Meeting the automation challenges

Tom Shelley looks as latest tactical advances to combat long-standing problems.

There are three challenges facing British manufacturing. One is to reduce energy consumption and other variable costs. The second, is to manufacture better products for less money, which means justifying expenditure on the latest automation technologies, while the third is to protect intellectual property against theft and now, in addition, possible sabotage by cyber attack.

Energy never was cheap enough to be wasted and this is more true today than ever before, with energy prices on a continued upward climb, driven by ever-increasing world demand and limited supply. In real terms, the cost of electricity has doubled in the last decade and, according to the International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook, the costs of all forms of energy will continue to rise into the foreseeable future.

To this end, Steve Ruddell, division manager, discrete automation and motion for ABB says that his company has for some time had a more than 50 member 'Energy Appraisal Team' that conducts half-day assessments of how much electricity a company is using and how much money it could save by adopting simple measures, particularly variable speed drives. It should be noted at this point that industry consumes about 42% of all electricity generated, and 67% of this is used to power electric motors.

Ruddell said that, "It is extremely easy to reduce electricity consumption by half", in many cases, and that out of more than 3,000 appraisals conducted in the UK in the last five years, half have resulted in, new business for ABB. When asked how the company managed to do an appraisal in only half a day, he said that the general approach of the teams is to look at the list of motors, look at the list of pumps and fans, and start by looking at the largest motors that drove pumps and fans for the longest hours.

In this way, he said, his teams could on average, expect to find ways to save 35% to 50% of power costs in the installations they looked at, with payback times generally less than two years and, "A high proportion less than one year." The bottom line for ABB is that the approach has, "Doubled" the company's drive business. It should be noted that the advice service is free of charge and there is no obligation to buy from ABB. "We have gone to great lengths to get every aspect of an energy appraisal correct", says Ruddell.

"From the sophistication of the energy analysis tools we use, through to the uniforms that all our Energy Appraisal Team will now wear. And in between, each engineer is equipped with an energy appraisal toolkit. The toolkit reflects the level of detail and experience that we apply to each appraisal. "For example, it features a telescopic mirror used to get into the difficult areas where motors are often located, so that we can get to the motor nameplate data.

We have a camera for capturing each process; a torch to make sure we miss no detail; a tape measure so that we can determine the space needed if a variable speed drive is to be installed; and an energy meter that allows us to measure the before and after energy use of a particular application." But while variable speed drives can reduce the consumption of electricity, there is still the need to invest in latest automated production machinery.

It is becoming increasingly clear how far the UK has fallen behind other industrialised countries in its use of robots and robotic production facilities over the last 30 years and, judging by a presentation given recently by Mike Wilson, president of the British Automation and Robot Association, not much seems to have changed. The latest study, 'Application of Automation in UK Manufacturing, 27th Sept 2010' was commissioned by members of the Engineering and Machinery Alliance, with support from the Department of Business Innovation and Skills.

While the use of individual robots, as opposed to robotic production lines, is only part of the story, it is indicative of the state of things that Germany has an installed base of 144,800 robots, and Spain has 28,600 whereas the UK has only 15,100, despite remaining the world's sixth largest manufacturer. The three main barriers to the wider adoption of automation were found to be a lack of awareness of what can be done (or is being done by competitors) plus an aversion to risk, with the expectation that payback has to be within year, rather than three years as in the rest of the EU.

There is also found to be a lack of engineering skills to develop concepts and specifications, a lack of sector knowledge, and a lack of impartial advice. To this end, despite all its focus on cuts, the coalition government has found it expedient to come up with £600,000 to fund impartial manufacturing audits to identify automation opportunities within businesses. This will be followed by support to develop a concept and specification plan for the manufacturer to use to tender the project.

In addition to supporting the BIS programme, BARA will implement a series of ten regional events in early 2011 which will help SMEs understand the benefits of automation and provide advice on how to take the first steps in its adoption. The first is to be at Holbeach College, Spalding, at the end of March, to be quickly followed by events at Mazak in Worcester and Harwin, which makes electrical connectors, in Portsmouth.

The other challenge that all UK designers and manufacturers continue to face is the theft of their intellectual property, and even the possible sabotage of their systems. Enterprise wide computer control and the Internet has opened up new possibilities to perform both tasks with exceptional ease and speed. While Stuxnet remains the only example so far, of large scale sabotage on critical installations in a country by a foreign power, (Israel, it is assumed, trying to stop Iran's progress to nuclear weapons) intellectual property theft and sabotage by disgruntled employees or recently ex employees remains a problem.

The Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructures and companies such as Rockwell Automation have been devoting considerable effort to coming up with strategies to improve security. There is no single 'magic bullet' to solve such problems – even quantum cryptography, when it comes, will doubtless be able to be cracked by quantum computers. Rockwell recommends a strategy of, "Defence in Depth". The top layer is physical security: limiting physical access to areas, control panels, devices, cabling, the control rooms and other locations to authorised personnel as well as escorts, and also tracking where visitors are.

Network security includes infrastructure, such as firewalls with intrusion detection and intrusion prevention systems (IDS/IPS), and integrated protection of networking equipment such as switches and routers. Passwords remain a problem. Users have trouble remembering passwords that are difficult to hack and if they have to be stored, this has to be done securely. Biometric identification sometimes works - the HP fingerprint reader on the PC this article was written on has proved itself 100% effective and the US Department of Homeland Security has, after years of development, got a system that they trust, but many users have found problems. Other human biometric recognition systems are still mostly in the development stage.

Computer hardening is also important and this includes patch management – only downloading bug fixing patches when they have been identified as bona fide, relevant and useful and in such a way as to not stop anything else important from functioning as well as installing and maintaining antivirus software and removing unused applications, protocols and services. Within this layer come application security, which contains authentication, authorisation and audit software and within that, device hardening requiring secure change management procedures and restrictive access.

Design Pointers
•Anyone with a large pump, fan or compressor that does not need to be run continuously at full speed can expect to save large sums of money within in a year or two by installing a suitable variable speed drive. Assessments are free and without obligation
•Free and impartial advice is to made available to those willing to consider adopting advanced automation and robotics in their manufacturing
•Anyone with critical information on and critical installations attached to an enterprise wide network needs to start taking proper cyber security very seriously

Tom Shelley

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