Manufacturing in the new normal

Mitsubishi Electric Australia

Tuesday, 22 September, 2020

Manufacturing in the new normal

Social distancing, protecting your employees, restarting operations and machines, catching up on supply chain gaps. Just like society as a whole, manufacturers are experiencing a lot of additional challenges they didn’t expect, and to top it all many are facing reduced budgets. So how do you navigate the new manufacturing normal?

“Manufacturers are now trying to adapt to the changes in conditions, especially in two major aspects,” said Hajime Sugiyama, Industrial IoT Evangelist of Factory Automations Systems Group, Mitsubishi Electric Corporation. “For example, how do you implement social distancing in a factory?”

It’s a very interesting question, which has more permutations than most people initially consider. Starting with the individual we can all imagine the use of face guards and masks, and indeed many industries have traditionally used such PPE (personal protection equipment), but this was driven from a hygiene or clean environment standpoint for industries producing such things as food, drugs or even sensitive electronics and semiconductors. But such PPE is not necessarily desirable in all industries. For example, in hot or humid environments the act of wearing a mask may actually increase risks of heat exhaustion, so care must be exercised in truly understanding the worker’s environment. Some plant managers are considering using screens between workers, but this is also not a panacea as there potentially can be space and restricted movement issues as well as possible problems around access to emergency devices, such as E-stops, or to reporting and controlling devices — or simply visibility challenges.

“Many manufacturers are focusing on social distancing through shift management,” Sugayama said. “For shift management, you need to balance work shifts so that fewer people are working together at the same time to prevent a pandemic situation inside the factory. But this presents a whole new set of challenges.”

While balancing shift patterns provides factory managers with a level of operational redundancy — ie, if one shift needs to be suspended due to infection, the second or third shift can continue business as usual after the plant has had a thorough cleaning — it is a natural consequence that fewer people working will naturally lower the productivity.

Let your cobot take the strain

“Building extensive automation solutions takes a great deal of time, budget and planning,” Sugiyama said. “And in these times when manufacturers want to get up and running quickly and flexibly, all three resources are likely to be in short supply.”

So what’s the alternative? One possible solution is the increased use of industrial collaborative robots. Typically these light devices can be quickly deployed, are human-friendly and are flexible enough that they can be quickly trained to do a variety of tasks, without needing extensive robotics expertise. On the whole, they are also quite cost-effective.

“It’s clear one solution will not fit all, so flexibility to adopt the right social, ‘mechanical’ and collaborative solutions will be the norm,” Sugayama said.

Some plant managers are considering using screens between workers, but this is not a panacea as there can be operational limitations (left). One possible solution is the increased use of industrial collaborative robots (right).

Remote is not just for home workers

An additional area of consideration is remote access. Returning to full operations, restarting processes and lines, often reveals underlying problems that were not previously visible and can create a maintenance nightmare of unquestionable proportions. Remote access is a key benefit, but if the device you are accessing is not intelligent, the value is drastically reduced as the amount of information is restricted. However, if you are lucky enough to be using intelligent automation devices that have some degree of self-determination and extensive diagnostics, then resolving maintenance issues can be accelerated. But aren’t all automation devices intelligent?

“While the essential product performance or function may be similar, you would be mistaken if you thought that all products are equal. For example, it is not really true to say ‘a drive is a drive, is a drive’,” Sugiyama said.

As an example, many users of inverters will be familiar with simple features such as a cooling fan, the significance of which only becomes apparent in times like now. The benefit of a ‘smarter’ inverter is in being able to diagnose the health of the cooling fan — which in turn helps extend the life of the inverter. In more recent inverter designs there are environmental sensors on the circuit boards to detect effects of corrosive or polluted atmospheres, which are complemented by the merging of communications, intelligence and AI through the inverter hardware and partner software to provide advanced maintenance diagnostics.

“Advances in product technology are not limited to the ‘external function’ of the device but also in how its operational life is managed, and that means maintenance and performance KPIs — but such know-how cannot remain locked up inside the product and really excels when it can be remotely accessed by maintenance teams,” Sugayama explained.

IIoT, Industry 4.0, etc have already been talked about for years, but at their core is the process of communication, extraction of data and subsequent analytics. However, when plant managers consider remote access solutions they often quake in their shoes as they contemplate a large, extensive SCADA system and all its associated paraphernalia. It is true these comprehensive systems are excellent for capturing vast amounts of data, providing alarming and analytics and reviewing historical data, but as mentioned earlier they do take time to correctly plan and install. Other, quicker solutions can be to remotely, but directly, connect to a HMI device on the shop floor to mimic the local screen, or access data over a wireless interface, or as is the more recent trend, to utilise edge controllers.

So what is the new normal?

“A practical approach is critical,” Sugayama explained. “Sometimes the answer is simply a partition screen, other times it is an investment in a cobot, but the watch-words are ‘flexibility’, ‘scalability’ and ‘results-focused’. So maybe the new normal is actually reminding us to identify what is important.”

Top image: As an initial quick fix to social distancing in a factory, individuals could use face guards and masks.

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