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The Smartphone and the Smart Factory

Connector Geek
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What can the smartphone tell us about the future of the smart factory?

Last month, we were lucky enough to talk to Dean Donnelly of Molex about the future of the smart factory. Molex will be familiar to many of you as a manufacturer of interconnect products, and so we were expecting to hear about the news from the connector world. Instead, Dean was able to give us a fascinating insight into both the challenges and opportunities presented by the latest developments in the Industrial Internet of Things.

The Layered View

The traditional view of infrastructure within the factory is layered. Each layer acts to supervise the one below, from the enterprise layer down to the factory floor. Devices do not communicate directly with each other, but rather the distribution of information is controlled by the network. In this model, the devices themselves often use protocols dictated by the equipment manufacturer, making the sharing of data additionally complex.

In contrast, the future of the factory will see control distributed to the individual devices, which will be able to share data with their peers in a manner much more like the cloud than a hierarchical structure. The simplest way to describe the functionality that will allow this change is to look at how the smartphone works

When a smartphone is manufactured, it has no personality. Except for some standard functions, it is completely devoid of anything that makes it different from the millions of others that emerge from the same production line. Manufacturers can create a single model for the global market because it is with the software that the smartphone is customized by its user.

I Am Unique

This is an image of the home screen on my Samsung. It lets me do all the things I want to. It handles my emails, both personal and professional. It manages my calendar and my conference call tools, while also letting me read the latest baseball news and tune my guitar. This customization means that, while my phone is identical physically to many millions of others, the chances are high that my phone is unique in the world.

Until now, the manufacturers of control equipment have traditionally offered a vast range of different products to provide the control of the machines on the factory floor. The Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) is manufactured in a bewildering variety, each designed to perform a different task, making the installer’s task complicated and costly.

Applying the Smartphone Concept to the Factory Floor

Instead, imagine the benefits of using a single controller that can be adapted in an almost infinite number of ways for each role it needs to play. Just like a smartphone, it can take on whatever personality is needed to complete its task. Rather than keeping a range of different products in stock, the installer can hold just one, confident in the knowledge that it will perform in any way required with the simple download of a different app.

By following the example set by the smartphone, it will be much simpler for machines to share data on the operating floor by using an agnostic approach to communication protocols. For the first time, machines will be able to communicate with each other and provide updates on the status of the operations being undertaken. The responsiveness of this approach is potentially mind-blowing. To give just a single example, on a production line that requires parts to be delivered just in time, a late shipment need not result in a stoppage. Instead, with information being shared and devices being able to switch their personality as required, each machine can be re-tasked mid-stream to ensure that capacity is not wasted.

Changing How We Manage Power

This multi-personality approach with the ability to add features to existing equipment will also revolutionize the use of power in the factory. Even now, in the era of Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things, the management of power on the factory floor is still remarkably “last-century.” A factory that uses some machines for one process but leaves them idle for others can waste a huge amount of energy by leaving inactive equipment energized. Once devices are able to share data, power can be managed in a much more intelligent way. If a machine is not needed for a particular process, it can be powered down to save energy. And as the devices around it will still be communicating with each other, once it is needed again the power can be restored quickly.

This kind of flexibility is at the heart of the advantages that the smart factory will bring to manufacturers. By being able to rapidly reconfigure an existing process, companies will be able to respond far more rapidly to changing customer demands or market conditions, providing them with a competitive advantage over others in their field.

This unsupervised communication has created questions in the minds of many regarding security. The network will not only control the operational but also the commercial activities of the factory, and there is some concern about the vulnerability of sensitive information. However, once again the smartphone gives us a good example of what the future will look like. With security built into the operating systems, device communication can be as secure as banking on your phone.

Find Out More

The smart factory will see a fundamental change in the structure of networks and how data is shared. The good news is that the technology to support this change is already available, and partners like Molex are creating solutions that will be easy to implement and support the next generation of the factory.

Dean was able to provide us with a fascinating look into these aspects of the smart factory, along with a view of how Molex is tackling these challenges and providing solutions to their customers. Watch our fascinating interview with Dean and let him walk you through the factory of tomorrow.

Connector Geek is Dave in real life. After three decades in the industry, Dave still likes talking about connectors almost as much as being a Dad to his two kids. He still loves Lego too. And guitars.

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