Integrating factory automation into the off-highway industry

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Due to the unique environmental conditions off-highway equipment applications face, it is essential to use solutions that have been designed to withstand harsh conditions.

In most industries, companies are faced with constant pressure to increase productivity and decrease operating costs. The off-highway industry is no exception, and operators, decision makers, and OEMs are looking to the evolution in manufacturing practices and smarter vendor partnerships as they consider ways to improve efficiencies.

Plant floor automation has evolved from the days when, in the automotive industry, the manufacturing process was retooled each year to accommodate the production of new vehicle models.

Over time, manufacturers began replacing hard-wired mechanical devices with smart controllers that could be reprogrammed each year. This change saved companies millions of dollars each year by reducing downtime and increasing productivity.

As automation technology evolved, so did the ability to tie those systems into upper level communication networks. It’s realistic to forecast that future manufacturing facilities will continue to drive the evolution of automation, moving away from physical plant constraints and instead solving complexities of the processes that factories tie into.

Taking the philosophy of automation from the factory floor and integrating it into the off-highway industry entails replacing standalone systems with smart solutions that allow for integration and sharing of information. Each piece of equipment can be viewed as a part of a manufacturing process that directly or indirectly ties into another piece of equipment.

When building a road, for example, many pieces of equipment are used to complete a different part of the process. While each machine is used independently, all the equipment must work together. Being able to scale each machine’s data for the different processes and the entire process allows one to manage resources exponentially better than previously possible.

The addition of smart systems, data collection and upper level monitoring provides benefits including more flexibility, higher throughput, improved quality control, increased safety, and allows workers to focus on higher level tasks that provide more overall value.

As with factory automation, the equipment, components, and networks for off-highway use must be appropriately designed to withstand the environmental considerations unique to each fleet and application, including moisture, temperature, noise, and shock and vibration. It’s essential to work with vendor partners who are truly that—partners. In fact, it could be said that just as automation must become smarter, so too must partnerships.

When implementing smarter automation into mobile equipment applications, an ideal partner will not only have the product you require, but will also take the time to learn about the unique conditions your fleet may encounter, and will be well versed in developing a tailored solution to work now and evolve in the future.

Dave Lagerstrom, CEO, Turck, wrote this article for SAE Off-Highway Engineering.

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