March 17, 2022

Industrial automation Q&A: The state of industrial automation

Automation, robots, they’re all the buzz these days. As we pack more computing and sensing power in smaller devices and service robots become more practical these concepts find their way further and further into pop culture and our day-to-day lives.

Industry has long been the proving ground for the automation and robotics we see everywhere today, deploying the simplest of robots, the articulating arm, decades ago. Those arms move on six axes these days, with capabilities like 3D vision, temperature monitoring and all kinds of other valuable data points.

Industrial automation still leads the way in terms of what’s practical and possible when it comes to automation. In order to get a sense of what’s happening on the front lines, what latest technologies are breaking through in manufacturing, we talked with two of our own automation market experts, Stuart Graham and Jonathan Dougherty. The motion control experts touch on everything from how perceptions are changing about industrial automation, ways to get started and what they think is coming next.

How are perceptions changing right now? How are industries thinking about industrial automation?

Jonathan Dougherty: Most people still see “industrial internet of things,” “big data analysis” or “industry 4.0” as buzzwords more so than practical implementation. But as these technologies are born out more and more, people are seeing the true advantages to their operational systems using these things. We’re in that stage right now where these things are being put into factories. These things are being implemented into systems across, America and across the globe. We’re in a growth and discovery phase and I think within the next five, ten years, we’ll start to see some standardization—figuring out what’s helpful, necessary or frivolous.

Industrial automation moves us into an area where very monotonous tasks can be done, over and over, with more consistency and reliability. Aside from robots being able to do things like lift more weight faster, what a lot of people are realizing is that automating processes frees up internal resources to do other things.

People are freed up to work on other aspects, creative thinking or engineering, the kinds of things that also offer further advancement within these fields. Automation pushes you forward as far as capability, but also provides the chance think about things that may not have been possible previously.

Stuart Graham: Along the same lines, I think we’ve got a foot in the future and a foot in the past at the same time. We have both eras of manufacturing right now: full automation in some cases and little to none in other cases. I think it’s about finding what works for your particular manufacturing plant and what can be implemented, what should be implemented. Some places are taking smaller steps to improve what they have without shaking the boat too much. Newer companies are able to kind of build from the ground up with a bigger automation plan in mind.

Who are the customers you work with on a daily basis?

SG: I think customers you have the best relationships are the most technically collaborative relationships… “I have this problem. What do you think?” Or, “here are my requirements, how can you help me meet them?”

In our roles, the sheer breadth of products we think about on a day-to-day basis is very broad.
We have answers. There’s almost always a solution that we can provide in some way, shape or form. It’s a good feeling to know I have real options to offer versus something that may work, but not work great.

We have specific solutions for common problems. And that’s just fun. I can pivot between any of our products and brands and not feel like I’m sending them off to a lesser competitor. That’s a day-to-day experience for me. The best solution can almost always be found somewhere within our family of brands.

JD: My customers are from very different industries but what’s nice is they all have one thing in common: they have a problem they want solved and they see us as a partner towards solving it. They see us as a technology leader and that’s the best situation to be in as a supplier of these components. Obviously, most of the engineering is being done by them and their team, but we try to just help and support and lead them to the best motion feedback we can to help reach their end goal.

What have been some of the other hangups as far as, you know, people adopting automation and, and why is it kind of starting to speed up?

SG: I think one of the major challenges is that large-scale automation kind of requires a top-to-bottom structure, where all that automation’s going to play into a larger system. It’s not just the robot doing a task, it’s that robot doing its task and then maybe a human interaction to either move product over or do something else, and then the next robot. And that’s just on the floor level. Then, you have management services that that you have to consider. How does all that play and work together?

There’s a lot to it, beyond just cost, but, also the legwork, the groundwork to make all that happen. It is a is a big shift from traditional manufacturing. That’s why, with our CNC controls, for example, we have some tools there to give just a little taste of the automation, and roll some information up. That’s kind of how we’re seeing a little bit of the penetration into the market, with different types of automation.

JD: As you get more and more sensor information into these machines and devices, you have more data to collect to understand your situation. Beyond just speed and throughput, you’re looking at, environmental conditions, different vibration sensing information, or when you’re operating the best conditionally and what situations can lead to that. Adding all of these additional sensors has really provided a more insightful look into a system setup. Users are starting to understand what the capabilities are and what return on their investment these systems can get them.

Where does HEIDENHAIN fit in the larger automation landscape?

JD: We are a component provider. Our encoders provide feedback on speed and positioning. On its face, it’s a critical component, but it is singular. What we’ve done is tried to expand that capability to allow for more environmental information to be communicated across a single channel. With our EnDat interface and our advanced diagnostic systems, we’re allowing you to have a more comprehensive view, to see how a system is operating and what ideal conditions are. Anytime you start to see, deviations from that, you understand what’s going on.

Our components are at the core of the motion system. It’s very helpful to have additional sensing here to understand what’s going on with your motor, what’s going on with your encoder and everything around it. So far, we’ve engaged with a lot of customers specifically on monitoring motor coil temperature through encoders, monitoring vibration on the motor shaft itself and magnetic flux.

SG: Jon covered it well. I think the number one thing is EnDat and what it unlocks for your feedback control loop. It’s a bidirectional serial interface going back and forth with the controller. So, your feedback device, isn’t just sending out the information to the controller, it’s also receiving prompts for new information that you can implement a little more deeply into your routines. It’s a really powerful interface and we’ve had it implemented at a number of different control manufacturers over the years.

What specific technologies are driving the adoption and growth of automation?

JD: There are a couple technologies leading to growth. The advancement of the technology to help create the structure around automation has improved enough to allow it. And the people who are running the machines expect to have the information they need, always. That’s pushed the industry forward.

We have more companies and more systems out there doing big data analysis, Amazon Web Services and cloud computing, things like that. So, you have the infrastructure that can provide really good, usable information based on all the data being collected.

On the front end, you have a new generation of users who are used to working on a phone, who are used to working in the digital world and used to having all the information about anything that they’ve ever wanted at their fingertips. If we can do that with our standard stuff, why not in our factory? Why not in our machines? There’s nothing stopping us from having all the information we want in a digital format.

SG: Look at your house and you look at all the different smart sensors integrations that you have there, everything from the thermostat to lights changing colors for the holidays. You can program all that on your own, get hands-on experience. So, I think that’s aiding adoption in a different way. It’s making it more acceptable, understandable and less scary, right. Major changes are scary. Are robots and automation going to replace people’s jobs? And as we’ve kind of laid it out so far: it’s not taking away a job, but it’s allowing more people to do more important jobs.

How does a manufacturing or industrial customer get start with automation?

SG: Like we mentioned, it can be that big, grand idea of the fully automated, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be the smaller things, too: implementing temperature control for sensitive quality areas in your manufacturing plant. It’s something you should already be doing, but maybe you can automate that. Make incremental improvements if you don’t have the bandwidth, the resources to do a wholesale change over, because that is a huge change. Don’t start with your most critical processes. Find where it makes the most sense, somewhere you can have the most effective impact. Get a taste for it, then start thinking bigger.

JD: Start with what is it you want to do. What do you want to automate? What do you want to improve and how do you want that to look? The motion system, the encoder, the motor, the drive, all of that will be determined by your end goal. How fast do you want to move? How accurately do you want to move? Do you want people involved in the area? Do you want a level of functional safety included? So, I think it all starts from what it is you trying to do and how are you trying to do it.

Cloud computing is all the buzz. Does HEIDENHAIN have a role in this technological mega trend?

JD: We don’t directly interface with the cloud computing industry much, but our components are generating the information that’s eventually fed into the cloud. You can have the best cloud computing done by the best team in the world, but if you don’t have good data, it’s still going to be useless. Our components are right at the source, where that information is being generated.

We’re generating the data that’s eventually part of the big data being processed. All that sensory information we talked about is fed through our end component to a controller drive, which then communicates with a gateway or server into the cloud. Cloud computing can use the data our components generate and identify if/how it impacts a broader system.

SG: We’re also aware of the role that encoders play in a larger ecosystem of devices. We make our own CNC controls, but we also make sure that other controls that use our feedback devices have information that is useful for them, so that they can turn that into more actionable data. Cloud computing costs can add up really fast, especially if you have a whole lot of information that doesn’t help inform any decisions.

Where does HEIDENHAIN fit in Industry 4.0 and IIoT?

SG: The internet of things is different devices talking to each other in structured, standardized ways. Like what Jon was referring to earlier, the ability to take multiple sensors and then provide that information in one clean package to the controller instead of the controller having to reach out to all these different devices independently is powerful. It also allows everything to be synced, timestamped and orderly. Everything is a lot more structured, a lot cleaner.

JD: We’re creating a streamlined communication network from the component level up to the driver control through one communication channel.

What are some specific HEIDENHAIN products being used in robotics right now?

JD: Specific to arms, we’ve started releasing products that are made for feedback from the joints on these robots. If you think of like an arm, you’ve got movement at your elbow, movement at your wrist, shoulder movement. All of that is fed back to your brain based on how you feel. In a robot, you need to have feedback for each one of those rotating or moving parts, to know where it is and what it’s doing. We’ve developed encoders specifically for these robots.

It used to be industry standard to have feedback on the back of a motor and feedback after the gearing to measure the true positioning. What we’ve developed is a dual encoder. It’s able to take the speed of the motor and the position after the gearing all in one. The KCI 120 Dplus encoder combines these two separate components into one and have that one feedback system back to your control. It’s a consolidation. It’s a way to save space, minimize the footprint.

EnDat, HEIDENHAIN’s serial interface, has been described as “the future of digital manufacturing.” Can you explain?

JD: EnDat is a purely serial, bidirectional interface. It’s the language devices use to communicate. An encoder is speaking EnDat to the drive to communicate information.

The latest version, EnDat 3 has basically taken an SAT course. Instead of just talking about motion, it’s experienced the world a little bit and it’s talking about temperature and motor coils and other stuff as well. We went from having two additional information slots up to 16.

We’re increasing the capability, we’re expanding its vocabulary and it’s able to speak more things, and more things at once, to allow for more information, to be conveyed back to the controller. It’s opening up the possibilities of what sort of component-level information the end user can use. Does a customer need temperature? Vibration? Magnetic flux? Do they want bus operation, where we have multiple encoders hooked up to one system and then one communication stream back to the controller?

EnDat 3 opens up all the possibilities of what we can do, almost like our own component network back to the control.

What’s a bold prediction you have for industrial automation?

SG: I think we will see more full- to near-full automation factories. Places where there are chemicals that you don’t want people handling, well, people won’t have to handle them anymore. I think there’s going be more and more implementation, and maybe even faster now that we’ve broken the seal on that technology. Even with consumer products, it’s integrated into our lives and I think it’ll continue to build on itself.

We also have eyes on medical, robots that are aiding in surgeries and things like that. That’s a very high-level precision application, working with peoples’ bodies—you have to be very careful and intentional. It’s crazy the stuff that unlocks for society, better surgeries, faster surgeries, less invasive surgeries where you don’t need to recover for quite as long or have as high of a risk recovering. That’s really, really interesting and exciting.

JD: I don’t know if this one’s bold, but I think you will see a standardization of some of these IoT systems, as far as what is necessary and what isn’t. I also think what you’re going to see a very cool, sort of, marriage between manual workers working with automated machines—having the best of the both worlds. Some things will be fully automated and some things going to always be manual. But I think in the industrial automation world, you’ll see this merging to get the best of both systems as we move forward. I’m very excited to see what that looks like.