5 quick take-aways from Siemens Automation Summit
I spent last week at the Siemens Automation Summit, learning lots and speaking with many, many people who program PLCs, HMIs and otherwise make manufacturing facilities hum. I’m still trying to figure out what to write about in more detail, but here are a five things I learned:
- Factory automation sounds straightforward –set it up and it goes, right?– but it’s not. There are constant adjustments as equipment ages or raw materials change, and as facilities seek ever-greater productivity and cost-savings. The best way to do this is with data, but that’s often hard to come by. It’s buried in a data historian or simply not grabbed — much of the tuning is still based on an experienced operator’s gut feel. Many engineers’ days start with a quick meeting to find out what’s notable from the prior shift, then troubleshooting the difficulties. Looking ahead is rarely possible.
- MindSphere, Siemens’ IoT platform, is interesting but still just a concept to this crowd. I didn’t ask all 700ish attendees, of course, but no one I spoke with is actually doing an IoT project right now. They want to understand what could be done technologically, but need a way to define a project and sell it internally. Perhaps next year an industrial company will be able to present a case that clearly defines problem, implementation and benefit.
- Operator training is crucial but underserved. I spent time with major manufacturers who can’t find skilled operators for their production plants, so bring in untrained workers and work to train them using offline simulators and gaming technologies. But it’s hard: training simulators today look nothing like the 3D gaming environments these new workers are likely used to and they also don’t look like the physical reality they will face on the facility floor. One way to do training is to use a digital twin of the facility — but whose job is it to maintain that model, as the real production line is updated over time? If there’s more than one line, who owns the model and shares it out to production facilities? Complicated.
- The whole digital twin concept is just starting to gain traction with automation users. In many cases, they don’t have a digital representation of the equipment on their lines; they may have some data from the equipment OEM or their automation contractors but it’s inconsistent and probably incomplete. The consensus seemed to be that this is a great idea but out of many attendees’ immediate reach. [But it is important to start down this path: model something critical, gather all the data you can, prove benefit then move on to a bigger project.]
- One presenter showed how Siemens PLM‘s Tecnomatix models and simulates a production line to generating PLC code but it seemed very theoretical to this crowd. I think Siemens did a better job of explaining how the PLM portfolio can help this audience when I last attended the Summit and see this as a missed opportunity.
One thing I will definitely write about in more detail is the awesome site visit Siemens arranged at Valpak. Valpak makes those blue envelopes many American households get once a month, filled with coupons and marketing material from local businesses. Millions of pieces of paper are printed, collated, perhaps coded to a unique individual recipient, put into envelopes, trucked and then mailed to recipients. At a time when many things are going digital, Valpak has found a niche in the paper world that’s still very much alive. More to come on this — but in the meantime, check out this video about their facility. [But if you get one of the envelopes, US readers, OPEN IT: there may be a $100 check hidden inside.]
More soon. Americans, have a wonderful 4th. The rest of the world: enjoy the relative quiet.
Note: Siemens graciously covered some of the expenses associated with my participation in the event but did not in any way influence the content of this post.