How Performance at the Edge Drives Smarter Manufacturing

How Performance at the Edge Drives Smarter Manufacturing

We have all heard the term "living on the edge" at one time or another. It usually refers to a person that walks a fine line between achieving ultimate performance at a level no one else has achieved or ends up defeated by not rising to meet the demands of a task at hand. To put this concept into perspective, one can flash back to the introduction to ABC's "Wide World of Sports:" "The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat"! However, I prefer to remember those moments in time where performance at the edge provides the necessary inspiration to achieve success. Picture football legend Pele playing on a damp day in Yankee Stadium in 1976 when the NY Cosmos took on the Miami Toros. In the last seconds of the game, Pele glides into position at the upper right side of the box. He does the unthinkable by receiving the cross from his teammate while jumping up into the air with his feet high, then falling backwards blind to the goal behind him and magically performing the most incredible bicycle kick that ends with the ball slicing through the air to find the only remaining space beyond the outreached hands of the goalie and into the left side of the goal. Meantime, the goalie lies face first on the ground with that painful look of utter defeat. Purely a magical moment in sports where an athlete achieves the ultimate performance of their craft at the extreme edge of their sport.

This same level of extreme performance translates into the new demands being placed on the world of manufacturing. The COVID-19 pandemic has proven that there is a need to implement more flexibility into our factories and their manufacturing lines. When consumer demand increases, the factory needs to ramp up its product manufacturing to meet the increase in demand, or completely change the equipment's function to adapt from making one type of product to another entirely. To meet these new challenges to produce many types of products on the same manufacturing line, the factory needs to become more intelligent. Pushing more intelligence into the machines that make the products is the key to unlocking a new level of real-time flexibility to meet consumer demand. This strategy is called moving "intelligence to the edge."

As discussed in my previous articles and blogs, the fundamental concept of achieving "intelligence at the edge" is to enhance the capability of the equipment that guides and shapes the product as it moves through the manufacturing line. To enable this next level of intelligence, we need a new way of thinking! We need to deliver intelligent sensors to enable adjustment of parameters on the fly, implement software-configurable IOs that allow more flexibility to adapt to new factory floor configurations and expansion needs, intelligent actuators that self-adjust to optimize their performance for their specific environment, and the implementation of advanced diagnostics to help provide a better quality of real-time decision-making so that AI-based algorithms can optimize the entire flow of products to maximize factory throughput and operational efficiency. To achieve this highest level of performance, every element of these industrial control systems needs to be optimized so they work in unison.

In fact, whether we are talking about a complex factory automation system that manufactures products, a building automation system that controls the comfort and safety of a building's environment, or simple machines / appliances that simplify our daily tasks and interactions in the world, each of these solutions contain the same three basic building blocks. Simply put, these applications use sensors to bring information into the system from the real world, micro-processors that interface to the sensors and actuators using a variety of analog and digital IOs, and actuators that translate the action being requested from the micro-processor into physical motion. Delivering a new generation of technology to fortify the technical foundation of these three basic building blocks of industrial automation will enable the industry to realize the next industrial evolution, where real-time monitoring of sensors and achieving precise motion from actuators will help achieve that ultimate performance at the edge.

As the tall, sharp edge of the cliffs of Inis Mor Island in Ireland illustrates, achieving performance at the edge in a manufacturing environment requires a new way of thinking to reach these new heights. Photo courtesy of Brian DeAngelis.