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How standardization benefits the automation industry

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If you are a plant operator, software developer, or an equipment manufacturer in the automation industry, standardization might feel like an inevitable aspect of your job that you have yet to deal with. This is due to the nature of standardization: a pursuit of creating and implementing technical standards based on the agreement of different groups. Within automation, we can look at this in terms of specifications for processes, systems, and products. The different groups with stakes in the industry can be generally narrowed down to plant operators and equipment manufacturers, and these are the two perspectives which benefit in different ways from standardization efforts. The end user, or plant operator, benefits from a common approach within a given facility. Everyone is on the same page, all of their technology integrates seamlessly and reports automatically, and all their staff teams enjoy a consistent manufacturing process which simplifies training and maintenance. OEMs, on the other hand, enjoy the ability to standardize the design of their equipment and processes, which enables a greater level of consistency in terms of what they offer to customers, and greatly simplifies their design and engineering process, as well as streamlining the responsibilities of their in-house service team.

Ultimately, all organizations will discuss standardization, at some point, for some reason or another, but either the end user or the OEM will prevail when it comes to designing standardized systems and processes. Either OEMs solely manufacture equipment that suits their standards, or end users only purchase things that fit their own standardized approach. Which side wins out will be based on the experience of the end user, and their relationship with manufacturers.

You’re a part of it, so you know it: automation is always changing. It is an industry that is never content to sit still, and always pushes new technologies and ideas in the name of increased optimization. Standardization works to ensure that these rapid changes are integrated into existing facilities and systems, providing the maximum benefit possible to both users and manufacturers.

A boost in quality

Let’s start simple. No matter a plant’s current output, standardization efforts will lead to an improvement in terms of quality and consistency. Standards that are strictly defined and laid out means that processes are carried out exactly the same way each time, leading to output that is similarly reliable. Clearly defined quality standards in combination with well thought-out process standards enable a higher level of quality and consistency, which benefits a manufacturer and their customers. Manufacturers can be confident that, even if they were to expand their facility or open a new plant, their products will be made the same way. Customers can be assured that they know exactly what they are in for when it comes to purchasing specific products from a manufacturer, which will improve the reputation of that manufacturer within the industry.

More opportunity for interoperability

With standardization, various equipment and systems can enjoy increased interoperability due to standardized software and controls enabling seamless cooperation between different parts of a manufacturing line. By having equipment and systems designed to fit a specific set of standards, integration is greatly streamlined, and communication between those systems is improved. Data exchange and reporting are also made much easier by a standardized system working in harmony. Reports can be generated through a single piece of software which aligns with all the equipment in a given production line, instead of multiple data reports being pulled from each individual machine and manually compiled and analyzed. Standardization enables greater visibility for plant operators, who can more easily visualize and compare data across several production lines or several facilities. All aspects of a facility can be monitored and contrasted to assess performance and identify issues if a technical standard has been established which enables monitoring software to handle everything at once.

Efficiency is the name of the game

In the simplest sense, standardization reduces complexity. Investing in standardization can be complex and time-consuming, but it always ends up being worth it as it works to simplify operations and procedures for plant managers. Eliminating complications is the name of the game when it comes to standardization. Typically, end users may have been buying machinery or process components from OEMs that get the job done at the time of purchase. But, over time, this can cause issues when a production facility grows larger and inevitably becomes more complex. Then, the amalgamation of interconnected parts is likely to be the victim of several competing standards working together. Different OEMs could use different control platforms or components for their offerings, potentially interfering with integration efforts within a facility. If two control platforms are present, but not expressly compatible, or reporting software can only integrate with half of a plant’s equipment, problems begin to materialize as time goes on.

Cutting costs and saving seconds

The previous three benefits of increased output, interoperability, and efficiency all end up contributing to cost savings. Any facility which contains different platforms and systems and is lacking in terms of technical standardization will deal with increased overhead costs, specifically when it comes to training. Operations and maintenance staff must be cross trained for different aspects of a production facility, and while operator training is one thing, it is really maintenance training that can balloon budgets, with individuals requiring intricate knowledge of multiple systems and equipment types to effectively service facilities. The more systems and different platforms within a facility, the more maintenance staff, new and old, need to learn in order to be effective.

Examples of standardization

Okay, so how are facilities actually standardized? This answer will change based on the level of commitment that a plant operator has. It can be as simple as standardizing the hardware present in a main control panel. All control panels, on the inside, could have standard components in a standard layout. This means operators can work with the control panel in different contexts and be instantly familiar, and maintenance staff can apply their training to all the main control panels across multiple facilities.

Some more complex standardization efforts could come in the form of standardized data formats, which simplify the exchange of data between different systems, and enable reports to be generated across entire production lines without the need for manual collection, contextualization, and reconciliation of data.

Standardization into the future

Standardization will become the standard as we move into the future. It will become an essential aspect of optimizing plant operations and squeezing the most out of existing equipment and systems. It enables companies to more easily expand existing facilities, or create new ones, as their standardized methods can be easily applied to new spaces. Within the automation space, it is likely that software reporting platforms will become increasingly agnostic, rendering them as more flexible solutions that can fit into a wider array of technical standards. This flexibility will likely become a main selling point, as companies create their own internal standards and need a software that can easily integrate into their operations.