Amazon has helped push the technology in this space.

3.      Mobility: Access to the control system is now more easily provided via smartphones and tablets. Security has to be a key consideration. Manufacturers who purchased mobile technology to facilitate social distancing during the pandemic are now looking to leverage those devices for faster access to information requiring attention.

4.      Increased data collection: Control systems are the main source of manufacturing information required to feed analytics, machine learning and other Industry 4.0 solutions. Mesh-enabled data collectors make it even easier to gather digital and analog information in areas where traditional control systems do not exist or cannot be cost justified. This is key to providing visibility into areas of the plant where control systems may not exist. Applications include predictive maintenance, monitoring temperatures in refrigeration trailers, and many others.