APM Appliances Paving the Way to Autonomous Manufacturing
Just as autonomous vehicles are held out as a potential future for transportation, autonomous factories and plants are a possible future for at least some forms of manufacturing. With the rapid advancement of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) applications in the asset performance management (APM) space, coupled with the fact virtually every control system, enterprise software vendor, and specialized maintenance software provider is focused on APM as the quickest way to demonstrate value, APM has become the harbinger of the factory of the future.
If you look at how the smart home has evolved, it provides a template for how the smart factory could evolve. Initially, traditional appliances such as ovens and washing machines entered the digital era with digital timers and controllers. Finer-grained digital controls emerged and continue to evolve within the appliance field providing ever greater flexibility and capacity. Then these appliances became wifi-enabled and allowed us to monitor them from our desktops and smartphones with vendor-provided apps. Next, we saw the emergence of the smart home hubs; Amazon Echo/Alexa, Google Nest, and Apple HomePod/Siri. These smart speakers drove the evolution of our digital devices to be part of an interconnected web of smart appliances and the devices themselves to become even smarter.
The same thing is happening on the plant floor, particularly when we look at how we maintain and operate those plants. The evolution away from analog controls and machinery has been occurring for decades. We have had digitally-enabled diagnostic tools for some time as well. Likewise, most medium-sized or larger manufacturers have used enterprise asset management software or a computerized maintenance management system solution to manage maintenance, and companies with asset-intensive industries are using reliability-centered maintenance applications to focus their efforts on the right activities. In parallel, we have seen the emergence of historians and other data collection tools to drive maintenance based on usage instead of calendars and to monitor the operating condition of assets to drive condition-based maintenance. Most recently, industrial analytics have been applied to predictive maintenance (PdM) to better schedule maintenance activities.
What is new is that we are seeing the movement away from maintenance departments having to build and maintain their asset management program the same way they have maintained their plants, with a collection of tools and components. We are seeing the emergence of what amount to asset health appliances, devices that monitor the performance of an asset and proactively provide insight on how to avoid outages and breakdowns and operate at peak performance. Users don’t need to do more when it comes to maintaining their rotating machinery than a homeowner with a smart thermostat needs to do to maintain the comfort of their home. The emergence of these APM appliances portends a model where manufacturers only need their equivalent of an Echo/Alexa and a mix of manufacturing appliances to maintain and operate their facilities, doing away with the headaches of integrating dozens of components ranging from sensors to software. Three examples of companies providing solutions in this space are:
While the underlying technology varies, each is essentially providing an appliance that precludes a user from having to knit together hardware, data collection software, analytics, and PdM algorithms to understand what is happening and what to do. This is what the autonomous factory of the future might just start to look like.