Everyone in the automation industry has heard the buzzword of "Industry 4.0," a phrase first coined in 2011 at the Hanover fair. This industrial concept envisions the factories of tomorrow as vastly more integrated, automated, and flexible. Faster and more efficient, they will churn out the goods desired by a changing market place.
It is clear that this contemporary fourth revolution in manufacturing and process automation will advance on the backbones of connected systems: sensors, actuators, control systems all linked through different types of networks via the Internet protocol. Once all the machine/sensor data is on the cloud, interesting analyses can be done to optimize manufacturing, predict failures, schedule maintenance, automatically replenish inventory, and even customize finished product specifications to reflect market dynamics.
One interesting, contemporary example of Industry 4.0 is General Electric's newest U.S. factory in Schenectady, New York. This sodium-nickel battery manufacturing facility has more than 10,000 sensors spread across 180,000 square feet of manufacturing space; all sensors are connected to a high-speed internal Ethernet. As MIT Technology Review writes: "[Sensors] monitor things like which batches of powder are being used to form the ceramics at the heart of the batteries, how high a temperature is being used to bake them, how much energy is required to make each battery, and even the local air pressure. On the plant floor, employees with iPads® can pull up all the data from Wi-Fi nodes set up around the factory."
This article starts with the premise that this fourth industrial revolution is underway. It argues that the ubiquitous connectivity on the shop floor will lead to productivity and predictability gains powered largely by ever-improving software and algorithms. Yes, impressive and quite attainable. However, there are various system design hurdles to resolve before we get the infrastructure in place and this revolution really going. This article looks at some of these key system challenges.