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Modular Automation

Playfully Light — How Modular Automation is Becoming Part of Everyday Life

| Author / Editor: Sabine Mühlenkamp / Dr. Jörg Kempf

The conductor sets the beat and ensures that everything sounds playfully easy. ABB now also promises this lightness for modular automation.
The conductor sets the beat and ensures that everything sounds playfully easy. ABB now also promises this lightness for modular automation. (Source: ABB; © Tomasz Trojanowski, © jozefklopacka - stock.adobe.com; [M]Grimm)

The advantages of flexible automation solutions have long been talked about, and now it comes down to putting them into practice. In doing so, the aim is to link the respective smart modules in such a way that the overall plant runs in harmony. ABB shows that it has mastered all the parts in the orchestra.

Whether delicate voices, unusual instruments or operatic divas — for the listener, none of that matters, because what he enjoys is the overall piece. It is the conductor’s job to ensure that everything sounds effortlessly easy — playfully light, in fact. And it is precisely this ease that is set to become part of everyday life in modular automation.

The route to realizing it leads over interfaces that are standardized across manufacturers, and which have been launched jointly by manufacturers, users and trade associations in the past three years. After all, there were no doubts regarding the need for modular automation. “We want to become faster, more flexible and more efficient,” says Axel Haller, Technology and Portfolio Manager at ABB, in a succinct summary. New concepts are called for, and not just in the pharmaceuticals industry with its customized drugs, short production campaigns or multi-product facilities operating with small batch sizes. Sectors such as the fine chemicals or electronic chemicals sectors, where markets are volatile, benefit from modular concepts, ensuring shortened time-to-market, increasing flexibility and improving efficiency.

While the process engineering components have long specified the cycle speed in this concept, from the automation perspective the standardized interfaces were lacking that could be used to integrate the individual process modules and package units with ease. If the plant concept or a component needed to be supplemented subsequently, this was associated with major effort and expense.

With modular automation, the situation is completely different. Modular process systems will feature pre-automated, modular units that can be readily added, arranged and adapted to the production requirements. “Those who benefit from this are package unit/skid manufacturers, plant engineers, operators and also the manufacturers of the automation engineering components,” emphasizes Haller. “Plant lifecycle costs are lowered, because extensions or conversions can be considered as far more cost-favorable and quicker options.” Estimates assume time-savings of up to 50 percent in time-to-market — which means a lower capital commitment.

The advantages are not limited solely to new plants, though; the experts also anticipate falling expenditures on brownfield sites, purely from the engineering for automation. “This will change the world, and also the mind-set in automation,” Haller is convinced. “The condition for this is that users are given the right tools to use, so that modular automation really does remain simple.”

You can find an infographic on the topic here: “How to achieve perfect orchestration of modular process plants”

A major step was taken with the development of the module type package (MTP), a digital form of description that sits between plant module and orchestration level. This is now moving towards national (VDI/VDE/Namur 2658) and international standardization (IEC). With modular automation, large parts of the control and feedback intelligence are transposed into modules. Using this standardized interface, other communications participants can call up the respective functionality from the modules. Elements such as the human-machine interface (HMI), process monitoring and control (both being finalized), maintenance & diagnostics and archiving (to follow shortly) are gradually being standardized in the MTP. As early as next year, manufacturers will be launching the first products with integrated MTP on the market.

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