Manufacturing Technology Race - Leveling the Playing Field

  • July 21, 2014
  • Feature

By Bill Lydon, Editor

Manufacturers worldwide are in a productivity race enabled by a wide range of new automation technology. In order for your company to remain competitive, it needs to apply new technology to grow and survive in the world economy. Competing effectively in manufacturing requires investment in technology. To do this, manufacturing companies must stay up to date on the latest developments.

The advantage of low-cost labor as a core business advantage is diminishing worldwide. Low-cost labor countries are experiencing rising wages. They are learning that to compete effectively they must adopt automation technology to improve accuracy, productivity, reliability, and quality. Improvements in these areas are difficult to achieve simply by using low-cost labor.

For example, China has made large robot investments resulting in a substantial increase in robot density in the automotive industry. Between 2006 and 2012 there has been an increase from 51 to 213 robots per 10,000 employees. The automotive industry has always been an early adopter of automation technology. Other manufacturing industry segments typically follow. Another automation trend gaining popularity in Asia is retrofitting manual three-axis machine tools. Machine tool automation can be accomplished by replacing hand controls with a controller and motors.

By definition, all competitive advantages are differential. Companies who exploit the advantage of a new technology before their competitors will take the lead in the marketplace. Later, all the competitors will need to adopt these technologies to simply remain competitive.

Silver Bullet

Achieving effective manufacturing automation is a systems pursuit, and there is not one “silver bullet” solution. Learning, evaluating, and applying new technology should be a fundamental task for the entire manufacturing team, including production and automation engineers. There are many solutions available in the market. These solutions are building blocks that can be used to architect an automation system and achieve manufacturing goals. Some solutions worth noting outlined below.

Big Data - Information Leverage

Because companies monitor a larger number of real-time data points, the amount of data in automation systems has been exploding. Tools to analyze these big data sets are used to improve productivity and foster innovation. Predictive maintenance is a good example of using data analytics to predict problems before they occur, avoiding interruptions in production. In addition to lowering downtime, this also maximizes the use of skilled maintenance people, who are in short supply. More users and suppliers are going beyond software dashboards to use the power of computing to create advanced control and automation. Further, sophisticated analytics can substantially improve decision-making to improve and refine manufacturing processes.

Information Security

More advanced methods, software, and hardware is available to protect automation, control, and SCADA systems from cyber security attacks.

Integrated Machine Design

The vision of having a complete systems approach to designing a product, machines, and production lines as a holistic process is becoming a reality. Designing machines and associated automation in an integrated software design environment using modeling and simulation is a tremendous advantage. Engineers can optimize, debug, increase yield, improve quality, lower energy consumption, and increase machine efficiency before a production line or single machine is built.


The use of robots in a wider range of industries is accelerating with lower-cost, more agile robots. “Intelligent” robots can be created by the integration of robot with a vision system and recognition software. In addition, robots are becoming simpler to program, including the ability for users to teach robots to perform tasks. Robots allow manufacturers to achieve goals of increased productivity, reliability, and quality. Improvements in safety, flexibility, accuracy, and ease of use, coupled with lower cost, are accelerating adoption.

Enterprise Automation System

Industrial plants of any reasonable size are unlikely to have a single control system architecture installed. The trend is to use a software platform to unify operations and information flow. The software allows companies to improve decision making, increase agility, reduce risk, and improve production efficiency. This is going to be accomplished more often by selecting a unifying software architecture based on open standards.

Automation Computing Engines (ACE)

More capable controllers, known as Automation Computing Engines (ACE), embed functions traditionally found in independent software. These functions become extensions of enterprise systems on the plant floor, and include embedded historians, analytics, alarm management, equipment diagnostics, advanced control optimization, and rules engines. These powerful devices have multicore CPUs that perform meaningful data refinement at the information source on the plant floor. The incorporation of higher-level functions directly into these new controllers eliminates the need for Level 2, 3 and 4 computers, thereby improving system performance, eliminating bottlenecks, eliminating duplicate databases, simplifying configuration control, and lowering software maintenance costs.

Knowledge & Creativity

The combined knowledge and creativity of automation engineers to identify and apply new technology contributes to the success of a company. Ensuring your company remains competitive is vitally important and requires investment to stay current on new technology. Simply waiting for your current vendors to bring you new ideas is a very short-sighted approach. There is an enormous amount of information available today. No other activity is better than seeing systems and equipment in action, first hand, and talking to experts that can answer your specific questions.

Learn More

Engineers need to stay up to date on new technologies to be effective.  Advancements continue to be made in more powerful controllers, software, linear drives, gears, motors, mechanical transmission systems, linear motion systems, drives, condition monitoring, vibration reduction, and industrial networks. Success comes from engineers that know how to combine automation technologies to create systems that meet the goals of flexible and agile manufacturing.

An excellent opportunity to see the latest technologies is the second event being held on September 8-13, 2014 at McCormick Place in Chicago. Industrial Automation North America is collocated with the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) and Motion, Drive and Automation (MDA) North America 2014 exposition. This combination of shows is a one stop opportunity to gain an understanding of the latest automation and manufacturing innovations.

Did you enjoy this great article?

Check out our free e-newsletters to read more great articles..