Plug-and-Produce in a Modern Industrial Marketplace

“Plug-and-play” products have risen in popularity due to their ease of use and reliable, foolproof operation. The practical extension of this concept, when applied to the whole industrial automation process, has given way to a new term: “plug-and-produce.”

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Ready, Set, GoNo matter the line of business, the pursuit of profitability and the desire to produce affordable goods that fulfill customer demands are key organizational drivers. To support these objectives and compete in the global marketplace, industrial companies in particular are concerned with getting products to market as quickly and inexpensively as possible. They’re also increasing their focus on improving operating efficiencies and finding new technology-enabled production processes.

The developments of Industrie 4.0, as well as the reach of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), will make the interconnectedness of machines, facilities, and systems possible. This connectivity allows network components and sub-systems to autonomously exchange information and to control one another, leading to the most efficient and effective production environment the world has ever had.

In modern industrial automation:

  • New data can trigger actions to prevent failures, helping avoid periods of unscheduled downtime.
  • Production lines and processes are more compact and modular than ever before, allowing for greater scalability and reclaiming space that can be used for additional lines.
  • Visibility and transparency of material and work flows, processes, health status of lines, and machines – even down to the component level – will drive higher productivity, efficiency, uptime, and resiliency.
  • The miniaturization of factory components enables teams to do more with less space.

These industry trends create a greater market need for solutions with distributed control, decentralized decision-making, and end-to-end transparency and virtualization. Flexibility, along with higher resource and energy efficiency, is also required. This raises demand for simple solutions, which teams can implement immediately, without having to use special tools or highly trained, expensive engineers or electricians.

“Plug-and-play” products – components that work immediately when activated – have risen in popularity due to their ease of use and reliable, foolproof operation. The practical extension of this concept, when applied to the whole industrial automation process, has given way to a new term – “plug-and-produce.”

 Why Are These Systems Important?

Plug-and-produce systems save space on the factory floor and make shorter installation and maintenance times possible. By keeping computational intelligence within the tooling unit, rather than in a central computer, re-starting the tooling unit becomes simple and smooth even years after the stop of initial production.

Other benefits of plug-and-produce include:

  • Fast, easy, and intuitive installation: By nature, network and connectivity components plug into each other and work immediately. Installation is quick and easy, and broken parts can easily be disconnected and replaced in minutes.
  • Dynamic infrastructure: These tools can easily adapt as technology and consumer needs change, providing a flexible foundation for the network.
  • Standards: Rather than being built on proprietary infrastructure, the system adheres to a common structure and ensures a seamless working relationship with components and sub-systems. These products go through iterations more quickly, continually becoming both better and faster.
  • Consolidation of devices: Plug-and-produce products reduce the stock needed by machine builders. Instead of buying more devices or reconfiguring existing ones, you can use the same devices globally – but with regional specifications in mind – which reduces costs and complexity.
  • Pre-diagnostic data: The purpose-built technology is designed with monitoring capabilities, which increase efficiency and enhance uptime, leading to tremendous cost savings. Pre-diagnostic data includes monitoring conditions and identifying errors.

As the market craves modular, flexible systems, a dynamic plug-and-produce infrastructure will become even more important in industrial automation applications.

What Do Plug-and-Produce Devices Look Like?

To meet the needs of and remain competitive in today’s global industrial marketplace, functions need to be handled by interoperable, plug-and-produce-capable, field-level devices.

A basic example of plug-and-produce is a sorting conveyor, which determines how to route a part depending on program responses and feedback from sensors. Historically, the conveyor would need several similar stations down the entire length of the sorting line, which would require hundreds of meters of cabling to connect the overall system. With plug-and-produce, however, distributed control units (DCUs) can fully automate the process.

Other practical examples of plug-and-produce include:

  • Robotic arms on a manufacturing assembly line, which often run two cables – one for communicating data and one to supply power; plug-and-produce cabling combines communication and power in one product, which ultimately results in a smaller overall device with less weight for the robotic arm to support.
  • Tool changers for equipment, which are run by control tasks comprised of basic logical combinations; with plug-and-produce, teams can alleviate the burden on a centralized programmable logic controller (PLC).
  • High-level sensors, which interface with Ethernet, enable another consolidation possibility through plug-and-produce; an Ethernet switch can act as a de-facto I/O module to enable sensors. 

Tips for Implementing Plug-and-Produce

When implementing plug-and-produce, there are a few important tips to follow. Choosing a solution based on industry standards should be the highest priority. Today’s popular industrial Ethernet protocols include PROFINET, EtherNet/IP, and EtherCAT. Ideally, all field-level devices should use the same reference architecture and protocols for seamless interoperability.

It’s also important to consider the type of material that will house these products. Metal housing, for example, makes the product mechanically and electrically robust, which are very desirable traits when working in industrial automation environments.

Determining whether you need single or multi-protocol settings is another recommended early step when selecting plug-and-play products for your business. Multi-protocol systems can operate in different networks, which enables a single device to be used across different countries and regions.

Plug-and-produce systems are foundational for meeting the needs of the industrial market today, as well as preparing these networks for the future. The networking of humans, machines, and industrial components together, enabled by a plug-and-produce infrastructure, contributes to more flexible and resilient factories of the future. As new products are developed in the pursuit of achieving core business goals, plug-and-produce will play an important role in the implementation of processes that enable the IIoT and the fourth industrial revolution.

To find out more about plug-and-produce systems and how they can create a dynamic, interoperable network, you can read the white paper, The Road to Plug-and-Produce.

Author Dr. Thomas J. Schoepf is director of research and development in Belden’s Industrial Connectivity Solutions business. His responsibilities include the global research and development of high-performance, field-level industrial connectivity and control products, as well as the development of customized solutions upon customer requests.

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