The age of the smart factory is here! More and more industrial processing facilities are hooking everything together, creating internal networks, to reap the benefits that these bring. The data-gathering and analysis-related functions of a networked factory can do wonders for long-term success and production efficiency. However, there are more than a few challenges.
Whether you are acquiring supplies from otscable for a new facility or you’re looking to upgrade an existing one, there are issues you have to consider. Some of these might be obvious at the outset, such as the logistics of all this networking gear. Others might catch you off-guard. Here are the seven most critical challenges that occur if you intend to make a smarter factory.
One concern that is highly practical is legacy equipment. Older machinery could come from an era when networking wasn’t important. These could be crucial to your operations, but also too old for a simple “plug and play” approach. This means that you are in desperate need to figure out how to blend the old and new, and that’s not always the easiest thing to achieve.
Unfortunately, there are instances when there is no solution. If you’re upgrading from an existing factory, you will have to settle for mixing the old and new and working as best you can. You can look into using third-party integration equipment and adaptors, which are your best option if a strict update and upgrade are out of the cards.
Another huge concern is simple logistics. Where do you lay out the cables? Where are the routers or switches installed? How far between support hardware are the cables running? This is something that you need to understand before you start placing equipment on the ground. Consider the layout and where your heavy machinery as you plan the placement of your networking infrastructure.
Security is a concern. A smart factory collects a great deal of data about your operations, which might be highly sensitive. Protecting it and any insights gained from it is important for most factories and companies. One way to protect the data is to go for a wired network, which traditionally is much harder to infiltrate from the outside.
In general, you do not want to go with a smart factory until you have the security in place. You want layers of protection and authorization for your data. How you achieve that is up to you, though keeping the more sensitive data in a closed network, inaccessible from the outside without the right credentials, is a good first step.
Data storage is also an ongoing concern for smart factories. As operations are recorded down to their minutia, all that information has to be kept somewhere. Preferably, the storage occurs on-site so you don’t have to stretch the network too far and risk security issues. This means you need to account for the storage and the conditions that prevent the hardware from being damaged.
Visibility is also a concern. In the old days, you might have observers present but practically no real active monitoring. Most things were probably done passively. In a smart factory, you’re going from zero monitoring to thousands of devices and points collecting data all the time. This can be a staggering amount of information to process and may require a learning curve.
A related challenge to this is if multiple factories are interconnected. Even if you maintained visibility in one, being suddenly thrust into seeing all of your facilities in such detail can be staggering. This is something that usually takes a bit of time to get used to.
You’ll want back-up systems in place in the event of outages. Never assume that you will never have an outage, and set the network up so that it functions on its own even without internet access. Make sure that the most crucial parts of it can work and record data independently, even under outage conditions.
Going closer to the “edge” might also be a challenge for you. Edge networks are when a single task is processed by multiple terminals across a network. This can be a serious challenge because it means that your internal network has to connect to a much broader one. This will require serious cooperation between multiple departments, facilities, and personnel.
The Right Tools
Finally, you have to look at the tools you intend to use. The market for devices and tools for smart factories is increasing, which is both good and bad. It’s good because you have more options available, so there are higher odds something that suits your needs is out there. It’s bad because there’s more chaff to wade through, more time needed to get the right ones.
Yes, it is challenging to hook an industrial plant to a network and engage in the “Internet of Things.” There are challenges that must be overcome, logistics to consider, and costs to factor in. However, there are many benefits to gain, both from the network itself and by keeping up to date on the march of technology.