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How to make machines understand each other

Google chief economist Hal Varian said – “The ability to take data – to be able to understand it, to process it, to extract value from it, to visualise it, to communicate, it’s going to be a hugely important skill in the next decade – so the complimentary scarce factor is the ability to understand that data and extract value from it.”
Varian said that a decade ago, and thanks to the Internet of Things (IoT) his prediction is coming to fruition. Data will start to have a more intrinsic value than it has in the past. Not only in terms of what it means to people having information, but how it can be used and where it can be stored.

At a recent seminar for food industry production workers held by Omron at its Sydney headquarters in Silverwater, the company’s application engineer, Eugene Park, asked a question, “Who had heard of the Internet of Things.” Out of the approximately 30 people, five put their hand up including an Omron product specialist. This was interesting for many reasons, not the least being that the IoT is not a passing fad, nor will it be something that those in the engineering and manufacturing sector can put to one side if they want to be competitive in the future.

The data that can be collected by IoT-enabled devices not only offers information at the touch of the button, it can give a competitive advantage due to it streamlining processes and therefore lead to cost savings. For process engineers, it is a consideration that should be at the forefront of any plant or machinery they are involved with installing, commissioning or developing. Especially as automation takes an even bigger role in the manufacturing sector.

“Back in the day, on the manufacturing side, you used to base a machines cycle time on the worker’s ability,” said Park. “If they were highly skilled and highly trained they could run the machine a lot quicker than an unskilled worker. Now we have robots and machines that can automate these processes, quality check these processes and therefore always get the same result.” This is where the data comes in and gives technicians and plant specialists an opportunity to see how the processes are going.

But the IoT also brings its own problems, not the least being compatibility between the different devices from a range of vendors. How can these devices with different configurations all talk to each other? The last thing a manufacturer wants to do is spend big on new capital outlay of similar products. Omron is spruiking its PackML solution that addresses this issue.

“PackML is an industry standard of OMAC (Organisation for Machine Automation and Control),” said Park. “It makes any vendor’s machine look and feel the same as another’s machine. If you have one machine and then another machine and they both have PackML, they will look and feel the same to the operator. This means you don’t have to train for individual machines.”

Park says they do this through using Pack tags. Omron advise that it has a machine-state model that asks the question ‘what state is the machine in at the moment? Is it running? Has it stopped? Should it be running?’ From there, users can see what machine is running and at what time.

“Pack tags can be simply written and they can communicate from machine to machine,” said Park. “These pack tags can send up information on the machines to other machines. Each machine, if they are from different vendors and all have PackML, will all be looking for the same information based on the tags. An HMI (human machine interface) can show users what is going on. It is quite simple. Is it going? Is it idling? And so forth.”

When there is a machine down it can be hard to locate a problem. That is where Omron’s IO Link comes in. It has IO link-compliant products that helps fight downtime, which at the end of the day affects production costs.

There are three main issues faced by engineers in this industry; too much down time; high frequency of sudden errors; and inefficiency of system commissioning and changeover.
“That is why we talk about IO Links,” said Park, “which are a bidirectional sensor capability where the PLC talks to the sensor that talks back to PLC. Pretty much ‘I’m about to fail, so I’ll tell my PLC’. This then tells the operator this sensor is about to fail or has failed. If you install the wrong sensor in the node it will say that ‘I’m not in the right spot’. You are given that predictive measure in those machines so you’re reducing downtime costs and efficient changeover.”

Some of Omron’s NJ models also have SQL functionalities and capabilities, which mean users can go direct to the SQL server and store the information via the internet, laptop or computer that needs to be hard connected to the PLC.  When somebody uses SQL, they will see that they have a lot of data available.

“If you have a vast amount of data, what do you want from it?” said Park. “There are only a few bits of data where you need to say is ‘is my production line efficient or not?’ So, if you were able to create procedures to grab the data you need, to do your calculations, then you can generate your reports from that.”

So how does a customer know if their devices are going to be compatible? Park said they have an easy fix.

“If you had different vendors with different OEM machines we will go on site and look at what you have,” said Park. “Depending on the vendor, we will see what comms it can handle and ask you if you can look at the programming of your machine. If this is an option, we’ll simply add the necessary comms module that will allow our NJ machine controllers to talk to the existing ones. If, however, the existing OEM machine’s PLC does not have the necessary comms, or you are unable to access the program, we can approach the application by simply piggybacking the sensors of interest, of the OEM machine, to our IO modules and have a parallel non-invasive system that can aggregate data.”

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