Three Success Factors for Insuring Industry 4.0-enabled Machine Automation Can Deliver on the Promise of Mass Customization

Internet-era initiatives like Industry 4.0 and IoT are disruptive to the manufacturing shop floor but it does not compare to the monumental impact machine builders face if they want to remain competitive.  So much has been written about Industry 4.0 and yet it can still be confusing about what the real direct impact is to the machine builder.  Just to net it all out, the machine automation architecture must incorporate three key integration-focused features if a machine builder wants to fit into the emerging plug-n-play smart factory setting.

Distilling it down to its pure implementation, Industry 4.0 simply seeks to deliver on the promise of mass customization.  Mass Customization is the ultimate business strategy because it allows companies to deliver the highest quality products customized to each customer’s needs yet be able to build these customized products at mass produced prices.  Mass customization and Industry 4.0 concepts were first applied in the automotive industries and are now spreading to other industries.

But how does this impact the machine automation architecture for a machine builder?

As documented heavily by industry experts, to make Industry 4.0 possible, machine automation must now embrace emerging technologies like Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), AI and deterministic networks so that the machine can work in harmony with other machines in the work cell or on the factory floor.  But there is so much more.  Unless the machine controller can plug-n-play with other controllers and devices, can respond appropriately to real-time data available readily available from cloud or other sources, and can dynamically alter work processes based on actionable insights, the machine will not perform well in an Industry 4.0 setting.  To fit into the smart factory settings, machine builders must offer these features and more to ensure their customers can customize high-quality goods or services for individual customers in high volumes and at a relatively low cost.

For a machine builder to deliver a product that works in the Industry 4.0 context, they must enhance or re-architect their machine controllers.  Three features have emerged that are proving to deliver the requisite flexibility the machine control that allows the machine to perform in the smart factory setting.

The controller must embrace:

  1. All-Software Machine Automation Approach
  2. Open Software Integration Platform on an Industrial PC
  3. Open Standards-based Software Compliance

First, the machine controller benefits when it becomes an all-software solution and thereby eliminates any proprietary hardware such as I/O or motion control boards.  There is an immediate benefit because this approach frees the machine control from any vendor-specific lock-in and lowers the barriers to plug-n-play.  As just one example with industrial fieldbuses, an all-software EtherCAT Masters can replace hardware-based EtherCAT masters and eliminate proprietary cabling, I/O and servo drive lock-in from specific vendors.  EtherCAT masters can support mixed vendor servos so high-quality servos can be purchased for the most high-precision processes and lower performance servo drives could be purchased for low precision functions like tool changing.

But there is an even more valuable benefit from the all-software machine control approach.  Eliminating hardware and making the whole solution software also aligns with the demands of Industry 4.0.  In the same way that Amazon digitized the retail store, Industry 4.0 seeks to digitize the machine and the shop floor.  Software is the key to that digitization process so information can be shared and then processes can adapt when actionable insights are discovered.  Hardware is not flexible to change and adapt in the same way that software is.  Only an all-software control architecture can enable the optimal Industry 4.0 implementation.

And speaking of digitization, the second requirement of a successful machine automation architecture is to offer an Open Software Integration Platform on an Industrial PC.  There are lots of products that are emerging to help the process of integrating multiple controllers – even wrapping stand-alone remote controllers if no precise coordination is required between machines.  However, the most efficient way to integrate multiple controllers is to consolidate many controllers to a single Industrial PC.  It is so much easier to integrate and coordinate controllers if they are all running on the same PC rather than trying to interface to multiple standalone hardware controllers. Think about it, if all the controllers are on the same IPC then they all have access to the same clock which is key for integrating precise movements of multiple machines like a machine vision-directed motion application like a welding robot or a  surface mount technology machine might use.

And if the controllers are all running on a single IPC, then there is the possibility to integrate third-party, value-added software such as smart edge software (like Microsoft Power BI or Schneider Machine Analysis) or communications products like OPC-UA stacks to connect to cloud servers.  There would be no need to purchase a hardware gateway product because the PC itself can be the gateway.

Finally, the ability to support a standards-based software compliance approach has become a machine control requirement for Industry 4.0 because standards greatly simplify the effort to integrate controllers, to digitize and transform the information generated by the controller, to share the data with cloud processes, and to capitalize on actionable insights.  Not all standards are the same.  In fact, some standards are not truly “open.”  Standards that are not adopted broadly by an ecosystem should be considered “closed” because they are usually a derivative of a proprietary protocol from large automation companies that still create vendor lock-in.  To measure how open, effective, and useful a standard is, simply look at the affected industry and understand how broadly adopted by the market and the supply chain the market.

As one example of a standard that is truly “open” and as contrasted to so many high-speed digital fieldbuses, EtherCAT has emerged as the most broadly accepted field bus for machine automation.  Networking and real-time networking is critical to machine automation and that is why standards like TSN, GigeE, OPC UA, and real-time field buses standards like EtherCAT are needed for successful deployments.

In sum, to achieve the goals of Industry 4.0 with its demands to plug-n-play or integrate multiple machine controllers, to digitize the manufacturing process, and to deliver on the promise the machine control of the present and future will need an all software machine control architecture that runs on a standard IPC that is capable of also running value-added IoT software and that embraces open, valuable standards.

For the record, it is these three requirements that have been the guiding principle for each generation of the KINGSTAR Machine Automation software and why recently released KINGSTAR 4.0  KINGSTAR is an all-software machine-automation platform committed to helping our machine builder customers deliver on the promise of Industry 4.0, IoT and mass customization.