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A smart flexible approach to automation

A revolution is like a wave. It builds over time and gains continuous energy before finally reaching the shore. Some might go as far as to liken Industry 4.0 to a tsunami rather than a wave; it started off slowly since its inception in 2011 but has since then gained massive momentum, disrupting the industry as we know it.

While the pros far outweigh the cons, the concept has given way to terms like the Internet of Things (IoT), smart sensors, cloud analytics and more, thereby striking uncertainty into the hearts of manufacturing leaders.

For SMC Corporation, certainty comes by embodying a restrained approach to Industry 4.0. The Japanese head quartered company follows the management culture of investing in proven technologies rather than jumping into the unknown.

Today, SMC offers a full suite of industrial automation solutions ranging from pneumatic and electric actuators to fluid control products and airline equipment, as well as sensors and switches.

Where it All Began
Dr Henning Kagermann, Dr Wolfgang Wahlster and Dr Wolf-Dieter Lucas delivered a speech at Hannover Fair in Germany in April 2011 which would have great impact on the industry in years to come. For these three scientists there was little doubt that the future was here, and that it was digital. They were quoted saying: ‘The digital finishing of production plants and industrial products through to everyday products with integrated memory and communication capabilities, radio sensors, embedded actuators and intelligence software systems, creates a bridge between virtual ‘cyber space’ and the real world. This will be achieved through the synchronisation of digital models and the physical reality.’

The Challenges Faced
Jozef Ceh, digital transformation and Industry 4.0 manager at SMC Corporation ANZ said that factories now have more sensors, more data and more connected devices than ever before yet so many people still battle to understand Industry 4.0’s true value.

SMC has identified four common challenges faced by our customers. These are pertinent across the globe and are split into four categories, namely: physical challenges, time and value challenges, executive challenges and human challenges.”

Physical challenges: These typically revolve around the need to reduce the size of products, its weight and the consumption of energy in the production process. These improvements have the added benefit of reducing the demand on compressed air systems.

Time and value challenges: These include the need to increase productivity and throughput. Having more workers carry out low-skilled repetitive tasks instead of value-added tasks should be of concern to all companies. Here, customers express the need for more intelligence in their plants.

Executive challenges: This refers to managers and leaders’ ability to make decisions based on the information available to them. Being able to refer to real-time data instead of quarterly management reports proves to more valuable in ensuring effective decision making.

Human challenges: This relates to technology skills shortages – something that has created a discrepancy between the skills that industry needs and the skills that new graduates possess. Additional factors to consider is the usability of equipment and software.

Introducing Smart Flexibility
SMC’s answer to the hype around Industry 4.0 is to take a practical approach by helping its customers to derive real value from their digitisation journey. “This approach is known as Smart Flexibility.  It encompasses flexibility in industrial networking, flexibility in e-maintenance, flexibility in machine adjustments and smart energy efficiency,” said Ceh.

SMC’s technological innovations span everything from air leak-detection systems and speed controllers to wireless fieldbus systems and actuator position sensors. 

Digital Journeys around the World
Tapping into trends from around the world, SMC has highlighted several key regions where they have been active in helping customers embrace change. They share their digital journeys with the world:

Eastern Europe: The automotive industry is a key focus area for Central and Eastern Europe. Here, we’re seeing demand for increased accuracy and throughput. Welding cell applications and Hall Installation Plate (HIP) systems are used to distribute various media, including cooling water at low and high pressures. It’s important to monitor these variables – if the cooling water is too hot, or the flow is insufficient, the quality of the welding spot won’t meet the required standard.

A key solution to this is SMC’s wireless fieldbus which eliminates the need for cabling. In cramped and tight spaces, especially on robotic arms, it can be difficult to run cabling to electric actuators or sensors located on the grippers at the end of the robot arm. Doing so not only limits movement but it causes wear and eventual failure of the cabling. By using a wireless system, the customer can collect sensor data wirelessly while reducing complexity.

Italy: Most of the SMC customers in this region are industrial original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) – they’re generally small to medium businesses operating in the automotive, packaging, plastics, food and beverage, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and machine tool sectors. Because customers export over 75 per cent of their goods outside Italy, one of the biggest challenges they face is competing in a global market.

SMC has overcome this issue by offering pneumatic and electrical actuation systems that can overcome variability in many complex applications. What’s more, they’ve developed sensors that allow this functionality to be applied to existing pneumatic systems, giving us even greater control of this previous analogue technology.

Germany: Climate control is a big focus in the German market and places demand on product categories such as climate control solutions, chillers and pneumatic as well as electric actuation components.

SMC has setup demonstration labs to showcase the latest technologies. These cover everything from predictive maintenance and IO-Link connectivity to condition monitoring and intelligent software. While it is true that many of these technologies have been around in one form or another for the past 20 years, it’s important that  people are educated on the digital benefits it offers.

To conclude, Jozef says: “We strongly urge customers not to change for the sake of changing but rather to adopt a philosophy of flexibility and map out a transformation journey. Smart Flexibility is designed to make the most of technological innovation in a way that delivers practical results to our customers. We take a flexible approach to our customers’ digital journey.”

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