The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is furthering its reach into engineering and design. Connected machines will give plant engineering operations the opportunity to identify points of inefficiency, improve upon those points, and in turn, improve profitability.
To further discuss how IIoT is impacting work for design engineers, Mark Duncan, segment manager of material handling and packaging machinery for Schneider Electric’s industry business.
In the future, Duncan believes engineers will have to focus on existing machine designs and their communications standards, and monitor those standards as they progress. Some examples of this include Internet protocols such as Ethernet, which promote machine-to-machine connectivity, more plug-and play-use, and a smoother transition into a plant environment.
Duncan also believes that, as they look to the future, design engineers must be cognisant of the developing standards in machine-to-machine communication.
“We have a customer that makes a machine for the coffee industry, and that machine is really built to be modular, connected, and is also built to be self-aware of its own capability and how it’s performing,” he said. “It’s also a safe machine, designed with safety built in. It communicates with other machines in a production line.”
An example of this would be the material and product that comes into the machine, such as the one Duncan describes. That product would be processed by the machine, put into a package, and then moved to another machine, with the product cartons eventually taken to a palletizer. Using communication standards, this complete process is simpler than previous practices, where end users would have to reprogram each machine, allowing the machines to work together.
Duncan expects that because of machine language standards (such as those for packaging machines using a language called PACKML) machines will be able to instantaneously communicate information in consistent data sets that could be operated by a central computer that would manage production of an entire product line. Each machine would be able to communicate with another regardless of who it was manufactured by or the control system inside the machine.
“This type of design consideration would need to be made by the engineer as he or she is developing a machine. ‘How’s the machine going to communicate? What language is it going to speak externally?’” Duncan said.
Duncan continued, “They also have to think about the machine itself now that we have the capability to take a lot of the data out of the machine. Then, what data am I going to produce? A servo-motor is going to tell what position it’s in or maybe more data about how long it’s been in service or what type of firmware it’s using at the moment.
“Those types of things are going to be necessary to define up front when you’re designing a machine.”
A variety of engineering disciplines within the design engineering field will be impacted by the continued assimilation of IIoT, particularly mechanical and electrical or programming engineers.
Electrical engineers who program will be impacted, according to Duncan, because they will have to decide between a number of communication protocols and data types they will use. An example of such a tool, according to Duncan, is a PLC library with standard functions.
Mechanical engineers will also be impacted by the growing number of related tools that will allow them to perform a sort of test run of the machine before the metal is first cut.
“I think some of the mechanical models for the layout of the machine—now you can actually simulate the machine and operation,” Duncan said. “You can use all kinds of different libraries to build the mechanics and prototypes before you actually start completing your final design.”
As Schneider moves forward with IIoT, Duncan believes the company will work to manufacture all of its products so that they are able to be connected with plug-and-play ease. These changes will allow machines to stay up to date.
“We have some developments around what we call ‘dynamic QR codes.’ One of our latest products basically has built in algorithms, and when the product needs to communicate something it merely publishes a QR code dynamically on a display and then an operator can just scan that with his smart phone to see what is actually happening in the product. We’re seeing a lot of demand for that type of connectivity where an operator can use a smart phone or an iPad to either communicate directly with the machine or to be able to have visibility into the machine.”
Duncan said that the company has also embedded web servers in many of its products, such as its latest lineup of PLCs. The server allows users to link the PLCs via an Internet connection, which gives users the opportunity to examine the PLC and the data. This examination can be done remotely from anywhere in the world.
“A lot of customers are looking at that as new business models for service and support to be able to essentially log into their machines and do maintenance real-time,” he said.
Finally, Schneider has developed a variety of wireless communication products, namely switches and sensors, which Duncan believes will play a large role in “this Internet evolution.”
“We’re seeing that from our customers—they want to spend less money on physically wiring the device and they want to have it communicate as well, so we have wireless push buttons and wireless limit switches that are great for discrete manufacturing environments and then we have another division making process instrumentation that’s wireless as well.”