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The history of humanity is one of ever accelerating change. Try to observe the lives of Alexander the Great (356 BC – 323 BC), the emperor Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD), and even Louis XIV (1638 – 1715). Yes, Louis XIV had gunpowder at his disposal, meaning significant changes to warfare. Leaving warfare aside, what other significant changes were there in their daily lives? Transport and communication was by horse or sailing ship for all of them. Ships might have marginally improved, and there were now saddles for horses. And they had tobacco. Big deal. All of them had only wind and water as a primary source of power. None of them had fridges, vacuum cleaners, espresso coffee, and to all of them appendicitis almost certainly would have been life threatening. None of them would have had, I wager, great difficulties to adapt if a time machine miraculously had transported them from one age to the other, spanning over 2,000 years of humanity.
When my grandfather travelled to Indonesia in the early 1900’s, it was still on a sailing ship – a Clipper – and the voyage would still take close to three months! But now there was steam, and with it trains, and soon electricity would become ubiquitous. Still, I suspect my grandfather would not have had such great difficulty in adapting to Alexander the Greats’ era. In fact, when I was a child, things were not all that much different. Many people still did not have a phone in their homes, nor television.
Ever since, the pace has been going faster and faster. Internet and mobile phones appeared, few people are using the latter now, as most switched to smart phones. Faxes arrived, which are now largely obsolete. E-mail has come, and is still very much there but is not used as much anymore by the younger generation, preferring Facebook and other instant messaging services such as WhatsApp.
Industrial Automation has followed this evolution, be it on a somewhat more reluctant pace. This has to do with the size of the investments involved, and the need for reliability. Conceptually, we can compare the PLC-based automation of most factories with the architecture of mainframe computers, which users access by simple terminals with limited possibilities. For sure, it is in no way comparable to most office environments where the majority of the processing power is decentralised.
With Industry 4.0 factories will fundamentally change. Industry 4.0 means many things, but among other it means embedded IT and communication among devices, allowing real time monitoring, management, and, crucially, embedded feedback loops. All this combined with much faster implementation and reduced costs.
Fundamental in Industry 4.0 is the appearance of embedded IT. It means that intelligence is brought forward, out of the PLC and to the device in question, such as an SEW drive offering models providing local programmable logic. Others go further, and fit entire modules – such as pieces of conveyors - with programmable devices.
The advantages of embedded IT are many. Programs are succinct, and only need to include the functions of the module in question. As modules are often, well, modular, there is a high likelihood the programs can be standard. In addition, as each module has its dedicated program, it can be tested on its own, without the need to connect it to an entire system. If cables and sensors are fitted during assembly – which is possible with embedded IT – it is conceivable that an entire system is delivered, connected, and commissioned within hours or days, as opposed to weeks or months. Shorter delivery times are always welcome, but shorter installation times are even more important. It is great for the customer: he has his installation faster, which improves return on investment, and the disruption of having third party workers on site is shorter. For the supplier, such as Alvey, shorter installation time offers substantial cost savings and other advantages. The shorter the people stay on site, the less travel and hotel costs, for one. In addition, and more importantly, it reduces time away from home for our employees.
Finally, as a young colleague pointed out, one of the greatest advantages of embedded IT is that it will be a catalyst for even more improvements.
On the CeMAT exhibition (May 31 – June 3, Hannover), Alvey will introduce its own – and very exciting – application of Industry 4.0. Curious? Click this link: www.alvey-evolink.eu.
Maarten van Leeuwen
Group Managing Director
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