Engineering vs. IT

15th July 2016
Nat Bowers

Steak and chips, strawberries and cream or rum and coke - some things are meant to be together. Yet, in the same breath, many things that are forced upon each other can create outstanding combinations. As the worlds of engineering and IT continue to band together, Jonathan Wilkins, Marketing Director of industrial automation supplier EU Automation, discusses what this combination means for the manufacturing industry.

It is no secret that the engineering sector has been heavily criticised for its reluctance to embrace change. Industrial components are often so rugged, that many hold an expected life span of between 20 and 50 years. With longevity in mind, it is unsurprising that 90% of manufacturers today continue to use this ageing machinery.

However, in today’s climate, such an extensive life span is not always the case. Technology is advancing at a phenomenal pace and now, many industrial components are becoming obsolete in as little as three years.

In modern factories, the introduction of advanced IT is having more of an impact on component obsolescence than ever before. The IIoT, the internet-enabled network of connected devices, is continuing to speed up the obsolescence process in industry. Admittedly, IIoT is not a new phenomenon; interconnected devices have been sharing information in factories for the last few decades. However, with manufacturing becoming more IT focussed, the cycle of product obsolescence is tightening every year.

The crossovers between IT and engineering are clear. Manufacturers are using data centres to store production data. Technologies like data visualisation, mobile and android enabled devices are being implemented into industrial automation systems. While embracing these technological advancements is necessary for organisations to thrive, at the same time, this is only advancing the speed of equipment obsolescence.

However, it is not just hardware feeling the force of obsolescence. In the world of IT, industrial software is also suffering and most of this software is likely to become obsolete or outdated in as little as a year. The vital difference is that an IT team can quickly download patches or enhancements to improve and upgrade software at any time of day, from any location. Industrial automation components are not as simple. For machinery, obsolescence means a much more difficult choice of either sourcing a replacement or upgrading to a newer model.

Much has changed since many traditional assemblies were built decades ago. Back then, OEMs were responsible for producing the entire finished product. OEMs no longer have total control of their product life cycle. Instead, various standardised protocols, outsourced manufacturing and the introduction of advanced IT have changed the engineering process completely.

It will come as no surprise that tensions are rising between the fields of traditional engineering and modern IT, but by no means should this indicate the two practices cannot work in harmony.

Today, there is an ever-growing number of manufacturers who choose to maintain or retrofit older industrial automation systems, rather than upgrading to new models. There is no reason that factories cannot continue to use these traditional, Ethernet-based protocols with a physical connection to the operating system, while also embracing the convenience of industrial IT too. With these traditional assemblies, many organisations are simply supplementing automated infrastructure with new, mobile technology.

Using an IIoT connected HMI, for example, will give engineers the convenience of access to historical and current performance of operating systems, even when the engineer is outside the factory walls. Through a tablet display, the HMI will do everything its traditional, stationary predecessor could, but with the added benefit of location flexibility and of course, compatibility with more sophisticated software. After all, rum and coke might have seemed a bit awkward when it was first combined at the beginning of the 20th century, but it has definitely won the masses over.

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