Industry 4.0 and digitization are keywords that have become indispensable in machine and plant construction in recent years. Production companies are striving to become more productive and get the most out of their machines. In order to achieve this, the networking of machines, machine data and their processing and visualization is becoming increasingly important. Many machine manufacturers have already dealt intensively with the subject of digitization and have long been offering digital service products for their own machines.
In particular, however, production companies with many machine and technology suppliers are facing an increasing number of systems that have to be mastered in the case of service. At the same time, this means a high level of training effort and increased demands on machine operators who are poorly trained in some countries. Complexity becomes an obstacle to use by the machine operator.
Recently, another trend has thus developed that deals more with the situation at the manufacturing company. The focus is not on the service portal itself, but on connectivity and networking of the entire machine park. Machine manufacturers who have already set themselves up digitally in the past few years and gained corresponding experience will find themselves in a "pole position". Nowadays, they are striving to offer a platform or a service portal, if possible, with which the machine operator can cover a large number of machine types and variants.
Practical experience shows that no production company wants to employ its IT staff just to bring machines online. The machine manufacturer should therefore make the connectivity of the machines as easy to handle as possible. The integration of the machines should be strategically designed and the management and product development should be involved accordingly. A systematic connectivity approach is characterized by a standardized and largely simple process. It is a good idea to deliver each new machine "ready-to-connect" in order to make the connection process as simple as possible for the machine operator. Even people with little or no IT knowledge should be able to connect a machine to the network. This means that every new machine can already be equipped with the appropriate connectivity when it is put into operation.
Information retrieval from ERP system
No one wants to maintain data twice in different systems. In order to establish connectivity, it is therefore also necessary to query the corresponding machine data and other specific information from existing ERP systems such as SAP and make them available locally in the production company at the push of a button. This ensures that the right machine with the right data is automatically set up in the machine network and integrated into existing networked production environments.
A further challenge in the establishment of cross-production machine connectivity is the connection of existing and sometimes older machines within a production facility. Many production companies use a large number of older machines, as the service life of a machine can be up to 15 or even 20 years. Nonetheless, networking of all machines in production is essential for the operator, as this is the only way to call up all the added value of a networking solution. The aim of the retrofit process is to create an equally standardized integration process. In practice, preconfigured IPCs are delivered to the production companies either together with a technician or as a plug & work variant. In this way, either the technician can connect a machine "spontaneously" if he is on site anyway, or the local maintenance department can subsequently connect other machines and systems to the network. Particularly with this connectivity retrofit process, it is important to ensure that the machines are easy to set up. This is the only way a production company will decide in favour of a connectivity solution and use it extensively.
Role of standardized interfaces for connectivity
Controversial discussions have been going on for years about the uniformity of interfaces for machines and systems. Some are convinced that a wide range of machine connectivity can only be achieved if uniform interfaces are available. The others say that the data code is the unique selling point of technology suppliers.
It is undisputed that for the possibility of connecting or networking machines it is essential that the machines generally have interfaces. Very old machines fall out of the grid of a simple connection. For example, it is possible to work with special sensors and retrofit the old machines with them.
In recent years, efforts have been made to achieve standardized interfaces such as UPC UA. In this case, the machine data is put out in a uniform format so that data from, for example, external machines can also be read out and further processed. In the reality of mechanical engineering, however, there is a different practice, because other machine suppliers do not usually provide the data codes of their machines or systems via OPC UA, but use their own proprietary protocols. A certain form of cooperation is therefore necessary in order to digitise entire production halls. It remains to be seen whether an opening in the direction of OPC UA will take place.
When machine data is mentioned, 99% of the time, the keyword "safety" is also mentioned. No production company gives its data more or less blindly into a cloud or to other service providers. In the case of networking between machine manufacturer and operator, data sovereignty should therefore rest with the machine operator. The production company should be able to determine to whom it makes which data available at what time and for what purpose. At the same time, local availability of data should be ensured in order to provide the production company with direct added value from data collection.
Security is also important when the plant network has to be opened up to the outside world for data transfer or remote operations, for example. Here it should be noted that there is a maximum of one access point that is only open for one application and a defined duration.
Data platforms for machine data evaluation
Platforms are becoming increasingly important in the area of machine connectivity. Data platforms and cloud systems have an advantage over traditional server applications: they are scalable and can process large amounts of data without any problems. In the practice of production companies with sometimes very safety-sensitive data, it is evident that a mixed form makes sense. Here, the data is collected and stored locally and extracts from this data are sent to platform services in order to carry out calculations and analyses.
A functioning and secure connectivity infrastructure is the first step for machine manufacturers to accompany their customers into the digital age. With connectivity to machines alone, customers can already benefit from the first digital services of the machine manufacturer. For example, production companies can use a tool to manage their maintenance locally and track the live status of all connected machines. Predictive maintenance is only one implementation example that is made possible by the machine connection. In the area of monitoring, there are various other application scenarios for networked machines. In this way, alarms can be generated that trigger preventive measures in the event of an imminent malfunction.