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The real obstacles on the road to smarter factories

23 June, 2020

But their factories are full of legacy equipment, machines and control panels that may have been in use for a quarter of a century or longer. And even today, some machinery suppliers struggle to offer them connectivity into standardised open-architecture systems that would allow all of their machines and all equipment to be connected on a single network where all of the data can be made available to all software applications. Without this, the roll-out of Made Smarter to SMEs will be piecemeal, fragmented and not able to demonstrate an attractive ROI.

But it is possible to achieve this, with planning and forethought, standardising on vendor-agnostic methodologies, and working with vendors and integrators who are prepared to connect to each other for the benefit of the end-user.
The connectivity of plant data from Level 1 of the ISA-95 model (Fig 1), through controls equipment to Level 3 and 4, is possible by adopting the correct architecture, and using open protocols such as OPC-UA and MQTT. Data can be routed, if not directly from the machine, then through machine data interfaces (MDIs) that act as digital gateways from the machine to the factory Ethernet network, where a digital backbone can be created from which all applications can share data. A common MDI design can therefore be used to facilitate a standardised methodology to solve the real challenges that face manufacturers on their journey to smart factories.

Systems integrators working with hardware and software vendors, and especially machine-builders, need to cooperate openly using these connectivity standards to ensure that manufacturers can invest with confidence, knowing that they are heading down a path with measurable returns.

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