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Industry 4.0 – Made In Italy: Single Piece Batch Production And Three Trends In Industrial Computing, Thin Clients And Edge

Smart information is beneficial only when the information is visualized in a way to an operator/engineer that enables better decision-making,” Kris Dornan, Software and Control marketing manager at Allen Bradley, said at Automation Fair 2020.

With information from the factory floor now flowing in multiple forms, three trends in industrial computing reflect this:

• Software/PC combination is gaining importance:

‣   Wide variations in software packages require a dose match to hardware selection

        PC-based HMI is replacing specific purpose HMI panels

Customers want flexibility in what is being displayed and from many different sources

     ‣   Client-server architectures based on thin clients are becoming more popular:

‣   They reduce security risks on plant floor and centralized software management

• Industry-specific requirements are increasing:

‣    As to specific certifications and features

‣    As to custom configured upgradable products to meet changing plant floor requirements

“l need a way to embed a custom application on an OS without the need for a white box computer that is managed by my IT department. And the faster I can get information to feed the software, the better!” or “Well, in reality, I need an HMI that shows content from various devices and applications” or “l need a controller that can meet my high-demand motion application… and have access to Studio 5000 Logix Designer for maintenance purposes”

The concrete needs arising in the factory floor indicate the need for a scalable industrial computing at the edge that allows faster decisions and reduce uses at the same time the footprint of the infrastructure vulnerable to cyber threats.

A contribution of excellence comes from Italian industrial PC maker ASEM, now about to be distributed to every region after Rockwell Automation, the world’s largest automation supplier, acquired them for their Industry 4.0 portfolio. ASEM is it very good example of how Italian companies can maintain their edge in the manufacturing machinery export—where competitors range from Intel and Siemens to a vast number of Chinese manufacturers. Their strength are the PCs that work in the factory floors, their customers the German and Italian OEMs—for 30 years.

For us at ASEM, “designing industrial PCs is an art,Elia Guerra, Director and International sales manager, explained acknowledging ASEM’s leap towards new all-important international markets with Rockwell’s technologies and services for the digitization of industrial operations. “The design of an industrial PC is very different from that of an industrial motherboard, and this is what differentiates ASEM from its competitors, both in terms of firmware and software”.

“We design each motherboard individually because our PCs work in extreme environments in terms of temperature, vibrations, chemical pollution, dust… Think, for example, a PC or a processor which will work in rack for twenty years serving systems controlling as many as 20 engines“.

In those harsh conditions some features make the difference. First of all, at ASEM they explained, you have to very carefully design the unit as it thermal and mechanical features are concerned, including all fixing points of the board and the design of the motherboard itself, that is, where each single component is positioned.

“Knowing where to ideally position each single component on the motherboard of the unit is very important, especially in the case of fanless IPCs, the CPUs of which consume over 45 watts, and generate thus much heat that needs to be dissipated. We are among the few suppliers in the world designing this kind of IPCs,” Guerra said.

“To reach such a level of thermal optimization, each motherboard for each individual PC needs to be the result of a dedicated design. In our case, for each design we have a project team made of electronic, mechanic, firmware and routing engineers and other experts working together to analyze any potential obstacles.”

“Another critical aspect is that the data flowing from the source to the viewing platform must be protected,” Joe Geigel, creator of the first panel interface, PanelView HMI, said.

The market for edge computing will have grown by the end of 2026 to $26.62 billion globally, that is $4 billion from 2020, according to a Research & Markets study. The drivers of growth are the increasingly massive use of the Industrial Internet of Things, IIoT, in every industry. By accelerating the workflows without human-human interactions, IIoT pushes up the demand for automation solutions in decision-making processes, while at the same time increasing the need for an efficacious management and use of the dramatic increase of data.

All of this is conducive towards one of the most qualifying achievements of Industry 4.0: allowing batches of a low number of pieces, “a feature of which our customers are reaping the benefits”.

In a world of manufacturing that requires—as largely observed during the Covid crisis—that lines or whole factories be revamped and modified for new products on the spot, the possibility of reconfiguring lines in the minimum time, and for reduced batches by adopting solutions like Independent Cart Technology, is a quantum leap for many customers, if not downrightly lifesaving.

Producing industrial PCs perfectly suited to tackle granular needs “is therefore not dispersive,” Guerra elaborates, but the best synthesis of “where IT and OT meet in the larger trend of industrial digitalization.”

In line with these megatrends, ASEM allows maximum flexibility and configurability: “Customers may have very different needs in terms of components. We listen and ponder their needs: the type of CPU they need, if coreI3, coreI5 or coreI7, how much RAM memory, mass storage, scaling scope for their system and interfacesinternet, fieldbus, modem and wi-fi they need, and so on.”

That is, how they can help their customers aim to lot = 1.

In addition to being complementary as to the solution and product portfolios, Rockwell and ASEM are a perfect match where markets and market approach are concerned. ASEM has a solid position in the strongest OEM markets in Europe, which are traditionally Italy and Germany. ASEM there has a direct sales network, whereas in other crucial locations in the rest of the continent and worldwide it draws on a network of local partners and distributors. Now its IPCs will be distributed worldwide by Rockwell, which has a dominant position in key markets such as North America, Asia or the end user market.

ASEM’s is a good example of Italian tech ingenuity, which began with microprocessors technology, hence the name: Automazione sistemi elettronici microcomputer.

In the 80s “the automation industry was not very developed in Italy, but we grew very well in that of office PCs,” Guerra elaborated. “Towards the end of the 80s we started transferring some those technologies over to industrial applications. We were one of the first companies in the world to design an industrial PC, and to introduce an open standard approach to the automation market of the IT sector.”

As to software, over the last ten years ASEM based its innovative solutions on technologies derived from IT, as in the remote access solutions of the Ubiquity series. The next logical step was “being able to give to all our customers—mostly machinery manufacturers—access to the machines so that they could code every single codable element, in the form of software that can be installed on our HMI, IPC or router or even on third-party hardware if the customers preferred so,” Guerra said.

The absolute range of customization of ASEM products is an asset of the company, and an important one for Rockwell too, being that both organizations have many customers who brand their units. One of the product lines recently launched is the VersaView series for thin clients, a solution that simplifies the management of traditional computing networks in automation.

“This is the path that led us to the automation industry, and to Rockwell Automation, a company that has been providing automation technologies to the biggest end users for more than 100 years. The combination is perfect also in the wake of the Industry 4.0 trend, which is nothing more than the convergence between IT and OT”.