While working on an article about the IIoT for the October issue of Sensor Technology, I got to remembering the times when I was designing PLC-controlled systems. Perfecting the system, getting the bugs out, could be tricky, but I learned over time that there was a lot more to actually getting it going in the customer’s facility than I had considered.

The first step was getting it tested in our plant. PLCs can make getting a system running a lot easier than in the old days when all the controls were hard-wired. You can make changes with some clicks on a keyboard, you don’t have to change wiring. You can troubleshoot the program before it’s downloaded, by running it virtually. And it’s much easier to troubleshoot in actual operation because you can see exactly what’s happening by watching it in real time on your computer screen. I remember being really excited about how great it was to work with them.

But when our first systems were built and moved into the test department, I learned that there was more to it that I hadn’t anticipated. First of all, our technicians had to be trained to understand how PLCs work. That was just a matter of time, but it’s hard to lose old habits.

Most PLCs are programmed using the same ladder logic as the old, hard-wired relay systems. That made it much easier for me, who knew nothing about software design, to use these sophisticated devices. But you had to keep in mind that PLCs use a combination of virtual and real functions. That, after all, is what distinguishes a PLC from a more general computer — it can take inputs from the real world, manipulate them, and generate outputs that directly control actions in the real world. Technicians would often get confused by the differences, however. For example, a virtual relay can have an infinite number of contacts.

I often encountered unexpected challenges when I would go to the customer’s site to supervise the acceptance testing. One that stands out was that after the machine was installed, I was asked to train their maintenance staff. These were skilled electricians who had no experience or knowledge for the task of operating a computer-controlled system. The customer would have been much better off if they had invested in training beforehand so the machine could have been put into productive use much sooner.

Another, completely different scenario played out on a different sort of project. This time, it wasn’t the automation that was the problem, these people were well-experienced in that area. The customer was a good-sized company, family owned and managed. The family member who was the CEO became convinced that the technology we were selling, large industrial microwave ovens, was just right for his process. He ordered one that tested the limits of our capacity. It was tricky to get it going and to keep it going. I spent a week on site a couple of times, and it finally seemed to be working as intended. I shall never forget that after all of my hard work and pride in getting things going, the project manager confided in me that he would probably not be running it because it made no difference in the quality of his product. The only reason it was there was because the owner of the company believed it would.

Lessons Learned

These memories have been going through my mind as I publish one article after the other about the benefits of the IIoT and Industry 4.0. The problems I had with automating single processing machines are multiplied when you’re connecting these types of automated machines in a factory-wide network — there’s far more complexity.

Here are some of my thoughts about how to, in an ideal scenario, get started.

  • Before committing to specifics, you should have an overall strategy.
    • What are your goals, what are you hoping to achieve?
    • Start with the most general ideas, then work toward specifics.
  • It’s important to include representatives from every department of your company in the initial planning. This should include people from each vertical and each horizontal component of your organizational chart. This reduces the possibility of down-side unintended consequences and maximizes buy-in by people throughout the organization.

For example:

  • From top management, you need clear guidance about ultimate goals. For example, whether to prioritize profit, or quality, or innovation.
  • From marketing, strategizing about how to optimize market positioning.
  • From engineering, what are the most feasible approaches to implement the strategy. Compare the pros and cons of different approaches.
  • From finance, what would be the costs and benefits of different approaches.
  • From IT, what would be the needs for different approaches.
  • From manufacturing management, the practical challenges of implementing different approaches.
  • From floor supervisors, knowledge about actual practices and how they might be affected, how the attitudes of workers might affect their buy-in for different scenarios.
  • Critical to making this work is to consider everyone’s ideas with an open mind. It should be made clear that management wants to take all ideas seriously and is willing to have back and forth discussions.

Some more thoughts:

It is critical to start training everyone who will be involved in deploying and using the new systems as early in the process as possible, so when the installation is complete everyone will be ready to go.

It is important to have regular meetings with the people who design, supervise, and maintain the systems to evaluate successes and problems. It is critical to include the actual floor-level operators who use the system as well as the quality-control department. One of the advantages of an IIoT network is that it is relatively easy to tweak the system, especially if AI is included.

There should also be regular updates between operations and management to review how well the systems are meeting the initial goals.

Summing it Up

It all boils down to: implementing new systems always introduces new problems. The best way to minimize trouble and maximize success is to carefully plan in advance, include a broad spectrum of personnel in the planning, and have regular reviews once they have been implemented. And don’t forget that it is vital to include the actual workers and take their inputs seriously.