Trends in automation

Expect to see an upswing in client/server-based applications going onto the plant floor in the near future, says Karen Roberts, leader of the Industrial Automation Division at Comark.

Comark is a builder of computers that have been "ruggedized" for the factory floor. According to Roberts, the spread of client/server-based applications is being driven by the need for faster changeover and a desire to reduce opportunity for human error.

"The server brings more centralized control," says Roberts. "Suppose you want to change the carton size on your mac and cheese line. Instead of going to each piece of equipment on the plant floor and programming it individually, you have a centralized control that resides in the server. Individual pieces of packaging machines become clients of the server."

Other automation observations made by Roberts in a recent phone interview:

  • Some progress is being made where machine-to-machine interoperability is concerned. But real progress is hindered because so many plants have packaging lines where the equipment is 8 to 10 years old. Such equipment was never designed with interoperability in mind.
  • The FDA could become increasingly active in stemming any new food-safety incidents like the spinach outbreak of last year. One possible outcome is an increased emphasis on the need for washdown capabilities. Integrators looking at bringing advanced IT capabilities to new packaging lines would do well to keep this in mind.
  • Exchange of information from ERP to the plant floor and back again is a ways off in practice, even though there is a growing awareness of the potential benefits that might come from such an exchange. One shift underway is that this kind of ability to exchange information is being viewed now not only as a means of shaving costs but also as a means of generating increased revenue by positioning a packaged goods manufacturer to respond more readily to marketplace demand.
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