Digital manufacturing: “Pen and paper are still being used”

Industry 4.0 is great. In theory. But in reality switching to new machines can be complicated and expensive. Lazaros Patsakas from B&R Automation explains how companies can take the plunge with a very simple system.

The Orange Box enables machine operators to collect and analyze data from previously isolated machines and lines and get them fit for the smart factory. (Picture: B&R Automation) -

Mr. Patsakas, companies often fail to embrace Industry 4.0 because they are put off by the high costs of new production equipment. You have set out to remedy this situation.

Lazaros Patsakas: Exactly. We developed what we call the “Orange Box” to support manufacturing companies such as Nestlé, Continental, etc. that cannot and do not want to replace all of their machinery. We originally set out to help our partner Nestlé, which has more than 400 production plants worldwide and naturally is not keen on converting them all at once. That would require a huge investment.

Its plants, as is the case in other companies, often contain machines which are 10 years old or older and which have no facility for reading out any data. In fact, pen and paper are still being used to record planned and unplanned downtimes.

However, the companies would welcome if everything were as simple as it is in the private sphere – where everything is done via a smart-phone and a single device is used to find out information, such as the current weather or the user’s own pulse. A solution of this kind would also need to be a universal one, i.e. it would have to work with all makes of machinery in the plant. So that was the premise when we started working with Nestlé. However, we quickly realised that many more companies are facing the same challenges.

And how does your solution work?

Patsakas: It has a software component and a hardware component. This allows us to read data from a production machine without having to change the machine code. For example, we can read out data via an Ethernet card or via hard-wired I/Os.

The Orange Box is the solution component which is connected to the machine and serves as a bridge to a higher-level system. It is equipped with B&R software, which only requires the user to set the configuration parameters in order to read the data afterwards.

Event tip: This technology will also be presented during a lecture at the European Coatings Technology Forum – Enhanced Automation. The conference will take part on March 14-15 in Berlin. Check out the program!

This higher-level system – is it provided by you or is it the customer’s software?

Patsakas: We can supply it. Our solution is called Aprol. However, customers can also use the “Orange Box” with SAP or an existing ERP system which can be connected via an interface such as OPC UA.

So far, we have talked about reading data. Can customers use the Orange Box to control their machines?

Patsakas: No, is is only used for data acquisition and KPI calculations as well as for providing data to a higher-level system. We actually do have control capability, but it is not what companies want at the moment. It’s more about generating data for the analyses and optimising individual machines or entire production lines.

Lazaros Patsakas B&R Automation

Lazaros Patsakas, Key Account Manager at B&R Automation

Can you give some examples of what data is involved?

Patsakas: It can be any conceivable kind of data, as long as you know where exactly the corresponding data points are located on the production equipment and where you can read signals. For example, you could read a unit counter and a scrap counter. The Orange Box would inform you, then, that 10,000 units were produced during a shift, 500 of which were faulty. So, ultimately, 9,500 good units were produced.

The smart thing about the system is that you can use logical operators to link imported data points from multiple sources (controllers and I/Os) to each other via a visual interface in the Orange Box and thus, without making software changes to the machine, create messages for further processing. For instance, signals from safety gate 1 and safety gate 2 might be linked to each other via the logic interface to create a new message: “Safety circuit gates”. The user would received the “Safety circuit gates” message when both signals are present. The separate signals for safety gates 1 and 2 are, of course, still available and are also transmitted.

And does this require special programming knowledge?

Patsakas: No, there’s no programming involved. Manufacturing companies often have to master two or three different software programmes because they use different makes of machine. What our system does is provide the customer with a visual interface, which is used to configure all relevant parameters.

That does indeed sound very simple, but a certain amount of training is still required, right?

Patsakas: Yes and no. The condition is very simple and you are given a manual and installation instructions. So, theoretically, you could familiarise yourself with the system without any help. But we recommend running a joint workshop, which only takes half a day. You don’t need any longer than that. An Orange Box can be commissioned in 1-2 hours.

Interviewed by Jan Gesthuizen

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