We're living in a time in which the ways we live and do business are changing at a remarkable speed. The world is in an Information Revolution that promises to enhance our lives and the way in which we do business as much as the Industrial Revolution did a century ago.
While it's easy to see the impact of the Information Revolution in consumer electronics and communications, every sector of our economy will transform in ways previously unimagined. U.S. manufacturing, with its tight margins and foreign competition, can benefit from these 21st century business methods to maintain a global advantage.
Packaging companies are in many ways at the forefront of automation companies in the new economy. New supply chain models and tighter interdependence between retailers and suppliers mean packaging companies must be more agile and flexible than ever before.
Here are five trends in automation that are helping U.S. manufacturers stay competitive:
1 Cloud computing cuts costs and improves performance
Many packaging companies are struggling to keep up with market demands, such as just-in-time (JIT) supply chain models and shorter production cycles. While JIT can substantially decrease the amount of waste that comes from excess inventory, it also poses unique challenges for supply chain companies.
The downside to JIT retailing is the supply chain must deal with unprecedented work flow surges and slowdowns to satisfy customer demand swings. Manufacturers must overhaul existing business models and schedules, which requires a substantial increase in IT investment to handle the new complexity.
Cloud computing is an excellent solution for the new supply chain model. It enables manufacturers to scale up or down their computing and storage needs without large capital expenditures or time commitments. Different types of cloud computing services, from data storage to enterprise computing, offer companies a solution tailored to their specific needs.
The most popular cloud model for automation is Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), which enables businesses to offload the costs associated with hardware and software purchases and upkeep to the cloud provider. These companies only pay for the capacity used, and they add resources only when necessary.
For example, a good percentage of a manufacturer's business consists of seasonal and holiday products. The traditional IT model would require the company to purchase and maintain servers and data storage for the peaks during the holidays although the rest of the year they would remain dormant.
By moving to an enterprise cloud, the infrastructure needed for increased production is augmented with more I/0 and storage; it's then reduced for off-peak periods. The cloud provider only charges the manufacturer for the services and data storage used for the specified interval.
There are many different types of cloud services and models. The best tactic is for manufacturers to take a modular approach when initiating cloud computing with the help of a reputable provider.
2 Access data easily from anywhere to speed decisions
Today's manufacturers must do more with less. Small staffing levels mean workers are increasingly mobile. To perform their jobs, they must be able to retrieve reliable, easy-to-understand data wherever they are inside or outside the plant.
In addition, companies looking to cut costs wherever possible are turning to "bring your own device" (BYOD) policies that allow workers to use an array of technical apparatuses, such as Androids, iPhones, tablets and more, for work purposes.
To accommodate these measures, many HMI suppliers design products that provide remote interaction via a web browser or an app. Browser access can be limited by long download times and screens that are too large for small handheld device screens. Thus, many manufacturers create apps for their users.
Jeff Payne, automation and controls manager for AutomationDirect, explains, "Apps are usually the faster, easier choice for handheld device users. Developed for smaller screens, these low-cost apps shorten download times and offer an excellent user interface."
3 Multi-touch interfaces enable workers to execute faster
The second part of the equation for successful remote access is a user-friendly interface. The majority of remote workers prefer handheld devices, such as smartphones and tablets. To optimize their interactions, multi-touch capability is a must.
Beyond improving the functionality of handheld devices, a multi-touch interface offers many advantages over single-touch screens, keyboards and pointing devices. The gestures, such as pinch, rotate and zoom, are identical to those familiar to smartphone and tablet users, which also reduce the training time for new operators.
Multi-touch commands are executed up to three times faster than those performed in a traditional manner, such as with pointing devices or single-touch screens. When an event occurs, an operator can quickly zero in on areas of interest, instead of wasting time using dropdown menus or scrolling through multiple screens.
"Simplified interfaces make it faster for operators to find what they need by eliminating complex screen layers," says Fabio Terezinho, vp of consulting services, InduSoft. He explains, "Multi-touch replaces the need for menus and submenus with gestures for key applications and screens. The ability to condense screen layers also minimizes the need to go back and forth between pages, decreasing the likelihood of human error."
Operators change pages faster and more intuitively by using swipe touches, instead of performing the sequential steps required by the traditional keystroke and pointing device commands. They are then able to rotate the item viewed and zoom into the problematic area-all without lifting their fingers from the screen.
4 Universal remote connectivity spreads BYOD
One of the biggest introductions to the automation world is the arrival of HTML5-supported HMI solutions.
Prior to HMI packages developed with Windows 7 or higher, the majority of handheld device apps for remote access were limited to iPhones and iPads. This is because apps had to be created separately for each operating system and screen size. The high number of Android and tablet manufacturers, as well as the array of screen sizes, made developing separate apps for each device type excessively time consuming and expensive.
The more advanced HMI packages now available enable applications to be developed once then deployed simultaneously for any device with an HTML5-browser. Workers with Androids or tablets can get the same remote access as their colleagues with iPhones and iPads. They no longer must wait for an application to be developed for their particular device or be forced use a one-size-fits-all screen from an old browser.
HMI packages with HTML5 support are essential to today's workforce. These applications will only become ubiquitous as the BYOD concept spreads across the industry.
5 Integrated systems and embedded supplier personnel reduce downtime
The manufacturing plant as an island is a concept that is quickly becoming antiquated. From outsourcing data storage to cloud providers to supplier personnel working in the facility, successful American companies are becoming more integrated.
The practice of having vendor employees working in customers' facilities is common in Europe and Asia. Many automobile and steel manufacturers have suppliers' personnel embedded in the plants alongside the manufacturers' staff.
The vendor's workers are highly skilled not only in their products and solutions, but they also have access to the latest designs and engineering experts for upgrades. In addition, many suppliers also set up maintenance facilities at the manufacturer's sites to reduce the downtime and costs associated with repairs. Instead of sending a vital piece of equipment to the manufacturer for refurbishment or repair, skilled workers perform the work at the machine or move it to a nearby maintenance facility.
Christine Lesher has 20 years' experience in automation and IT. Prior to joining ControlsPR, Lesher managed media relations for two divisions at Siemens Industry and worked for Schneider Electric. She graduated cum laude from the University of California, Irvine, and has a Master's degree from Columbia University in New York City.