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Rather than buying completely new machines with connectivity and all the other bells and whistles, manufacturers are retrofitting existing machinery with simpler sensors and advanced software, says Mark Bünger, Vice President of Research at Lux Research (Boston).

Norbert Sparrow

January 27, 2017

4 Min Read
A smarter, cheaper approach to predictive maintenance

A fundamental task of the smart factory is to alert personnel to potential machine and process problems before they happen and cripple operations. Prognostics and health management (PHM) is a key tool for forecasting the future health of a machine or line, says Mark Bünger, Vice President of Research at Lux Research (Boston), a company that provides strategic advice and business intelligence related to emerging technologies.

Applied correctly, PHM aggregates data from the shop floor and tells you if a system has “six months until complete failure, if it is good for the foreseeable future or if it needs immediate attention because a catastrophic condition is arising,” says Bünger. That’s not necessarily new, he adds, but advances in sensor technology are giving us greater visibility into factors that precede a breakdown. Coupled with significant improvements in the ability to analyze data, manufacturers now have the tools to bring their operations into the 21st century. If you’re thinking Industry 4.0, you’re not off base, but getting there may not be the straight line some imagine, according to Bünger. He will address these and related issues during a conference session, “Using Sensor-Driven Data as a Predictive Maintenance Tool to Monitor Machine Health,” at PLASTEC West in Anaheim, CA, next month.

Mark Bünger is scheduled to speak on Feb. 8 at 9:30 AM during the Smart Manufacturing conference track at PLASTEC West. He will also participate in a panel discussion at 10:15 AM on Feb. 7 devoted to collaborative robotics. The PLASTEC West trade show and conference comes to the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, CA, on Feb. 7 to 9, 2017. For more information and to register to attend, go to the PLASTEC West website.

We are immersed in a connected world, says Bünger, and that has tremendous implications in the manufacturing space. “From our smartphones to our connected cars, there’s a continuum of being always on and connected, or sometimes on and connected or about to be on and connected. The machinery on the factory floor is at different points along that spectrum,” says Bünger. Many observers have noted that industry is often lagging when it comes to adopting new technologies, and there is a sound reason for this, explains Bünger.

“Consumer electronics tend to be the benchmark for technological evolution, because it happens very quickly,” says Bünger. “These devices are not mission critical—nobody dies if a phone crashes—which is different from machinery or a car. And consumer electronic devices are fairly inexpensive: They may cost a couple hundred dollars versus a couple million for manufacturing equipment.”

Up until now, machinery makers have emulated the consumer electronics industry by putting sensors everywhere and connecting the machines with the overall factory. From the perspective of machine makers, this has a huge upside: It accelerates the upgrade cycle and, they hope, will result in more new equipment sales. But customers are understandably skeptical, says Bünger. “Machine makers are asking their customers to make a big investment, which is a very different proposition from a consumer electronic device. Rather than buying completely new machines with connectivity and all the other bells and whistles, we are seeing manufacturers retrofitting existing machinery with simpler sensors and advanced software that can do the same type of analysis—or close enough—of a brand new machine with an investment that is an order or several orders of magnitude less.”

There is a knock-on effect for the much-ballyhooed Industry 4.0, which has been promoted by stakeholders in Germany, where the concept was developed, as the ne plus ultra of enlightened manufacturing in the early 21st century. But a funny thing happened on the way to the future.

“Until recently, everyone assumed that Industry 4.0 was the way it was going to be. What happened is that the upstarts kind of snuck up on the [establishment] promoting Industry 4.0 . . . this vision of the retrofitted factory caught them unawares,” explains Bünger. He sees it as somewhat analogous to an ad campaign that AT&T ran in the 1990s.

AT&T’s “you will” campaign envisioned a future when, in the words of the ads, you will be able to drive cross country without stopping at a toll booth or tuck your baby in from a pay phone. “So, you’re basically using a fast pass or skyping with your kid . . . but from a pay phone. They basically got it right, but the funny thing is AT&T actually did none of that. It’s kind of like the factory of the future vision now. ABB, Siemens and other companies that make humongous pieces of industrial equipment had a vision of Industry 4.0 kind of like AT&T had of the future of telecommunications back in the 1990s, which we now call the Internet.”

That turned out to be a much more complex eco-system than what AT&T imagined, and the sleek throughline of Industry 4.0 advanced by stakeholders also is destined to experience some unexpected plot twists.

For a deeper dive into the tenets of Industry 4.0 and its ramifications for the plastics processing industry, you may want to read Karen Laird’s informative piece, “Industry 4.0: The factory of the future,” posted on PlasticsToday.

And if you want a chuckle, check out the AT&T "you will" commercials embedded below.

About the Author(s)

Norbert Sparrow

Editor in chief of PlasticsToday since 2015, Norbert Sparrow has more than 30 years of editorial experience in business-to-business media. He studied journalism at the Centre Universitaire d'Etudes du Journalisme in Strasbourg, France, where he earned a master's degree.


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