Industrial Automation: Now it’s all About Profitability

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Automation has transformed safety, efficiency and reliability of manufacturing, but now it’s also being used to focus on the heart of any business – profitability.

Over the last few years, manufacturing companies have greatly improved the efficiency of their operations through the use of automation. This has enabled them to control variables such as temperature, pressure and chemical compositions as well as manage the performance of an operation.

However, companies have noticed that driving efficiency in one area has a knock-on effect on others. Improving efficiency, for instance, has often involved pushing assets and plant equipment to their limit. This impacts safety so real-time control has been used to improve this too. In addition, driving equipment hard can have a detrimental effect on its reliability so this has also been drawn into the expanding remit of real-time control.

Now a new factor is being improved by real-time control, alongside efficiency, safety and reliability. It might be a newcomer, but it’s the most important aspect of any business.

“For 100 years or so industry has been ignoring the fact that profitability rather than efficiency is really at the heart of the manufacturing or production process,” says Dr Peter Martin, vice president and Edison fellow at Schneider Electric, where this new chapter in process control is being written.

“We’re discovering that now, with the latest developments in technology and in control theory, we’re able to apply control beyond just efficiency, safety and reliability, but to profitability as well. We call it Smart Control.”

The speed at which industry is operating is accelerating rapidly, Dr Martin points out, and he cites electricity as an example.

“Some 20 years ago, you’d negotiate an agreement with your electrical utility supplier to fix the price for, say, a year in advance. Today, with open power grids, the price might change every five to twenty minutes. The cost of other inputs such as natural gas and raw materials can vary just as quickly,” he says. “This variation is equally evident at the consumer end. Thanks to Google and Amazon, the price of a product can change between morning and evening.”

Traditional enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems tend to focus on closing the books once a month. However, as prices change every few minutes, the monthly snapshot that managers see doesn’t give them the information they need to make the right decisions.

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