Time Is The Essence Of Industry 4.0

Time synchronisation, or having all devices on a network share a common time reference, is critical in an automated manufacturing process.
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How time-sensitive networking is synchronising operations and driving the future of smart manufacturing.

Article by C P Manoharan, Technology Director – APAC, Spirent

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Photo: C P Manoharan, Technology Director – APAC, Spirent Photo credit: APAC, Spirent.

Industry 4.0, or the fourth industrial revolution, continues to advance and grow amidst the ensuing disruptions in 2020 and 2021. Driven by industrial Internet of Things, advanced robotics, big data analytics, access to real-time data and the introduction of cyber-physical systems, the global manufacturing sector is witnessing unprecedented levels of agility, efficiency, productivity, cost reduction, collaborative working. In fact, by 2028, the global Industry 4.0 market is set to hit US$337 billion, compared to just US$102 billion in 2020.

Countries that stand to benefit the most from Industry 4.0 are the ones with major manufacturing sectors, especially advanced manufacturing. Singapore, for example, has a manufacturing sector that accounts for about 20 percent of the city-state’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). By 2030, the number is set to grow to 50 percent. In 2020, the sector accounted for 22.3 percent of Malaysia’s overall GDP and saw the largest portion of approved domestic and foreign investments at 22.6 percent and 3.9 percent respectively.

Amid talks about Industry 4.0 and new business opportunities, one piece of technology has proven so far to be the linchpin that binds the disparate technologies together: ethernet with time-sensitive networking (TSN) standards.

Timing Is Everything Here

With advanced sensors, embedded software, and advanced robotics becoming part and parcel of intelligent manufacturing, companies are rapidly changing the ways they manufacture, improve and distribute their products. Combining that with data from enterprise resource planning, supply chain, customer service, and other enterprise systems, Industry 4.0 creates whole new levels of visibility and insights from previously siloed information.

Connecting these hardware and software is the ethernet network, which has been the backbone of IT infrastructure for more than four decades. However, with more time-sensitive applications used in smart manufacturing, traditional ethernet alone is no longer sufficient to support these demands. In fact, ethernet with TSN standards has become a critical component in advanced factories today.

Time synchronisation, or having all devices on a network share a common time reference, is critical in an automated manufacturing process. In a fully autonomous assembly process, each robot has to execute specific tasks at specific times along the production line. As such, a minor timing drift could sabotage the process and require the entire production to be reset. Timing drifts could also lead to robots being tangled or damaged in the process, leading to substantial repair costs.

Simplifying The Entire Network Infrastructure

Ensuring time precision is not the only advantage that ethernet with TSN standards has over its conventional counterpart.

Ethernet with TSN standards supports different types of data traffic. This means different data streams can be merged, reducing the number of networks and simplifying backend processes.

Having an integrated network means that there is greater visibility over the data generated across the entire manufacturing process. These data can be extracted and analysed, which in turn help companies optimise performance, productivity, and efficiency.

An integrated network allows operators to easily identify and troubleshoot any potential issues. This not only reduces downtime associated with maintenance or repair activities, but it also keeps the production line running longer.

Precision Testing In A Simulated Environment

With its low-latency, high-availability network, ethernet with TSN standards has proven to be the keystone of Industry 4.0. However, the stress of operation in the real world could potentially impair the performance of a component, system, or the entire network — and that’s where TSN simulation testing comes into play.

Testing TSN standards in a simulated environment afford many benefits for engineers. Engineers can specify the exact parameters to test run the entire manufacturing process. They could even push the system to its operational limits and observe its performance under stress. Operation errors could also be reproduced, allowing engineers to ascertain if a failure was random or caused by specific test conditions.

Every aspect of the network’s behaviour, including the timing of every data packet’s transmission and reception, can be precisely measured at every stage of the production line. This allows engineers to perform finer, more precise calibrations before the manufacturing process goes live. Ultimately, TSN simulation testing is the best way to assess the network’s ability to handle peak traffic loads, as well as among other operating scenarios.

Taking Manufacturing Into The Digital Age

In recent years, many countries like Singapore and Malaysia have continued their efforts to fast-track Industry 4.0.

In Singapore, US$13.8 billion has been set aside as part of the Research Innovation Enterprise 2020 Plan to expand various science and technology fields, including advanced manufacturing and engineering. In June 2021, the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) partnered with a local software company to open a S$18 million laboratory, which bolsters Singapore’s digital manufacturing capabilities. Furthermore, the government launched the Industry 4.0 Human Capital Initiative, which helps manufacturing companies, especially SMEs, adopt Industry 4.0 technologies and rescale their workforce.

The Malaysian government, too, introduced a national policy to drive digitisation and Industry 4.0 transformation in the manufacturing sector. Called Industry4WRD, there are two main funding components: a US$730 million Industry Digitalisation Transformation Fund, which accelerates the adoption of Industry 4.0 related technologies, as well as a US$490 million Skim Jaminan Pembiayaan Perniagaan loan guarantee programme, which guarantees government financing of Industry 4.0-related projects of up to 70 percent.

The right technology, the right government support, and a skilled workforce are but three pieces in a larger puzzle. The true success of Industry 4.0 also depends on innovations that work in the backend, making sure that separate cutting-edge technologies work well together. Only by assembling these distinct components can we make synchronous the operations and take the sector into the digital age.

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