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From screws to robotics: why standardization is so important

From screws to robotics: why standardization is so important
Standardizing industrial automation systems is necessary for growth. What how do we go about it?
Industrial automation, industry 4.0, smart factory, all these buzzwords continue to make headlines across media. Large and small companies are working towards this fourth industrial revolution, offering solutions that would automate systems, digitalize production, and bridge the gap between legacy systems and modern infrastructure.

But this is where a problem crops up. For a large part, the industrial automation sector remains fragmented, with companies exploring different aspects. For them to work together, there is a need to standardize.

Experts have voiced their concerns on this for quite a while now. Sophie Borgne, Senior VP of Digital Plant Business at Schneider Electric, compares the situation with the screw manufacturing industry. In a write-up, she points out that although we take the common screw for granted in our daily lives, its standardization helped machine makers use a uniform style of screws.

This was perhaps one of the first instances of standardization that helped develop the manufacturing industry. It sped up the process of manufacturing, lowering costs and improving efficiency.

Standardization has played a vital role in the development of the IT sector as well. We have computers that can run Microsoft Windows, Linux, and other operating systems. Even Macs decided to support the installation of Windows OS.

Why automation requires standardization

Automation is slowly revolutionizing the manufacturing industry. From robotic systems to digital twins and everything in between, automation enables faster production at a lower cost and fewer workforce. But it cannot take off to its full potential if there are no attempts to standardize processes and components.

“Industrial automation has followed a different path compared with the IT world,” Borgne explained in a recent blog post. “It hasn’t changed much in the last 50 years, and in a way, we’re living in a digital economy which is still under the constraints of a by-gone era. This is partly due to the over-reliance on proprietary systems.”

Lack of standardization creates four significant challenges that limit the expansion of industrial automation.

1.Limited portability
 The most obvious problem is that lack of standardization prevents the use of applications that are written for a particular system on another. This slows down the processes as engineers have to find workarounds to make things work on different systems or limit themselves to a specific ecosystem. This also increases the costs, discouraging customers from investing in automation.

2.Cannot create a unified system

Since there are too many different systems and applications in the market that may not work together, customers are forced to pick and choose a few that may work independently. This defeats the purpose because integration is an essential part of automation. Integration ensures that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

3.Maintenance and upgradation issues

Standardization makes the process of maintenance and upgradation easier. When a customer uses different proprietary systems, there is a need for technicians to learn to work with each of them for timely maintenance and upgradation. This increases the costs and the effort, further slowing processes and making customers put off their investments in automation.

Towards universal automation

The IEC61499 standard was designed to bring in a certain amount of uniformity to automated systems. Manufacturing solutions with the standard allows portability between systems, different hardware, components, and architecture. IEC61499 makes interoperability with IT systems easier, too, allowing customers to gain benefits of mainstream software best practices.

“Edge computing can be incorporated for those more calculation-intensive applications, and the processing load can be shared across all available hardware resources,” Borgne points out.

Any attempts to standardize a system might face resistance from some parts. Questions on what constitutes as standard or what should be standard are always important. This could have happened when screws were being standardized, and this is something that the industry has to deal with as they attempt to standardize automation systems. The key is to remember that standardization is essential for growth. 
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