Mariano Carreras, International Training Manager, SMC International • August 15, 2019
New technologies are emerging that are, or soon will be, a part of a technician’s day-to-day routine in manufacturing plants. One sweeping trend is that most of the new technologies are related to data—the ”fuel” that is driving processes. With improved data, we can make better decisions, so technicians need to be aware of how and why data is gathered, how data flows and what to do with it. Adoption of new technologies will vary according to the type and size of industry, of course, and the cost of equipment and training, but here are some that will change the role of the technicians interacting with them.
For a long time, machines in production have been controlled by PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers), a technology designed to replace old relay circuits. New devices have evolved from PLCs using ladder logic and proprietary systems, into PACs (Programmable Automation Controllers) or more generically, Industrial Controllers, which use a variety of programming languages. Ladder logic is going to be replaced by more advanced programming, similar to computer programming. Technicians need to be aware of these new types of devices and how their programming languages—Structured Text, Function Block, Instruction List and Sequential Function Chart, as well as C and C++—instruct machines to respond.
Controllers need to “talk” with the plant’s industrial automation computers in this new digital data era. OPC-UA (Unified Architecture) facilitates machine-to-machine communication. Most of the new industrial controllers will have the OPC-UA server embedded in them. And while more engineers than technicians will work with OPC-UA, it is important for technicians to know about this technology and how it works.
A variety of different identification technologies—BCR (Bar code reader) with the QR code, RFID (Radio Frequency Identification Systems), and NFC (Near Field Communications—will be used across the entire value-added chain. A technician should be able to identify each identification system, understand the working principles behind them, replace and set up the different devices, and change their parameters.
In this data age, everything is going to be collected and communicated. Industrial devices use different means and protocols to “talk” between themselves. Ethernet-based devices will continue to be the most common, but there are several other communication protocols, such as IO-LINK, that technicians will interact with. Technicians need to know which protocol is appropriate for a particular task, how that protocol is connected to other devices, and how the information to be communicated is structured.
Distributed I/O (Input/Output)
So far, most of the wiring between sensors and actuators to the PLC has been made from the sensor to the PLC I/O terminals, sometimes with long wires. In the last few years, the trend has become to have distributed I/O blocks so that the connection to the device is made locally to a distributed I/O block provided with a field bus connection and then just sent via a wire to the controller. Technicians need to become familiar with the evolution of the technology and work with these new devices.
HMI (Human-Machine Interfaces)
In the past, the machines were basically controlled with start-stop push buttons. With the increasing demand for flexibility in industry, the interaction between the machine and the operator has become more complex. HMIs now play a big role in production plants. Technicians need to know how they work, how they are connected and programmed, and how to modify parameters and make small changes to improve the machine’s interaction with operator.
More and more services are going to be available online. From a customer placing an order to a technician accessing the maintenance plan of a machine, everything will be accessible from a computer, tablet or smart phone. The design of all the infrastructure belongs to the engineers but technicians will have to understand how the services are organized, how the menus work and the data flows, how to solve minor technical problems, and how to communicate effectively via email.
MES/ERP (Manufacturing Execution System/ Enterprise Resource Planning)
Although it is likely that IT engineers will be responsible for the implementation and maintenance of these data management systems, technicians will play an important role in interacting with some of the modules (like Statistical Process Control or Maintenance Management). They will need to understand, for example, how the data from the plant is transferred to the top level and also how the information from the sensor of a particular machine emits a warning message from the MES and what the appropriate response would be.
To save energy, companies need to measure and monitor compressed air, electricity consumption, and other environmental factors. ISO 50001 supports more efficient energy use in industries across all sectors through the development of an energy management system. Technicians will likely interact with all of the monitoring devices in that system.
Electric actuators are replacing pneumatic and hydraulic actuators in automating industrial valves for types of technical processes that require accuracy and intermediate stops. It will become a part of the technician’s role to know how they are connected, programmed and parameterized.
In the world of the Industrial Internet of Things, machines are integrated with sensors used primarily for carrying out preventive and predictive maintenance strategies. Sensors help companies enact the “quality not controlled but produced” philosophy. These devices will be connected and interconnected via the cloud and to controllers in a different way and technicians will need to understand how they are programmed and how parameters are modified. Artificial vision (or machine vision) can be considered a special type of smart sensor in which the device acquires the image, analyzes the image by applying algorithms, and then relays information or directs an action in response.
Humans working with robots is not news, but humans working side-by-side with uncaged robots to create synergy is a more recent development, with cobot sales launched in 2008. Technicians will need to have the proper knowledge to solve typical issues with cobots in day-to-day operations. Their functions may be similar to regular robots, but cobots are more compact and lighter weight and can be configured and programmed (and re-configured and re-programmed) easily.
Virtual reality simulates a real-world environment and allows the user to move around in the space and manipulate objects allowing risk-free practice for technician training and upskilling. While virtual reality provides a completely virtual world, augmented reality enhances the real world by superimposing information on top of what the technician would see without the technology. Technicians will be using these technologies to improve their job efficiency rather than actually programming or maintaining them.
In summary, technicians are going to be involved in a world where new technologies are part of the production processes and they will need to have a knowledge of machines and processes at different levels of the functionality, connectivity, interaction, and operation so that the plant runs at the highest level of performance, quality and efficiency. There will always be more technologies available, as the existing ones continue to evolve. The basic message is that everyone in production needs to be prepared for lifelong learning. Things are changing very quickly!