- By Kenneth Tran
- May 17, 2022
Industrial automation systems are now able to create true operational intelligence by combining the efficiency of modern AI computing with the experience of operations personnel.
Typical industrial automation methods in the digital age excel at monitoring field conditions and executing prescribed logic to perform real-time control. Human operators are still involved to some degree in most automation implementations, and they are integral decision makers in many cases. But maximum benefit—in terms of performance, efficiency, and quality—is achieved when the automation system effectively informs operators, who in turn make decisions to improve performance.
Gartner defines this type of “decision intelligence” as “a practical domain framing a wide range of decision-making techniques bringing multiple traditional and advanced disciplines together to design, model, align, execute, monitor and tune decision models and processes.” (Reference 1).
Unfortunately, most automation systems in service today are limited with regards to decision intelligence. However, by combining aspects of modern artificial intelligence (AI), industrial internet of things (IIoT) technologies, and human intelligence, a digital decision-making framework is enabled. Using innovative hardware/software architectures and this approach makes it possible to build true decision intelligence into manufacturing and processing applications of all types, leading to operational intelligence, and creating an artificial intelligence of things (AIoT).
Human and machine
Humans can be quite good at making good decisions based on limited or superficial data, even during rapidly changing circumstances. However, they are not usually able to process or act on large datasets without assistance. And unfortunately, humans can also make poor decisions based on biases and other improper determinations.
Computing systems can rigorously follow rules and can be used to analyze massive datasets to expose patterns leading to insights. But while powerful, most traditional computing systems used for automation systems simply do as they are told.
What about artificial intelligence (AI)? Some would call typical logic-solving digital systems a form of basic rule-based AI. Developing the rules—also known as decision logic, algorithms, and procedures—requires engineers and operations experts to define the operating requirements so programmers can create corresponding code. Unfortunately, the resulting rules typically become frozen in time during commissioning. They are largely static, requiring specialized personnel to improve or expand them.
More effective AI
Modern AI is far more capable, compared with basic AI using only logic-solving systems. Certainly, logic-solving and decision trees are still a part of modern AI. However, instead of only being designed by humans, modern AI rules are dynamic, developed by machine learning (ML) which discovers patterns and rules within massive datasets to support reinforcement learning.
While modern AI is applicable to most any type of computing, that does not mean it is a plug-and-play solution. And for traditional industrial automation industries, modern AI has been applied sparingly and slowly up to this point.
Remembering that both humans and machines maintain certain strengths—and weaknesses—begs the question of how to apply modern AI most effectively for industrial automation applications. The answer is found by creating AI solutions which include tools enabling operational experts to shape decision logic and deploy it into production. This type of operational intelligence enables production systems of all types to operate efficiently and constantly adapt.
Implementing operational intelligence
A more advanced architecture is necessary to preserve local real-time control and integrate it with higher-level computing. This architecture enables the merging of traditional hard sciences and human experience with AI and ML, executing in the field and in the cloud, to deliver AIoT (Figure 1).
Implementing operational intelligence in an industrial production setting requires addressing several unique requirements, where it is important to distinguish between two levels of control: micro-control (μcontrol) and macro-control.
In the field, local μcontrollers, traditionally PLCs, are needed to gather data and perform real-time control. However, far greater processing power—typically hosted at an on-premises server or using cloud-based resources—is necessary to perform macro-control functions, such as analyzing all available data, providing advanced visualization for operators, and executing AI rules. The results of this digital decision making in the form of better operating setpoints and improved AI rules can then be transmitted down to the μcontrollers, which take action in the field.
Traditional automation using PLCs, HMIs, and SCADA has been a partial solution for decision intelligence. They operate at the μcontroller level, visually presenting data and letting the users change setpoints. This effectively makes the human operators into macro-controllers.
A better approach is to build modern AIoT functionality from the ground up, or add it on top of traditional automation methods, and it is the path forward for true operational intelligence.
Growing an AIoT application
One proof of concept has been for greenhouse control in the agricultural industry, but the ideas are applicable to many other types of control.
Optimal greenhouse performance is measured in terms of increased produced quantity and quality, while minimizing consumption of energy and other resources. Greenhouses represent an interesting test bed involving significant physics and science. There are many intertwined variables and control functions, such as lighting, heating/cooling, humidity, irrigation, and others. Even plant health can be assessed, and some systems provide plant spacing adjustments.
Local μcontrollers—typically in the form of industrialized Arduinos or Raspberry Pis, but also traditional PLCs—provide real-time control, hardwired I/O and fieldbus connectivity, and robust form factors.
The μcontrollers transmit field sensor data to the macro-control AI program. Human farmers also supply crop data to the AI, and the AI can use sources like weather forecasts. ML models may also include advanced real-time information about plant weight, transpiration rate, photosynthetic rate, and more. In turn, after detailed analysis, the AI provides setpoints and optimal strategies to the μcontrollers, as well as crop handling instructions to the farmers (Figure 2).
Data dashboards available via the web and mobile apps are convenient ways for users to interact with the system. The AI can detect anomalies, incorporate local climate forecasts, identify pest/disease issues, and predict plant traits, all supporting optimized autonomous growing.
Power to the operators
Another example of applying AIoT to industry is at a large biomass production facility in Vietnam. The system was originally designed and built with traditional PLC/HMI/SCADA technology, and provided baseline functionality. However, the facility owners were looking for a way to improve operations without getting into complex and expensive engineering cycles.
To start, they tapped the PLCs to provide source data to an edge-located computer running AIoT software. This data, supplied by the field sensors and other operational parameters, enabled operators to better visualize the process operation and perform analyses, sometimes with the help of cloud-based methods. Therefore, the operators who work with the equipment every day in a hands-on manner are able to consider, implement and update improved control logic and algorithms for optimizing operations.
One of the tools they use is an Excel-like language which is easier for operations personnel to work with compared to traditional industrial languages like ladder logic (Figure 3). This low-code language is very expressive, and enables to develop strategies ranging from simple to sophisticated. They can leverage all types of signals and information, even the results of other blackbox ML learning models.
The team has been moving a lot of automation out of the PLCs, and into edge controllers where the new AIoT logic and rules are readily implemented. AIoT allows the operations team to own and evolve the process functionality. They can keep fine-tuning, or sometimes revert to previous approaches, as they learn more.
Digital decision benefits
AIoT concepts are disrupting traditional industrial automation practices by forging a better partnership between human intelligence and AI. Classic digital decision-making techniques are well understood and can perform reliably, but they are relatively static and require specialized personnel to create, maintain, and update. Modern AIoT techniques are often the best method to provide complete operational intelligence by merging the best capabilities of humans and technology.
All figures courtesy of Koidra
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