I’m in hot hot hot Las Vegas for the 20th annual Siemens Automation Summit and hear it’s the best yet. The typical “we’re all getting older” grumbling is mixed with quite a bit of “I used to know everyone, but I don’t recognize these young folks” and a lot, a LOT, of electrical engineering-speak. I’m a software person but I’m beginning to understand how critical automation technologies are in controlling and monitoring the modern manufacturing plant.

Lessons from day 1:

  • The vast majority of manufacturing plants are not new, and use technology that is 20 or 30 years old to run the production process. That means these motors, actuators and so on aren’t easily retrofitted to be Internet of Things-ready. Jagannath Rao, President of the Customer Services Division at Siemens Industry US, said that this is a real barrier to broader adoption of big data analytics, and its predictive maintenance, improved utilization and other benefits.
  • Doing something big data is high on many people’s priorities but only 5% actually have a strategy to do so. Raj Batra, President of Siemens Digital Factory Division in the US, cited stats from the Industrial Internet Insights Report for 2015 that said that 87% of survey respondents see it as a top 3 priority for their business, and half of those have it as a top priority — why isn’t there more action?
  • One possible reason: it’s hard to quantify costs and returns. Many of the customers sessions focussed on implementing Siemens automation technologies in existing facilities since connecting everything is the first step in gathering this operational data. The business cases tended to be more focused on meeting production targets for throughput and quality, with no real view (yet) to using any captured data for analysis. Only one presenting company specifically included analytics in the goals for a project that’s due to come online next month; they’re going to report back at the next Automation Summit about results.
  • It’s perhaps easier for new businesses. Mr. Batra said that he recently spoke with someone who built a small chain of car washes, all using Siemens automation gear, where everything is quantified and analyzed. If you start with this goal in mind, you approach the design and purchasing for your asset differently.
  • But all of this connectivity carries risk. That’s a big topic for today’s sessions, but Mr. Rao told me that manufacturers have either been hacked and know it or been hacked and don’t know it. It’s that common. Some of it is bad actors, industrial or international espionage, but a lot of it is viruses that enter when someone brings in pictures of their grandkids on a USB drive. It used to be that if your company was fenced (cyber-speak for no external Internet connections at all), didn’t allow USB drives and so on, it was thought safe. That’s not true today: someone innocently using a USB port to charge their cellphone can introduce malware. Siemens just launched a services offering to help companies identify their risks, mitigate known holes and figure out how to monitor and respond to threats. It’s an unfortunate cost of doing business today, that doesn’t seem to be waning any time soon.
  • Siemens PLM (my usual peeps) is a huge part of Siemens’ overall digitalization strategy. The company could have done a better job explaining how it all fits, but Mr. Batra did briefly flash this slide to explain how it all comes together as Siemens ties product design to production engineering:

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I also took a class to learn how to program a motor. My lab mate was marvelous, explaining to me what we were doing and how he would do this back at the plant. First, our instructor went over the parts of the SINAMICS G120: operator panel, controller and power module in this image from Siemens, attached to a motor and brake in our class setup.


The operator panel is used to cycle through hundreds of setup parameters, everything from what an operator sees to PROFIBUS or EtherNet/IP connection to safety. There’s a 700 page manual that goes over it all — so we learned how to use Siemens’ setup software, called STARTER. My lab mate told me that he usually uses the operator panel because he knows which 20 or so parameters he needs to worry about, but if it’s more complicated, he uses STARTER.

STARTER is as user-friendly as CFD setup used to be: not very. Luckily, there’s a configuration wizard that recognizes the device hooked up to the laptop running STARTER that then walks through the relevant subset of parameters. From here, it was smooth sailing, setting up what type of motor (induction, in our case) and its rated voltage, current, speed and so on. After the setup, STARTER compiled and downloaded the control parameters to the operator panel and controller. And we got to try it. Luckily, our setup came with a brake, so we could create fault codes (and generally make squealy noises).

It was fun, but here’s the lesson: a typical manufacturing facility may have hundreds of motors, power supplies and controllers, among lots of other equipment related to production and monitoring. My lab mate told me that his job involved initial programming of all of these devices but also reconfiguring for changing production, when a piece of equipment is swapped out, and so on. He uses STARTER for the first of a series of the same devices, loads that setup onto the operator panel and then walks the operator panel from device to device, updating each. Much simpler than hooking each individually up to a laptop for programming. He needs the speed and flexibility which the dual approach gives him, and he knows exactly which parameters matter, so programming a device with a tiny human-machine interface isn’t as daunting as it seems.

That’s it for now. Off to day 2 and cyber-security. By the way: follow along on Twitter with the hashtag #AutomationSummit.

Image credits: SINAMICS image courtesy of Siemens, photo of slide taken by Monica Schnitger

Note: Siemens graciously covered some of the expenses associated with my participation at the event but did not in any way influence the content of this post.