Rockwell Automation goes after complete automation of production environments

Many companies in the past or present have chosen Rockwell Automation to automate their industrial environment. In these environments, the needs of each business become more and more unique and must be anticipated. At the same time, IT and OT are increasingly merging into industrial companies. We spoke with Gert Thoonen, who can tell you more about the development in industrial automation from his role as Security + Process Integration Consultant.

Rockwell Automation has been developing solutions to simplify and automate work in industrial environments for more than 100 years. Thanks to this experience, it has built up an extensive portfolio, both in terms of hardware and software. The basis is always a Programmable Logic Controller (PLC).

From PLC to PAC

Gert Thoonen, Security and Process Integration Consultant at Rockwell Automation

The PLC is the industrial computer that must perform actions and thus start production. Such a PLC is programmed and placed in the production environment, after which it performs exactly the programmed actions. In its purest form, therefore, the PLC is an automation step that never makes mistakes. Thoonen mentions as an example a PLC as a control mechanism for an industrial machine that makes soup. “You give the controller the instructions to first fill the kettle with water, then heat it and then add the vegetables and the tomato puree. The PLC carries out exactly the instructions for the process so that the soup is made exactly according to the recipe. “

PLCs really act as the brain of a production site. These industrial computers have been provided with improved hardware and programming functionality over the years. Process Automation Controller (PAC) emerged from this development. PACs do not make PLCs redundant, but are often more suitable for very large automation projects with a lot of complexity. Rockwell Automation offers both options.

Industrial automation requires a complete approach

Although a controller in Rockwell Automation’s vision will always be the basis for an automation project, more is needed for complete automation in industrial environments. Eg. sensors must also be connected to the controller. “We can detect certain things with sensors. They are present in the process installation and measure, for example, the temperature or a certain pressure or detect that an empty bottle is available to be filled,” explains Thoonen. If the sensor then shows a certain predefined value , the PLC starts a pre-programmed operation.

According to Thoonen, what is also becoming more and more popular in industrial environments is the use of digital twins. This allows an organization to take steps to optimize the performance and design of automation systems. This is done by doing a virtual simulation before and during the construction of the machine. The CAD drawings of machines and the program function are put into emulation software to see how the machine’s digital twin works. That way, you will discover how the machine moves and whether it can actually make the product. This saves you construction time as blindly relying on drawings does not always work. When building without a digital twin, certain processes will not run as intended. Digital twins are also the ideal environment to train operators without causing harm in physical reality if they make a mistake.

PLC programmable controllers

Planning and execution of processes

In Rockwell Automation’s view, full automation therefore means a combination of hardware and software. A Manufacturing Execution System can certainly not be missed on the software side, says Thoonen. MES is a software system for managing and executing processes and materials. Within the software, for example, there is the possibility of comprehensive analyzes of all aspects at the production site. For example, the analyzes identify early machine downtime, bottlenecks in processes to improve productivity, and opportunities to maximize resource utilization. Because controllers, sensors and MES software all have valuable information, the exchange of this data via a link is very attractive.

These process planning and execution capabilities take production sites to the next level. Production can be better orchestrated, while the supply chain can be linked to the production environment. Any large manufacturing company will also want an integration of MES with its ERP package. This allows you to enter additional information, such as the amount of materials required to complete an order. To support this process, Rockwell Automation offers standard integrations with industry-standard ERP packages from SAP and Oracle’s JD Edwards.

More and more data

All these different parts lead to a kind of new world in industrial environments. First, machines were made to work independently as small islands. However, due to the new technology of recent years, the machines are generating more and more data. Combining this data can provide you with valuable insights. The data analyzes show whether you can reach the production targets on time and, if necessary, take an extra order. Maintenance planning is also easier when the machine information is combined for follow-up analyzes.

Thoonen sees the possibility of working much more up-to-date. Without digital connections, the data would have to be collected on paper and then entered into an Excel sheet in the office. Today we have connected the islets via the network. All data is available and reports on production activities are generated automatically and are available automatically. You can make much better and more accurate decisions because real-time information is available in the right context. In the past, they had separate systems, for example for planning and the recipes. ”

Digital twins

Using all the different systems (silos) separately has become unsustainable if one wants to remain competitive as a production company. The integration of all solutions is the future, to improve management and planning. Only in this way can you move towards full automation of the industrial environment. “In a production environment with silos, you can actually try to make a very nice plan, but then you assume that the machine never fails. That information must be included if you really want to make good planning, ”explains Thoonen.

Security receives insufficient attention

The entire production environment is therefore increasingly interconnected. Special network protocols and high bandwidth enable these hyperlinked environments. For Thoonen, the connection of all hardware and software provides real opportunities for data and analysis, but at the same time he sees that security problems arise. “The separate islands are not equipped with the necessary safety requirements. Many companies buy machines to manufacture their product and it is a huge investment. The supplier supplies the machine with PLCs and computers and configures the machine so that the desired product can be produced. Users do not dare to modify the machine because they find it too complex and use the machine for many years without regular updates of the software or antivirus programs. The average life of a machine is between 10 and 20 years. Companies prefer to stay away from it until the machine no longer works. Only then will they try to repair it. ”

Certainly not all manufacturing companies have to deal with this overdue security policy, but the threat is great. Businesses are increasingly being hit because they do not have security measures like firewalls, backups and patches in order. It’s a shame, because the entire security history can be tackled by rolling out traditional IT security measures in combination with a range of tailored industrial security approaches. Connecting the entire production environment also means the need for policies and procedures around people, processes and technology. Ideally, companies will assess the necessary safety in the production activities and then implement new technology and maintain it properly.

Rockwell Automation therefore engages with organizations to help reduce risks and provide protection against hackers and ransomware. It offers its own products and solutions from partners to develop a total security solution. For example, it can offer deep packet inspection, in which various security functions are built-in. This includes network inspections to detect suspicious traffic and the rollout of security policies.

The automation giant goes for the entire production environment

Rockwell Automation has long been a trusted partner in manufacturing automation. The PLC is the basis of this automation feature, but a PLC alone is no longer enough. Sensors and actuators such as frequency converters and motor controllers, an MES system and digital twins are all examples of essential components. At the same time, everything must be integrated and connected as much as possible. If you really want real-time insight into your production environment and automate as much as possible, a strong focus on integration is necessary. Hardware, software, IT and OT are no longer isolated islands. If you also add enough safety precautions to such cases, then your production environment is ready for the future. Rockwell Automation wants to help with that as much as possible.

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