3 ways industrial controls help future-proof your packaging line

By Harpak-ULMA
Posted In : Automation, IOT, industrial controls, open architecture

Investing in a new packaging line requires a considerable amount of due diligence. It’s a significant expense, and an asset you expect to utilize for a long time. Maybe a very long time.

And it’s not just a one-time expense. Like any piece of complex equipment, there are ongoing expenses required to keep it running.

But here’s where it gets tricky — the embedded industrial controls that make automation “work” are more important than ever. That on-board controls system is the brain and nervous system of your packaging machine.

In addition, producers increasingly view production assets as a comprehensive, integrated system, versus individual islands of automation. The latter helped to perpetuate an OEM’s controls strategy focused on minimizing the cost of embedded controls, or in some cases taking a proprietary approach as part of an aftermarket revenue generation plan. Little value was assigned to how well those components integrate with each other, with machine mechatronic elements, and with other systems. That’s a problem in today’s environment, given the rapid evolution of software applications used to manage production processes, not to mention the pervasive connectivity associated with the ever-accelerating technological innovations we collectively refer to as Digital Transformation.

A new paradigm emerges

Smart, connected machines have captured our collective imaginations, expanding our expectations of what’s possible. Consider automobiles: typically, your car remains as it was birthed at the factory until set to rest in the junkyard. It does not get any smarter, improve its range, become safer, get better acceleration, or add new features as time goes by.

Well, that is until Tesla changed all that.

Their smart, connected vehicles get software enhancements pushed over the air constantly. That means a Tesla improves over time; it’s a better car today than when you bought it one, two, or three years ago. Tesla monitors and analyzes vehicle performance data, adapting on-board software applications and controls to improve various capabilities over time — such as aforementioned safety features, acceleration, range, or mileage.

This approach (to an extent) “future-proofs” the vehicle by accommodating ongoing technological changes, extending the useful asset life, improving performance, and reducing overall cost of ownership.

This capability isn’t unique to Tesla. It’s the fundamental paradigm of any smart, connected strategy.

Your packaging machine’s control platform is the nexus where digital transformation intersects with the physical world of packaging.

Neither producers, nor the OEMs that serve them, should view the controls platform as a secondary consideration — they play a crucial role protecting useful asset life, contributing to a 360° view of production performance, and optimizing total cost of ownership (TCO).

A platform designed to be smart and connected enables a degree of future-proofing not associated with legacy controls architectures, or machines using a mishmash of controls never designed to work as an integrated whole.

Let’s examine three ways that your machine’s industrial controls can influence how future-proof your CapEx investment really is.

1. Open architectures & protocols

At their most fundamental level, open architectures utilize components compatible with products from other manufacturers. This allows selection of the most suitable component for an application’s needs — so that adding, replacing, upgrading, and swapping components is easier. Components are designed to more easily connect and interoperate so that modifying one or more functions won’t alter the existing procedures and protocols of the core system. A proprietary approach, on the other hand, increases the likelihood that customers buy all components from the same source.

For example, proprietary systems often employ a “black-box” approach on key components such as the controllers themselves, which makes it impossible to effect logic changes without the vendor’s help. Typically, “closed or proprietary” equates to a pricing and availability monopoly on spares, special parts, tools, or services.

An open architecture design provides the flexibility to use a broader array of components and supports open programming languages (such as IEC 61131-3). It also accommodates a wider variety of industrial protocols such as EtherNet/IP, EtherCAT, Profinet, and Profibus, etc. This means both components and the technical skill sets to support them are widely available at competitive prices, and there are no “black-box” restrictions.

There is also the issue of how easily data can be published and consumed, both within and outside of the machine itself. Employing industry standard communications protocols improves the speed and ease of integrating new hardware or software systems. Connectivity and data management are major gating factors when it comes to flexibility for integrating with additional packaging automation, new software applications, or even reconfiguring assets for new purposes.

Adherence to open standards ensures continuous compatibility with the latest technologies (such as evolving protocols) and avoids the lock-in risk of proprietary products. Taken together, it enables producers to maintain a level of independence, better control maintenance expenses, and shorten downtime resolution cycles.

2. IIoT Compatibility

Industry 4.0? The revolution will be sponsored by … data. In this case the accurate, timely data generated by almost every aspect of your packaging processes.

Your industrial controls capture a lot of production data, but typically only from a defined set of sources. But the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) will transform that over the next decade. The number of data sources will explode as instruments, machines, actuators, and sensors get connected with an IP address.

Connected controls, devices, systems, advanced analytics, and modern network architectures can work in concert to optimize packaging processes based on previously unthinkable volumes of data —     assuming your platform was designed with IIoT in mind.

For example, monitoring the data stream from a quality vision sensor makes it possible to identify gradual signal degradation that might be occurring due to lens blockage — thereby avoiding quality “escapees.” New sensors use digital outputs (versus analog) to produce higher transfer rates, increase transmitter reliability, and even employ self-diagnostic tools.

Another big advantage is that implementation does not require equipment upgrades. Perhaps even more interesting is how an IIoT design empowers adoption of disruptive new technologies such as augmented reality.

An IIoT design enables your controls system to aggregate and publish key operating data that populates the digital twin overlay AR provides.

Here are just a few ways your team can leverage AR on the packaging line:

  •  Operators, supervisors, or maintenance teams can use this technology to quickly view real-time operational metrics in the context of where they are looking at a machine — and zero in on issues or evolving process problems quickly (e.g., a failing heater plate).
  •  This revolutionary technology also can provide visually guided work instructions to reduce error and speed tool changeovers.
  •  It even allows maintenance teams to visualize internal structures (think X-ray vision) to quickly pinpoint the most expeditious way to access machine internal structures.

3. One controls architecture

Interoperability is the name of this game — offering improved flexibility as demands change. Your controls system is a combination of subsystems that work together to coordinate different packaging subprocesses, and their interoperation depends on data sent and received by various other subsystems.

If those subsystems stem from different manufacturers (a heterogeneous combination), they will still need a shared information model to achieve a common understanding of the data required by each subsystem and the architecture.

Connecting heterogenous subsystems or components using one-off drivers is fraught with more effort and challenges when introducing new equipment, upgrades, or additional infrastructure.

A single system architected for modular interoperability improves flexibility through easy integration and replacement of participants, reducing additional engineering effort for adaptation.

In addition, a system architecture should be scalable, or able to be adopted for different applications or use cases of varying sizes. Routing data through a central control for analysis is not a scalable structure. If the number of participants increases due to the integration of additional tools, the architecture needs to scale accordingly.

Another factor here is security: as our future state becomes increasingly connected, cybersecurity demands rise. Controls that operate as one integrated system make coordinated multi-layer security designs that protect both hardware and software feasible.

Will you be able to do more and go faster in the future?

The future marches endlessly on, bringing with it an increasing rate of technology innovation along with new opportunities to improve operational performance and better control both cost and quality.

But opportunity is only as good as the relative cost/benefit tradeoff. If your automated packaging investment isn’t designed for agility and longevity, it’s going to be more difficult to squeeze every bit of possible value from these advancements when you get the chance.

Solving long-standing problems while adding new features and disruptive technologies is most certainly high on the list of executive expectations.

When it comes to your packaging platform, will that shiny new car seem dull, outdated, and under-powered in a few short years? Or will it get better with time like a Tesla?

A capital investment strategy for packaging that overlooks the important role of industrial controls will inevitably frustrate producers looking for the features and performance needed to stay competitive.

Before writing that check, take a hard look at whether your solution is designed to update, scale, and connect — at a cost you can live with for a long time.

Let’s future-proof your packaging line

If you’d like to understand more about our vision for transforming packaging with disruptive innovation delivered at the best total cost of ownership, feel free to reach out to our team of packaging equipment experts. We’re here to help in any way we can.