Getting the edge in industrial automation

Over the last two years, APS Industrial has been the master distributor of Siemens industrial low-voltage electrical and automation products in Australia. PACE speaks with Justin Farrell from Siemens and Simon Kearney from APS Industrial to discuss the recent trends in industrial automation technology.

Coming under the broad umbrella of “Industry 4.0”, recent trends in automation technology have the potential to be gamechangers in the industrial sector, pushing forward productivity and efficiency and making processes more flexible and adaptable in real-time.

Many decades ago, automation systems were built as standalone packages for specific applications, designed to function with proprietary software, and they had little to no ability to communicate with other systems. However, over the last 20-30 years, these traditional barriers have been gradually breaking down. Industrial networks, for example, have allowed highly disparate systems to be connected together, although this can be in a limited fashion.

According to Justin Farrell, general manager of factory automation at Siemens Australia, a major change in the automation space is the increasing “openness” of more recent technologies and systems.

“While over the last 20 years, communication barriers have been broken down and some data transfer between machines of different vendors has already been happening, it has until fairly recently been somewhat limited to simple commands, such as ‘stop/go’ and emergency safety functions or has required significant effort to build bespoke overarching systems that can be difficult to maintain.” explained Farrell.

“Quite recently, however, new communication platforms and techniques are coming out that are really open. It means that, for example, a German-built machine and an American-built machine could be brought together with an Australian built machine in Australia and communicate with each other using an open, vendor-agnostic communications platform.”

This is enabling detailed, high-speed communication. Effective communication in an industrial plant is, after all, now not just about being able to send information, but it is also about having close to real-time communication so that operational characteristics can be synchronised. Transparent and relatively easy to maintain these types of systems can evolve with an organisations requirements, they have the flexibility and scalability to ensure initial investment is not lost as things change.

“These are the changes that are happening right now,” said Farrell. “We now have much more open standards and the ability for different machines to effectively communicate together in a way that allows the operational characteristics of each individual plant to be optimised.”

Cloud-based systems are now coming to the fore. Siemens’ MindSphere is among them. “Three years ago, MindSphere was at beginning stage, and over that three-year journey we have seen it go from what it could do to what it can do – the real-world applications of what industrial cloud is able to achieve for industry,” said Farrell.

Edge computing

Putting data in the cloud or sending things to the cloud means companies can have easier decentralised sharing of data and global sharing of information. However, while there is much talk today around so-called “big data”, it is necessary for companies to be able to transmit data that is useful and valuable where and when it is needed. This is where “edge” computing comes in.

Edge computing enables data storage and analysis closer to the devices and even on machines where it being gathered, lessening the potential for communication and connectivity problems and reducing the need to process data in centralised cloud locations.

Farrell explained edge computing by drawing on the analogy of smartphones. While smartphones are built with the primary purpose of being mobile phones, they also have the ability to access a sever and download apps that change the function of the device while retaining the original function at the same time. Over time, the phone’s connectivity makes it more useful as people develop new ideas about what it could be used for.

Siemens is translating this idea into the industrial world with edge computing, releasing devices such as a human-machine interface (HMI), which in the past meant an operator console, a visualisation of data about the machine. Now the company is building edge functionality into HMIs so that what companies buy today can be upgraded to something different or new or more advanced in the future as new functions are developed. It will become a standard to build edge into all new automation products.

“Also, edge devices are able to work and make decisions with machine control systems, but they don’t necessarily have to be connected to a cloud or the internet to have proper functionality,” said Farrell.

“This is because they have a local computing functionality as well as an ability to take information that has been analysed up to a cloud or a local server that is on the premises.”The value that can be gained from Industrial cloud systems is often dependent on the speed of the cloud and where it is located.

Farrell explained that edge devices allow the user to control what data is being sent in an effective way and, also, connect to any number of clouds. This also enables for updates to systems and machinery to be carried out remotely in a safe and secure way.

“A machine builder based in Australia who sends a machine to India, for example, may not have service engineers based in the latter. With edge devices, you could have that secure ability to connect and upgrade and update your machine functions from Australia without having to have anybody on the ground in India. And that is a real advantage,” Farrell explained.

“Wholesale programming changes are usually difficult to do remotely without having a confident person onsite because if there is an error it could cause an unwanted result. With edge devices, you could have an app that you are working on that you can test locally, do all your testing in house with an app, and just add an enhancement to a machine via an app that is much more condensed and controlled than downloading, for example, a PLC program.”

Machine learning and AI

Two other major recent trends in automation technology are machine learning and artificial intelligence. Farrell said that while these terms are often conflated, they refer to distinct technologies that need to be distinguished.

Machine learning is based on a defined programmable system that utilises and learns from data produced in the course of operation. This data is fed back into the system, enabling it to adjust itself on the basis of a defined set of parameters. The benefit of machine learning is process optimisation.

By contrast, artificial intelligence (AI) comes to the fore when the number of parameters or variables in a process is too vast to be programmable.

“A simple example of that is a conveyer belt where a random part is placed in random location in a random orientation on a conveyer belt, and you want to pick it up with a robot,” said Farrell.

Traditionally, robots are programmed to be able to carry out a procedure in a defined number of ways. If a task falls outside of the set parameters, the robot will be unable to successfully perform the action or task.

“With AI, robots are able to look at the parts and pick it up no matter what the orientation is – it is not limited by programmability, and that is a step beyond machine learning,” Farrell explained.

An example of where this could be extremely effective is baggage handling at airports, where today baggage handling is done manually.

“Because every bag is different – the orientation of each bag is different, some bags will be on top of each other, some are hard, some are soft– there are so many variables in the baggage coming off an aircraft that it requires a human worker to unload it. Further, large airports the large number of bags coming through every hour is a constraint on how much throughput the airport can have,” said Farrell. “AI-enabled robots would be able to handle those bags in all their different combinations, variations and permutations quickly and efficiently. This could be a real benefit for occupation health and safety, alleviating the manual handling risk of heavy and or awkward to lift bags whilst also allowing for increased baggage throughput.”

Adapting for the future

According to Farrell, the effective adoption of the Industry 4.0 technologies will require a change of mindset. This is a point echoed by Simon Kearney, APS Industrial director of sales.

“It is a really big shift in mindset for the industry – and it can a bit of a nervous step if you are taking the first one,” Kearney said. Indeed, the partnership between APS Industrial and Siemens is focused on helping Australian companies adapt to the shifts in automation technology. “One of the points we try to get across is that you don’t have to be an expert to get on board with these developments. Siemens is leading the way with Industry 4.0 – they are walking the walk,” said Kearney.

“You don’t have to be an expert to take advantage of all of this because Siemens will guide you through that journey. As a business, as long as you expressed a want or desire to get on this journey and make a start, you just need to engage with the experts that can help you get your business on the path.”

Farrell said that the goal of addressing the particular needs of companies in Australia by drawing on local knowledge and expertise was one of the driving forces in the collaboration between Siemens and APS Industrial.

“The only way that we can address the needs of the different industrial markets is to work with partners that have expertise in these areas. There is a whole lot of great expertise available in Australia to help companies achieve what they need to achieve,” Farrell said.

“It is through partnerships, like the one we have with APS, through that network of expertise, that we can solve the problems and achieve the solutions for our customers. It is a real community.”

Farrell said that newer automation technologies, while complex, can be made simple, accessible and usable for non-specialists.

“Machine learning, for instance, is rapidly becoming quite simple. There is extremely complex programming behind the scenes, but this same programming allows for simplicity when it is configurable by an easy-to-use interface in the front end that can be used by people without highly specialised skills and knowledge,” he said.

And the introduction of edge computing doesn’t have to be difficult either. In fact, Siemens is releasing products that have edge capability already built in. All of Siemens’ HMI panels, for example, will have edge capability as standard straight out of the factory. They can carry out all the normal functions of an HMI panel, but they are also future-ready.

“That takes the risk away, as it lowers the risk of investment – you are already making that further investment in the future – and if you want to use it in the future, it is available,” said Farrell.

According to Kearney, it is now easier than ever before for Australian companies to get hold of cutting-edge industrial technology.

“This is something that APS and Siemens are helping with. Our partnership is not yet two years old, but there is a real passion and energy in both companies,” Kearney said.

“It is not only exciting for us, but it can only be a good thing for Australian industry as well, because the more that these technologies get adopted, the better our industry will perform.”

Farrell agreed. “For Siemens, the reason why we have chosen to go with a master distribution setup is our commitment to the concept of partnering for success. We recognise that we need to partner with a business that can provide the touchpoints and reach into the market with our product portfolio.

“People still want to do business with people. Despite all the information that is available online, we need to connect physically and personally with our customer base. APS is enabling us to do that,” he said.

“Digitalisation has been very challenging to many businesses, small and large. But it is happening around us and companies need to adapt and change to get on board. We are surrounded by countries and regions that are well advanced in digital technologies and digital solutions. It has been happening in Europe for quite some time, and it is now happening rapidly across Asia, especially China. Australia has a lot of great talent, a lot of great minds with extensive knowledge. But I firmly believe we need to embrace these technologies so that we can be truly competitive on the world stage.”