Industrial automation is linked to manufacturing and production, but the term has been used more loosely recently. According to Bjoern Falke,

senior product marketing specialist for the Automation Group at Phoenix Contact, “Automation is a technology to increase production flexibility and reduce cost of ownership of a manufacturing process or facility.”

As the indu-strial automation industry adapts to changing technology, Falke said that even the definition has evolved.

“Additions include the need for further data exchange capabilities driven by ever-increasing networking of production cells and increased data volume,” he said. “Technologies, such as vision systems or sophisticated data-logging requirements, increase data volume that needs to be collected and pushed over a network to other parts of the machine or factory.

“Collected data can be used to better analyze and streamline production processes, improve product quality, provide better diagnostics to increase machine uptime and make the production process more transparent through the use of Ethernet infrastructure components or Ethernet-enabled controllers and I/O systems.”

According to Falke, “Drivers are the need to improve quality while reducing cost, increase production flexibility to meet the ever-changing customer demand, and enable [factory operators’] automation systems to handle and exchange growing data volumes from the shop floor to the top floor. Inhibitors have higher initial costs of automated systems versus a mechanical/manual approach. Lower cost, small, high-performance controllers with built-in Ethernet ports, however, make automation and networking of smaller machines/production cells more attractive.”

Flywheels fly in to production

Frank DeLattre, chief sales officer, Vycon, described another area within industrial automation where things have been rapidly and positively changing.

“Flywheel technology, which is battery-free and cleaner, is important in the industrial sector where there is a high cost associated with unplanned downtime,” he said.

In places such as semiconductor wafer manufacturing plants, where production runs can last more than three weeks, any loss of production, even a slight power outage, could result in millions of dollars in lost revenue directly related to scrap material or downtime. Traditional uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) backed by batteries have been used. UPS and backup generators have been staples of manufacturing and industrial automation, especially where there is a significant scrap cost, a high cost of downtime or the inability to make up for lost production time.

Newer technology, such as flywheels that generate

and store kinetic energy, is proving useful in such production facilities by saving space, requiring very little maintenance and not requiring an environmentally controlled location.

Long-term power outages negatively affect production, but so do the short-duration voltage dips and outages. Flywheel technology can also prevent problems associated with short duration voltage dips, which can halt production.

“Using flywheels for those momentary glitches is ideal,” DeLattre said. “According to Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), 98 percent of power outages and sags are less than 10 seconds in duration. This means the energy contained in the flywheel alone can resolve most of the power problems an industrial site might experience without the expense of using batteries or diesel gensets. A site may only experience one long-term outage every few years, but may also have multiple short glitches a year that go unnoticed by plant operators. However, for the electronically controlled equipment, these power glitches may cause one piece of equipment to shut off or reset, thus shutting down production.”

DeLattre said industrial processes are computer controlled, and that is especially true in continual process manufacturing.

“Any time there is a power interruption, there is a scrap material cost and also downtime for cleanup,” DeLattre said. “Like in plastics manufacturing, as the plastic hardens, it needs to be cleaned up. A halt in pharmaceutical manufacturing or food processing means that things need to be resterilized. There are a lot of costs associated with even momentary glitches.”

DeLattre said the advent and increasing popularity of flywheel technology is ideal for industrial environments.

“Traditional battery-powered systems require a lot of floor space and maintenance,” he said. “They are not well suited for manufacturing environments due to storage and space constraints. Also, they need to be in an air conditioned environment in order for them to last. This is why flywheels shine, as they are not chemical in nature.”

Flywheels provide a lot of power for a short period of time and do so in one-tenth the footprint space required by their battery-backed counterparts.

“You get about a 20-year life out of flywheels, with little maintenance, whereas a battery needs to be replaced every three to four years,” DeLattre said.

Installation of flywheels is relatively straightforward, and they connect directly to the UPS. DeLattre said the installation takes roughly two to three hours. Furthermore, the flywheels can be located in the same place as traditional battery banks.

The best news of all: DeLattre said electrical contractors are required for both the installation of the UPS and for the energy storage connection. Flywheels, though easy to install and maintain, are not plug-and-play, and capable contractors are absolutely required.

Another take on efficiency

One critical area in production environments is efficiency. Efficiency is key in just about all aspects of the manufacturing process, and any area that can increase efficiency should be further explored.

“Power analytics holds promise for the future of industrial automation,” said Mark Ascolese, CEO of EDSA Micro Corp. Computer-aided design (CAD) products, such as those offered by his company and others, have inherent abilities and benefits that are relevant to industrial automation and the need of these facilities to be more effective and efficient.

In fact, many of the same benefits associated with electrical design and monitoring CAD systems that have proven useful to data center operations, also have proven to be relevant in the highly electrical dependent realm of industrial automation and manufacturing.

“Manufacturing facilities, such as auto manufacturers, pharmaceuticals, wafer fabs and other manufacturing plants, need real-time information about their electrical systems and the ability to create and respond to ‘what if’ scenarios,” Ascolese said.

This is most relevant on factory floors where adding or removing machines and equipment have major impacts on energy consumption and efficiency. By using software-based CAD solutions and their downstream real-time management systems, plant managers have the ability to make these changes in a virtual world before doing so in the real world and, thus, are able to see the effects changes will have before actually making them.

Ascolese also mentioned the enhanced safety aspect associated with such products as EDSA’s Paladin Live.

“One of the most important topics for all industries today is the subject of arc flash,” he said. “Arc flash analysis is an OSHA requirement in the U.S. and soon to be a Canadian and European requirement. All require biannual or more frequent analysis for the potential of an arc flash event in any facility with 480 volts or higher power. The purpose is to identify what type of protective gear must be worn in order to enter or service an area and to protect against the potential damaging or life threatening affects of an arc flash event. With our product, arc flash is an optional feature that can be built into the system. Our system automatically analyzes the arcing capabilities to determine the worst-case scenario any time in the previous 30 days and will even produce the required placards to post in an area or generate a work order permit before any work is done.”

The primary benefit with such systems is the real-time component. Prior to this new generation of monitoring, historical data needed to be reviewed in order to find out such information. The cost to gather data, provide it to a consulting engineer or others and then produce a report is expensive, and the process often takes months to complete. Real-time solutions reduce costs, increase accuracy and advance safety protection, according to Ascolese.

Real-time solutions also can detect and manage the electrical system based on the huge step loads typical of an industrial user.

“Those huge step loads occur when machines are brought online or taken offline, causing big changes to the electrical system,” Ascolese said. “A typical monitoring system creates tables that show the good and bad. Paladin Live knows what the electrical system should be doing and manages it based on overall system impact. In the example of the large step loads, we expect to see the entire system affected by the load change and exactly where and what that should be. We manage a power system as a network of interconnected power devices, and what happens at one location affects the entire network, not just the single location.”

Advanced real-time solutions also can help keep a handle on energy bills. This is becoming an increasingly relevant

concern as rising energy costs are causing budget strains across all sectors.

Keeping tabs on the electric company

One other way advanced systems for industrial automation can be of benefit, Ascolese said, are energy modules embedded within the systems.

“Knowing how much electricity you are using and being able to compare that to the electric company’s utility bill can be extremely beneficial for budgetary purposes,” he said.

Since utility companies have a complex and fluctuating rate structure from which they create utility bills, being able to monitor and essentially create one’s own internal bill helps users understand how much electricity their own systems generate and require.

“Things like facility-generated harmonics [noise] put on the utility line can adversely affect a utility bill. By using [real-time] solutions … one can know what is going on as it is occurring and make changes or corrections as needed. Perhaps more important, because we are constantly managing and comparing the actual performance to the predicted performance (the model or simulation), this lets us identify potential target areas for change and problems. This model-based approach also lets the user ask the question, ‘What if I change something here with a different welder or other piece of equipment? Will that lower my energy cost and, if so, by how much?’ That can translate into energy savings,” he said.

Industrial automation is moving in the same direction as most other systems-based, technology-driven markets. It is becoming more about monitoring, maintaining and controlling systems. Due to the nature of industrial automation, the primary system concern is generally the electrical system and being able to tap into these new technologies. System enhancements are proving to be beneficial to the base systems and also for other areas of operations.

Entering the market

Electrical contractors can easily become more involved in most of the key areas of industrial automation.

“In today’s global economy, it is important to work with companies that have worldwide representation and world-class support,” Falke said. “High-quality products that are easy to install and maintain are important, as well. Another important thing to consider is to work with a company that offers products and solutions that can be easily customized or adapted to meet local market needs.”

Contractors need to take the initiative to understand all of the opportunities that exist for them, even in areas where they may not have had complete focus before. Falke provided some common sense advice to those interested in exploring new opportunities, such as those within manufacturing and production.

“Take advantage of local trade shows and seminars to educate [your]self on the latest trends and products,” he said. “Visit manufacturers’ Web sites for the latest product information, and develop a relationship with your local automation distributor and/or manufacturer’s representative to gain insight on today’s automation market and future trends.”

STONG-MICHAS, a freelance writer, lives in central Pennsylvania. She can be reached at JenLeahS@msn.com.