How to compete in a global economy is a major topic of concern among many U.S. manufacturers. While manufacturers are striving to keep manufacturing a vital industry in the U.S., they also cannot ignore competition from world markets. Improving automation efficiency in production facilities can help manufacturers compete in the global economy.
"To be competitive today, manufacturers must intelligently optimize their systems for the best performance possible from their automation architecture and resources," said Mike Santori, National Instruments' Business and Technology Fellow, in his keynote address at National Manufacturing Week in March.
"Manufacturers need to take a critical look at their facilities to pinpoint opportunities and optimize specific parts of the process," he explained. "This could be as simple as giving operators or plant managers better real-time management data about the process or as complex as adding high-speed control subsystems to an existing machine or production line."
Monitoring the health of production systems is one method manufacturers can use to help them be more proactive in maintaining equipment and processes. "Optimizing automation can help manufacturers make better products and increase uptime through better maintenance, ultimately reducing costs," said Gerardo Garcia, National Instruments' LabVIEW Real-Time Manager.
One of the most innovative trends in industrial automation is the emergence of unified high-level software tools that provide embedded control, machine control, machine vision, operator interface, historical trending, real-time data access, and Web-based enterprise connectivity. These high-end analysis tools can help a manufacturer directly find a problem in their production line and address it before a catastrophic event occurs. The upfront investment is worth it, says Garcia, when the result is lower manufacturing costs.
Using these high-end analysis tools is one area where U.S. manufacturers have an edge over foreign competitors. "Most foreign manufacturers are not using high-level software tools to monitor their production facilities," said Garcia. "They don't have the labor, time or systems in place to add this to their manufacturing environment."
According to Santori, there are several areas where U.S. manufacturers can optimize their operations for better efficiency including flexibility, uptime, yield, safety, quality, maintenance, and traceability. And sometimes plant operations can be optimized with tools that a manufacturer already has but are not being used to their full potential. Some of these tools that might be under utilized include automation controllers, data acquisition systems and machine vision systems.
For example, machine vision systems can be used to detect inefficiencies and optimize production, to measure and locate product features, and to identify parts. Early defect detection can save money by eliminating product rejection and customer dissatisfaction. High-speed data acquisition systems can detect problems with machinery that might not be detected by a control system. And PACs (programmable automation controllers) can find and analyze machine inefficiencies to optimize performance for faster throughput, higher yields and increased uptime.
Software solutions, such as those developed by National Instruments, can help a manufacturer use these sophisticated technologies to improve production efficiency. These solutions can be customized to the individual user. "There are new technologies available that can pinpoint problems and get a system up-and-running without a lot of downtime," said Garcia. "But many times the people operating these machines are not software programmers." A software provider should be able to help a manufacturer leverage automation technologies to increase productivity and lower costs.
"U.S. manufacturers must become 'high-value production manufacturers' in order to compete in the global market," said Santori. "Optimizing production by using high-end technologies can help manufacturers meet their goals."
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