Automation Investment Expectations for the Batch Manufacturing Industries

In this second installment in our series covering automation investment expectations for 2021, suppliers highlight ongoing pandemic, supply chain, and labor issues driving near-term interest in specific technologies.

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As noted in the first installment of this series investigating spending trends on automation technology across the discrete, batch, and continuous process industry verticals, this second installment focusing on the batch or hybrid manufacturing industries is based on a study conducted in late 2020 of automation technology suppliers. We asked those suppliers an array of questions to better understand how they saw their customers—end users across the industrial spectrum—reacting to the economic and societal changes we all experienced in 2020. 

As was expected, there was plenty of overlap among the three industry verticals with regard to technologies whose use is expected to trend upward. But there was also some significant variance.

First, let’s look at the overlaps. In the discrete industries, the top five areas expected to see increased spending in 2021 are: data acquisition and analytics, cloud computing, cybersecurity software and IoT platform software (tied for third place), sensors, and robots/cobots (tied for fifth place). Responses for the batch industries also pointed to IoT platform software, data acquisition and analytics, cloud computing, cybersecurity software, and sensors as being among the top five. For the batch industries, cybersecurity and cloud computing tied for fifth place in spending. That tie opened up a spot for a sixth technology to make the top five, and in batch manufacturing, it is remote access—which ranked in second place for this industry vertical. 

“The common thread among the top areas for increased spending is the need for more data,” said Bruce Kane, global life sciences technical industry consultant at Rockwell Automation. “Businesses are willing to invest in digital transformation when they recognize how they can use information to better understand their processes and, as a result, improve performance, increase capacity, decrease manufacturing costs, and improve time to market.”

Keith Chambers, vice president, operations management software at Aveva, said the top areas noted in this survey “clearly reflect strong moves toward digital transformation in the batch manufacturing industries. Batch and hybrid manufacturers are facing unprecedented challenges amplified by COVID-19 that have significantly impacted business results, growth, and profitability. To become more flexible and agile as market demand, product demand, and packaging configurations change rapidly, manufacturers are responding with digital transformation.”

Digital transformation implications
Kane’s and Chambers’ observations about digital transformation investments are underscored by the findings in our research. All of the top areas for the highest levels of increased spending are technologies closely associated with digital transformation. That’s not to say other automation technologies, such as SCADA, controllers, and motors and drives, are not expected to see increased spending. Our research indicates that they will.

The difference lies in the amount of increased spending. For example, in the batch industries, where increases in spending on data acquisition and analytics is expected by 80% of respondents, only 42% expect an increase in spending on motors, drives, and motion control technologies.

The combination of the maturation of the consumer product goods (CPG) market and supply chain disruptions from COVID-19 pushed manufacturers to deploy supply chain and manufacturing systems that work together, according to Chambers. He added that a key component of having these systems work together implies that they should be “dynamically optimized to ensure the maximum business returns that operational constraints allow.”

Chambers also noted that batch manufacturers are meeting the increasing demands from customers and regulators for transparency across the supply chain that requires traceability of materials from farm-to-fork and visibility into where, when, and how products are sourced, processed, and shipped.  

“Ethics and corporate responsibility are being incorporated into operating procedures at each stage of the value chain, IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) and advanced data analytics are being deployed to amplify business-wide sustainability initiatives and deliver both ecological and economic benefits,” Chambers said. “Such benefits include the significant cost reduction potentials that reducing energy consumption and production waste offer. For example, Henkel Laundry & Home Care, a supplier of consumer goods and industrial chemicals, worked with Aveva to build a digital backbone to meet its sustainability and efficiency goals, achieving a 24% reduction in energy consumption, which resulted in a €15 million reduction of energy costs and a 4.5% overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) improvement.”

Mark Ruberg, packaging industry manager at Beckhoff Automation, noted that businesses in batch manufacturing “get paid for product leaving the dock, so they are always looking for new ways to increase output and uptime. The digital transformation promises new opportunities to optimize these areas, where traditional methods and technologies have plateaued. Greater data acquisition and analytics capabilities provide actionable insights to help manufacturers address quality issues, identify consumer trends, reduce machine downtime, and more.”

Legacy controllers and associated systems provide little ability to separate out key data, find what is important, and analyze it, Ruberg said. These older technologies also need additional gateways to connect to the cloud or enterprise-level networks. In contrast, newer “PC-based controllers and analytics tools can pre-process data on the machine controller, alongside the PLC, motion control, machine vision, and so on, and offer inherent connectivity,” Ruberg said. “This helps manufacturers gain insights directly from the field, without creating massive data lakes or using excessive bandwidth to transmit useless data.”

The growing importance of remote access
Looking across the batch industries, 82% of respondents expect increased investments in remote access technologies whereas only 74% project increased spending for this technology in the discrete manufacturing industries.

When asked why remote access technology appears to be of higher importance for batch manufacturers than discrete manufacturers, based on our research results, Beckhoff’s Ruberg pointed to the general benefits of remote access. “Remote access and monitoring enable large manufacturers and machine builders alike to analyze machine performance, perform scheduled upgrades, and fix issues without having to travel to the site. It also enables remote training, where the instructor can use augmented reality or other tools to train on-site maintenance staff. In industries where uptime is critical, this saves incredible amounts of time and costs.”

He also noted that discrete OEMs tend to be ahead of the curve in terms of implementation of technologies like remote access. As such, he believes discrete manufacturers are not as focused on adding remote access right now because many of them “already have solutions in place that work for them and their end users. And this is good news for batch manufacturers, because it means there is already a wide range of tried-and-tested models available for implementing remote access and monitoring. Engineers in the batch industries don’t have to reinvent the wheel—they can modify existing strategies or adopt them wholesale right away.” 

Another advantage to higher levels of remote access technology adoption was noted by Aveva’s Chambers, who said, “Collaboration is a key component of batch manufacturers’ operations—remote access and remote monitoring enable team collaboration between people and functional teams. Remote access to operational data and/or performing required data analyses give a supporting person or decision maker working remotely the ability to collaborate with the local team. And this collaboration scenario is valid for people within and outside a manufacturing organization, such as giving external support teams remote access to plant equipment.”

He added that another emerging remote collaboration concept batch manufacturers should take note of is the “control tower” or “unified operations center,” which “centralizes formerly separate teams in one control room location with access and remote monitoring functionality for collaboration with a holistic view and an enhanced layer of intelligence across one or multiple manufacturing locations,” he said. This collaborative approach enables teams to quickly make informed decisions to optimize operations, assets, and logistics, he said.

Is MES still important?
A number of respondents noted the increased use of MES in batch manufacturing as being a driver of interest in the IoT-related technologies that comprise the top five technologies of interest in batch manufacturing—even though MES itself did not factor into the top five technologies.

Kane noted that Rockwell has been seeing increased adoption and advancement of MES with its customers “as the central point for their IoT data to get real-time information to make better business decisions. The MES layer has the power to connect to nearly all of its disparate business processes, tie the information together, and deliver it from the right source, to the right person, and at the right time.”

Adding to Kane’s point about MES serving as a central IoT data crossroads, Beckhoff’s Ruberg said, “with higher implementation of IIoT and Industry 4.0 concepts, manufacturers are working to accommodate increasingly greater demands for customization down to lot size one. This includes everything from patient-specific treatment regimens to buying a package of candy with your dog’s face on it. During the pandemic, manufacturers limited SKU proliferation so that changeovers only happen for popular products. However, most expect large-scale customization to return and are incorporating flexible technologies—from controls and MES to motion and mechatronics—to be prepared. Increased digitization, by default, requires MES technologies that can keep pace with these trends.”

As machines become smarter by becoming “things” in IIoT systems, Aveva’s Chambers says MES can unite those machines with connected workers and other connected assets, changing this collection of smart machines into a smart factory. “In essence, the role of MES is evolving into a plant’s digital twin, a solution that ties together all of the data from across all of the plant’s assets and operations,” he said. “From there, MES filters and contextualizes this data to manage the entire operation and integrate and interact with the supply chain management level of an enterprise. This enables companies to build feasible plans based on actual material, labor, and capacity availability, optimize plant production based on business and operational KPIs (key performance indicators), and give visibility into plan execution. The supply chain is thereby made more agile and resilient due to the optimization and integration of manufacturing execution and business planning into a single digital system.”

Chambers added that Aveva sees companies increasing investments in multi-site MES software to “harmonize entire manufacturing networks and further optimize the value chain, along with solutions like predictive analytics and prescriptive planning and scheduling, all of which unlock the significant value offered by MES.”

Labor issues
A key operational issue cited by several respondents as a specific driver behind the top technology trends in batch manufacturing is the industry’s ongoing issues with labor—more specifically, the ability to find enough qualified employees.

“With protracted workforce shortages, companies need to be better equipped than ever to adapt to shifts in demand or capacity,” said Beckhoff’s Ruberg. “A shift in demand could be identifying a market trend, while a shift in capacity means being able to scale up production through rapid, software-based changeovers. Both require substantial data analytics, so the ability to combine specific production information with marketplace metrics is key.”

Ruberg added that a key factor intensifying this issue for much of industry is the fact that an entire generation of controls engineers is at or near retirement age. 

“These old school engineers could identify issues just by walking through the factory and listening to the machines,” he said. “They knew when it was time to perform minor adjustments or major maintenance. With much of this expertise retiring with them, new automation technology must provide an answer. Condition monitoring and high-end measurement combined with analytics, machine learning, and cloud-based systems provide valuable tools to replace this lost knowledge. These technologies are also helping companies boost uptime and throughput. In the same way that the software-as-a-service model reduces internal IT efforts, machines-as-a-service reduces in-house engineering and maintenance requirements. By outsourcing commissioning and troubleshooting, companies reduce training needs and other requirements for maintaining a larger in-house team.”

Aveva’s Chambers noted that information from IoT and cloud technologies is more easily accessible with a digital and mobile user experience that can be used to guide this new generation of workers through tasks with procedural enforcement, instructions, forms for data collection, and informational context. 

“Software capabilities industrial organizations are increasingly using to solve these workforce challenges include worker collaboration, logbooks, and problem-solving skills management, all of which foster digital knowledge sharing, team collaboration, and skills development,” Chambers said. “Importantly, training videos and social communication channels reduce the time it takes to get frontline workers up to speed on the basic skills needed to run today’s complex industrial operations and create a digital knowledge repository that standardizes and stores best practices before experienced workforces retire.”

Rockwell’s Kane mentioned that new technologies like augmented and virtual reality (which 64% of respondents expect to see increased spending on by the batch industries in 2021) are helping to make the manufacturing industry as a whole more attractive to a younger workforce. These technologies enable us to “bridge the younger generations’ interest and experience with the internet, computers, and gaming with things like augmented reality operator training and remote support with robots to get them excited about manufacturing,” he said. Plus, these technologies allow manufacturers to “more easily train new employees, and upskill employees moving into new roles. This allows companies to be more agile with their workforce as labor needs change and know that they can make their people more productive faster.”

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