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Industrial Automation – Current state & future challenges

The advancement in PLC range of products has blurred the line between PLC and DCS systems and the use of PLCs has now become common for very large installations as well. The availability of wide range of PLCs from vendors and the need to exchange data between these systems has driven the need to development of gateway devices that can act as protocol converters to collect data from one system and deliver to another as per the protocol understood by those systems. Many companies specialize in products that offer the protocol conversion between systems from different vendors. Many OEMS offer their products with modbus protocol enabled to offer remote control / monitoring of their system parameters by other automation control systems. The automation control systems then employ either in-rack or outside converters (gateways) that can understand the modbus signals and convert to make them available to the PLC memory for monitor / control.

The availability of so much data at the plant floor level led to the question of how to deal with it and how to gather intelligence out of this big data that gets generated at production floor round the clock. The emergence of Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) almost a decade back tried to filter useful data out of big data. The MES systems offered connectivity to the plant floor automation systems mostly through OPC connectivity gathering huge amount of data and storing the same in databases for further processing and analysis. Once the data become available in database applications further analysis of same for production and quality needs of the plant became possible. The production teams at plants were able to increase their efficiency and quality by identifying the bottlenecks in their system using the data being provided by the MES applications. The management got daily production & quality reports right on their desktop at plant / corporate level as the visibility into production processes got enhanced by the introduction of MES applications. Also historical storage of this data and analysis of same for periods spanning months or even years became possible leading to further optimization in the production processes. Further integration with ERP layer made it possible for the production orders to be fed from planning layer to the manufacturing execution (MES) and further down to the production apparatus leading to optimum utilization of both plant machinery and personnel. The MES applications are continuously being fine tuned to bring out custom models that cater to specific industry segments e.g. FMCG or Oil & Gas. The increasing use of Industrial IoT (Internet of Things) devices in production processes would make the big data even bigger and pose new challenges on handling of huge data volumes and the intercommunication between the IIoT (Industrial IoT) smart devices.

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