The Internet of Things: empowered by industrial drives

Industrial drives have developed to the point where they are seen as commodity items, but continued technology advances are bringing in new functions and capabilities for improving productivity in a digital age.

Traditionally, the primary uses of industrial drives have been in controlling the speed of equipment such as pumps, fans, and conveyors, but although they continue to be used in these applications, today’s end-users have a different approach from that of a decade ago.The drives industry is now mature and drives are widely accepted as a product. This shift in attitude brings with it the assumption that drives are simple to buy, install, start up, commission, own and run.

At the same time, drives are finding new applications, such as in exercise machines, pizza ovens, honey centrifuges and car washes. They are seen as commodity items and users are demanding simplicity.

The impression is that advances in drive technology are no longer happening at the rate that they did in the early years. But in fact, according to Robert Brooks, industry marketing manager for food and beverage at Omron Europe, the last 20 years have seen dramatic changes in the world of drives. The functionality and capabilities of the modern product were almost unimaginable back then, and the increased performance has transformed machine design. “The modern drive is a much more intelligent part of the machine or process than it was two decades ago,” says Brooks. “With this greater intelligence, it can deliver real benefits for boosting machine performance and availability, and is a key enabler for continuous improvement on the line.”

At the same time, the features and functions built into even the humblest of drives products are contributing to increases in machine availability and overall plant floor efficiency. Programming can be carried out using a standard control panel. No special hardware or software programming tools are needed. As a result, programming takes only a few minutes and can be carried out on site, during commissioning.

Drives have become smaller, more capable, easier to use, and cheaper by orders of magnitude. In fact, there has been a tenfold decrease in the size of drives over the past 10 years.

Smaller drives are easier to install. Panel builders are able to fit more drives into a standard cubicle, enabling panels to be smaller. This allows the use of smaller and less costly control rooms. Drives are easier to fit into machines - a classic example of this is cranes, an application that has always had limited space for drives.

Reductions in drive size have come about through the use of fewer components, greater packing density, improvements in semiconductor technology, and improved cooling techniques.

Reducing component counts in drives naturally leads to reduced costs. Ilpo Ruohonen of ABB in Finland predicts that the parts count of drives will be reduced further by around 20 per cent over the next few years through integrated electronics to eliminate separate components, such as external-flash and random-access memories, and analogue/digital converters. Mechanical parts are also being integrated, for example, by combining frames and enclosures, allowing them to perform multiple functions. Fewer parts mean fewer interfaces and mechanical fixings, which are often a source of failures.

“Advances in the development of power semiconductors have also helped to improve drives,” says Ruohonen. “A reduction in power losses per unit area of silicon used means that the same silicon area is able to handle more power. This has enabled the construction of smaller semiconductors and reduced the need for cooling within drives. This, in turn, allows the use of smaller heat sinks and reduced air volumes inside drives, resulting in smaller units. The only limitations are the terminals, because these must accommodate cables that are large enough to carry sufficient current to a drive.”

In addition, considerable research and development effort is being put into new cooling techniques, as well as reducing the need for cooling. While air cooling is likely to remain the dominant technique, liquid cooling is finding increasing use in areas such as wind power, transportation, and marine applications.

Increasing functionality

Thanks to developments in software, these ever-shrinking drives contain ever-expanding functionality. The speed with which a machine can be up and running after the installation of new equipment or a maintenance shutdown is paramount. Such urgency increases the risk of errors in installation and commissioning. These can be overcome by eliminating manual intervention whenever possible.

While setup is performed entirely using software functions, with uploads and downloads to and from drives, today’s software monitors, diagnoses, configures and archives information and parameters concerning drives in industrial plants. Setup information is stored for future retrieval. Intelligent control panels that will significantly decrease the need for paper-based manuals are in development.

A key feature of the modern drive is the information it generates - from life-monitoring data of its own internal components, to diagnostics data that can reveal problems developing elsewhere in the machine. A very simple example would be the monitoring of current to the motor. The ability of the network to handle all of this data in real time enables preventive maintenance to be carried out before a critical failure, or any required component replacements to be made during the next scheduled maintenance period, thereby minimising unscheduled downtime and maximising machine availability. This data can also form the basis of ongoing trend analysis, helping in continuous improvement of the entire production line.

The information technology research and advisory firm Gartner points out that the worlds of IT and operational technology (OT) are converging, and says IT leaders must manage their transition to converging, aligning and integrating the two environments. The benefits will include optimised business processes, enhanced information for better decisions, reduced costs, lower risks and shortened project timelines.

“The relationship between the IT and OT groups needs to be managed better, but more importantly, the nature of the OT systems is changing, so that the underlying technology - such as platforms, software, security and communications - is becoming more like IT systems,” said Kristian Steenstrup, research vice president and Gartner fellow. “This gives a stronger justification for IT groups to contribute to OT software management, creating an alignment that could be in the form of standards, enterprise architecture (EA), support and security models, software configuration practices, and information and process integration.”

This process of convergence is happening in many industries, including healthcare, transport, defence, energy, aviation, manufacturing, engineering, mining, oil and gas, natural resources and utilities.

“A shared set of standards and platforms across IT and OT will reduce costs in many areas of software management, and reduced risks come from reducing malware intrusion and internal errors,” Steenstrup says. “Cybersecurity can be enhanced if IT security teams are shared, seconded or combined with OT staff to plan and implement holistic IT-OT security.”

Dan Rossek, marketing manager for Omron agrees: “The increased use of sensors attached to automation equipment and the sharing of information on a massive scale are the cornerstone of Industry 4.0, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). Under Industry 4.0 it is hypothesised that production lines will reconfigure automatically in order to optimise productivity, reduce changeover times and accommodate wide product variations. Driven from an end-to-end array of technologies and software systems, ranging from sales acquisition, order processing, supply-chain management, logistics and production management, it is clear that future production machinery and components will need to integrate dynamically and seamlessly into higher-level IT systems.”

Industrial Internet of Things

The IIoT is, at present, more a concept than a reality, though this is starting to change. Despite its current low level of implementation, it is already shaping future developments in industrial AC drive technology. But before the IIoT can achieve its full potential - and, indeed, even before its full potential can actually be defined - there are some significant challenges that have to be addressed.

According to Jake Roeder, global product marketing manager at Danfoss, the first is security. It is simply not possible to discuss the IIoT without having security as the lead topic. Allowing automation devices to access the Internet is, without doubt, a daunting prospect, he says, and there have been enough examples of what happens when security is breached for everyone to realise that granting this connectivity is not a step that can be taken lightly.

Security after the fact - when it has to be retro-engineered into products that were not initially intended to be part of an interconnected world - is particularly difficult to achieve. This means that it is essential to consider security from the outset when new generations of devices are being developed.

Another crucial challenge associated with the IIoT is dealing with the potential flood of data that can be gathered from devices like AC drives. This data is not inherently useful, so the first question to ask is: which data is good data? The second is how can this good data be used to produce a meaningful outcome?

Among the almost limitless opportunities opened up by the IIoT, the one most frequently mentioned is enhanced service support. At present, service support is too often seen as a safety net, and much of the information relating to commonly encountered warnings, alarms and faults, simply isn’t reported. These events aren’t necessarily ignored, but if, for example, a fault condition is automatically reset, who will ever get to know about it?

This lack of reporting is a missed opportunity, as some of these events are likely to indicate potential for a product improvement, yet may be only detectable by looking at thousands of drives over many years of operation. By using the automatic fault reporting that the IIoT makes possible, drives manufacturers will be able to paint a far clearer and more comprehensive picture of the complete life cycle of their drives, which they can then use to achieve continuous product improvement.

Unlike many elements of the Industry 4.0 concept which are currently based on futuristic and unrealised technologies, integrated sensor systems with an advanced intelligent link already exist today. Essentially integrated sensor solutions that incorporate a Fieldbus interface are readily available, providing all the functionality needed to realise the demands of a fully integrated production system.

Even so, Rossek says sensor systems will require a number of enabling technologies to provide the functionality needed to realise the demands of an ‘Industry 4.0-ready’ machine. The passive on/off operational functionality of standard sensors will not be enough to support the required level of integration.

Automating sensor resets

Taking the simplified example of automating a product changeover process on a machine, this could be vastly improved through the use of intelligent and integrated sensor systems. Traditionally, sensors are configured individually and manually during machine changeover processes based on the requirements of the product being manufactured; potentially this could be due to a change in colour, size or any other physical difference in the product. This can be time-consuming, inefficient and a source for manual errors.

Using the Industry 4.0 concept, the process could be fully automated, from point of order and production scheduling through to machine configuration down to component level, and even including sensor systems. Intelligent control systems will automatically set detection parameters and settings to allow seamless product changeovers, improving efficiency and eliminating common manual errors.

In addition, with increased levels of integration of sensor systems, the operational status and stability of a sensor could be communicated back to the machine control system, via the intelligent link. By monitoring this status, automatic optimisation of a sensor could be made, therefore improving production efficiency even further. The intelligent link could also provide fault diagnostics and preventive maintenance information, helping to reduce machine downtime and again improve production efficiency.

If UK manufacturers were to invest as much in Industry 4.0 as their German counterparts, they could boost their revenues by £20bn. Steve Bramley, deputy director of the trade association Gambica, argues that it is essential for the UK not to be left behind by the fourth industrial revolution.

“There is the potential for Industry 4.0 to bring transformation to the manufacturing industry, an opportunity - and, I would argue, a necessity - for the UK to take a lead and secure an advantage in the next wave of technology development and business models,” Bramley says. “The potential for boosting manufacturing productivity and the associated economic benefit is not only highly desirable, but is essential in a competitive global manufacturing environment. The risk of not taking up the challenge and being left behind is a fate we can’t afford to allow.”

A recent European Commission report indicated that the German government will invest €200m in Industry 4.0 projects across skills and innovation. According to a PwC report, German industry will invest €40bn per year by 2020 specifically in Industry 4.0, representing 3.3 per cent of turnover, and expects a 12.5 per cent increase in revenues.

“Germany’s manufacturing industry is about three times larger than ours, but they already invest seven times more in automation than British industry,” Bramley adds. “If we followed the same proactive strategy of industry investing in Industry 4.0, a 12.5 per cent increase in revenue would be equivalent to £20bn. This would have a very positive impact on manufacturing, the supply chain, associated services and employment - an opportunity we should not miss.” *

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