Anil Bhise says...‘The e-F@ctory concept offers a complete automation solution’
How is the Factory Automation scenario evolving in India?
Factory Automation is not a new concept; in the past too, there were automated machines and processes for smooth functioning inside the factories. But, today the scenario is different; with concepts like the e-F@ctory, Industry 4.0, and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), businesses tend to expect more from control systems. They expect some useful and relevant data generation and processing, which may also contribute to strategic decision-making apart from assisting in monitoring and controlling tasks. Considering these changing scenarios, Mitsubishi Electric India (MEI) has strived to introduced customised and innovative factory automation products like iQ-R and iQ-F Series that perform tasks based on data algorithms and smart analytics. Indeed, Programmable Controllers like iQ-R and iQ-F have redefined the automation sector in the present age.
Is there a complete automation package offered by the company?
Yes, e-F@ctory concept offers a complete automation solution in partnership with many other vendors who provide its components at various layers. The first layer comprises of sensors and other compatible equipment. At this initial level, we ask our vendors to develop devices which may effectively communicate with the control system of our client, and we share every client’s specific needs and requirements with them. The second is the control layer where Mitsubishi Electric has a stronghold, but we also explore options for making an interface of various control systems in different networks. The third is the IT layer where solutions are provided in association with leading IT service providers. So, the complete system solution mainly depends upon an organisation’s need, purpose, and data bank. This is what we are trying to achieve with the e-F@ctory concept, where about 3000 partners from across the world are already associated with us.
Well, that is a big number. How is this managed?
The e-F@ctory concept was started sometime in 2003 and has been around for 15 years now and has grown over the years. Again, controlling is the forte that we have achieved through innovations and experience.
How serious is the problem of operating in silos in businesses and the resistance to change?
Still, this is the problem in a few sectors, but with the advent of advanced communication technologies, the scenario is changing rapidly. In sectors like automotive or pharma, automation is well-matured and integrated, and they are not afflicted with resistance to change. On the other hand, industries like power, mining, steel, and even oil & gas where automation is strong, these silos exist, specifically between OT and IT. To bridge this gap, we have now introduced Edgecross – it is a software platform of the edge computing domain developed in Japan that enables FA and IT to work together. Members of the Edgecross Consortium are from a variety of companies and industries, allowing the promotion of borderless collaboration that will result in the expansion and dissemination of both.
The main features of Edgecross are real-time diagnosis and feedback, model production shop floors, utilising a wide variety of applications in the edge area, collection of all data on the production shop floor and seamless cooperation with IT systems, to name a few. It is the platform where the consortium members work together building the edge domain. We are utilising Edgecross as one of the elements of ongoing e-F@ctory development. By collaborating in Edgecross, it is possible to collect data from various field networks and protocols, and link with many diverse applications, and we believe that this will enable us to better answer the needs of more customers.
Usually, IT operations team expect some data from control systems, whereas control systems are meant to perform the operational tasks. So, we have come up with a new Microsoft Windows based hardware, which has multiple protocols or drivers (collectors) which make communication easier between control systems and the operational people. With the adaptation of this hardware, data sharing is no more a problem – all relevant data like productivity of the machines, breakdown, etc., can be shared and retrieved very easily between the concerned departments. These new Edgecross industrial computers – MELIPC Series – collect information, perform analytics, synthesise the data and then send it to the cloud or the central server.
In India when it comes to automation implementation in MSMEs, there are typical issues like cost and legacy equipment. How do vendors approach such cases?
In my opinion, the real problem is not resource or budget constraints, but lack of receptivity towards technology and innovations. Automation doesn’t mean the total replacement of the existing machines and equipment by new machines and software; automation is simply the strengthening of the existing setup. Secondly, MSMEs have a misconception that automation would compel them to divulge the company’s confidential data and information. But, these fears arise due to lack of understanding and familiarity with the factory automation technology. Also, instead of saving the data on an open cloud, there is always the option of storing the data in a secured server within the company. One should always identify and address the pain areas and must have a clear estimation of the ROI, and then only, one should go for automation. That’s the ideal approach.
Is this need to automate now becoming obvious and inevitable across segments?
Yes, regardless of size, businesses across the spectrum from automotive to oil & gas, automation is the demand of smart manufacturing. Although, the level of automation and scope may vary from company to company, its induction is of course inevitable.
Is there a skills shortage in the automation sector even as there are fears of automation taking away human jobs?
There is no shortage of skills, especially firms operating in large cities. But, in smaller towns or remote places of the country where there are factories and plants, sometimes it is a challenge. However, while commissioning of the projects, we do train local staff and even conduct training programmes after the completion of the project. These are tasks that do not call for very high skills, but more basic things like the knowledge of computerised systems and some operational knowledge, etc.
Finally, there is a security issue – in particular, threats of cyber attacks in installations?
If you are talking about risks, the answer is yes. There are risks and the possibilities of cyber attacks, and we are equipped with both preventive countermeasures like firewalls and multiple-layers security, but one must observe the basic precautions, especially while giving access to the open internet. The basic rules of IT must be followed, e.g., the control network must be different from the information network. If the necessary precautions are taken and guidelines are observed, then there is almost zero risk of system shutdown.