Industrial Automation Platform: Scott Murphy PT.1

The influence of Automation is rapidly expanding through the industrial environment. As industry changes, tools are quickly developed and discarded to keep up with industry standards of performance. The breakneck pace of development in Industrial Automation can be overwhelming for those testing the waters of Automation for the first time and industry experts alike leaving people to questions of: How do we start Automating our facilities? How do we manage costs? What happens when it’s time to grow? Scott Murphy of OnPing made himself available for an interview to give his thoughts about Automation, OnPing as an Industrial Automation Platform, and some of the questions he’s heard before. This is Part One of that interview.

We’ve spoken a lot recently about what OnPing is. Much of that discussion has been focused on OnPing as an Industrial Automation Platform. So first, what is Automation to you?

SCOTT:

Well, that’s a good question. Obviously, automation is simply a thing that happens with limited interaction. But when you talk about Industrial Automation, you have to think about what it means for something to happen with limited human interaction over the course of time. When you think about that, you realize that Automation is the process of making a machine do precisely what you want it to do, when you want to do it – reliably. And that’s quite a difficult challenge.

What are the benefits in taking on this challenge?

Automation is an idea that people intrinsically understand as beneficial. You have something that you used to pay a person to do, and now you don’t have to pay a person to do it. That’s great. It means that a person can go do something else or you can run with less people – there are just all sorts of things that are nice about that.

But when you meet grizzled industrial veterans and start to talk about Automating something they will sort of scoff at you. That attitude is coming from, “Sure, you made it where someone doesn’t have to touch the machine that weighs the flour – you’ve automated weighing the flour. But what you haven’t automated is the 37 problems Automation has created.”

To get the machine that weighs the flour to work reliably in this automated fashion you now need 3 other people involved. It can become questionable then what kind of return on investment you are getting. This is a real concern. 

That’s what the challenge of Automation is – Automating a process while ensuring maintenance of that process remains inexpensive.

Considering this, should you Automate every process in your business?

I’d like to think people are making those evaluations, because they are really important to consider, but it’s a complicated question to answer.

In modern industry, you’ll hear a lot of people talk about industry 4.0 and modern industry practices – they’re collecting savings by harvesting easy wins. They find processes that you can show a direct benefit. But what is unclear is whether that project work to create benefits ends up costing more or less, especially when you consider how many automation projects and initiatives end up failing or don’t end up being the ‘right’ idea for the company.

When companies are considering Automation, they need to find a place to dip their toes in.  This is something the software world figured out a long time ago. Software companies find a way to prove out an idea as cheaply as possible instead of launching giant initiatives. However, because of how funding works in industry, you see huge projects with drastic capital outlays for unproven ideas. It would be much better to find a small proof-of-concept you can use to build out and turn into a well Automated process while learning lessons along the way.

Water Treatment plants have been an internal focus for us. What is a small place they could dip their toes into?

That’s a nice example. First, water treatment is well understood. In commercial industry this isn’t the case, but in water treatment there are a lot of pieces that make sense.

Your inflows and outflows would be an obvious first step. If you know how much water is coming in and how much water is going out, that tells you a lot about what is going on in the plant. Same thing for turbidity.

These are data points that can give a lot of information regarding how well the water treatment center is operating.

Automation then, is about starting with a building block and working up from there.  

Yeah, absolutely. Water Treatment is especially nice in that way. You can build out from one process and end up Automating everything in increments.

OnPing is an Industrial Automation Platform. How do you make the distinction between platform and Automation services?

There are many tasks integral to Automation. One is data collection – think traditional SCADA pieces. SCADA is where OnPing got our start and we still have a fully capable SCADA system. You definitely need SCADA as a feature, but it’s not enough.

 In a modern Automation environment, you want a way to enable experimentation. You want a way to add in a few data points and monitor a new statistic without requiring a robust understanding of the full system.

 Maybe you want to connect two warehouses together to share data, but they are located at opposite ends of the state: With traditional systems this requires finding a new tool developed for that purpose.

The idea of an Automation Platform is to bring all the pieces of Industrial Automation into one tool. This includes all the traditional SCADA tools such as reporting, visualization, and HMI, but it also includes tools like Simplified Networking, Site-to-Site scripting, VPN Deployment, Low-Code Dashboard Management, Cloud Back-Ups, and other features that allow you to work on these projects and make them grow as you find successful ways to implement the Automation. And that’s the key: With a platform you can start out small using just the parts you need.

Contact Us

We’ll be back with part two of this interview soon! Contact us at info@onping.net. Let us know your thoughts on using Automation more effectively in your industry: What common mistakes you have seen? What approaches have worked well in your experience?