How Robotic Integrators Can Increase ROI Using A Data Centralization Strategy

Alex Irwin

While no technology is future-proof, data-focused systems that are designed for maximum flexibility allow integrators to respond to changing trends and customer needs and increase their return on investment (ROI).

Chalkboard data
Complex communication between robots, peripherals, and software systems makes it challenging to deliver automated solutions.
Chalkboard data
Complex communication between robots, peripherals, and software systems makes it challenging to deliver automated solutions.

Managing Complex Communications Between Multiple Systems

Complex communication between robots, peripherals, and software systems makes it challenging to deliver automated solutions. Even worse, some robotics manufacturers use proprietary or inefficient protocols, making it even more difficult to consolidate communications. An effective approach to overcome the hurdles related to inter-system communication that will increase the likelihood of your project’s success will:

  • centralize communications,
  • standardize the protocols used for data transmission, and
  • standardize the data format used when transmitting and storing data.

Centralize Communications for Greater ROI

Instituting an integration hub or communication bridge between the different components is an important first step for integrators to become effective data custodians and take ownership of their customers’ overall experience. There are many options to act as a communications bridge, but an industrial PC running Linux is probably the least expensive and most flexible. Using such a device to run software to manage and facilitate communication between different devices is a low-cost high-uptime solution. It can easily run software developed with Python and other open-source languages.

A single industrial PC with top-line features and digital I/O can be had for less than the cost of some traditional PLCs. Integrators can replace multiple PLCs with a single cost-effective device that can also execute custom software to increase production quality. We go into more detail about replacing PLCs here.

Once installed, integrators can quickly implement applications on their hub devices to reduce production downtime, automate error handling, and facilitate passive collection of performance data. Importantly, once an application is developed for a single client, integrators can reuse the code for each new client with no additional licensing costs and minimal development time.

Real-Time Data

Real-time (or near real-time) data processing is essential to every aspect of successful automation. Data silos that trap information are costly and hinder access to the correct data required to make the most informed decisions for your operation. Creating a bi-directional flow of information through a single software data broker that authenticates all devices and users in the system eliminates data silos.

Centralizing communications also allows for real-time data logging from throughout the factory floor and from off-site locations in a single repository. Combined with remote access, consolidated logging of real-time data flows simplifies troubleshooting for engineering teams. From a network connection, engineers can view end-to-end system performance in one place. In addition, software patches can often be applied centrally to a single hub device, simplifying remote bug resolution.

Data Standardization

Once the pathways for your data have been centralized, you are capable of controlling all data flowing through, or being stored by, your communication hub. Data standardization is a critical component of systems that scale well. This applies both to the “scaling” of an installation at a single customer site, as the system is updated in the future, and also for multiple installations of a similar system across additional sites that an integrator will need to deploy.

Data should be standardized both at the protocol and the payload level. The protocol should be standardized, so that integrator support teams can specialize in a single protocol and become experts, thereby helping integrators reduce deployment and troubleshooting efforts. Similarly, data should be standardized at the packet level so that integrator software engineers can reuse libraries for transmission, receipt, analysis, processing, and storage - again reducing implementation and troubleshooting efforts.

Be Ready for the Future

While no technology is future-proof, systems designed for maximum flexibility allow integrators to respond to changing trends and customer needs. With a scalable central hub device, the opportunities for integrators to create incremental revenue and update system features are almost limitless. For example, the same hub device used for integrating communication can:

  • run an open-source HMI (to increase integrator brand awareness and eliminate licensing costs),
  • provide access to on-demand OEE results, and
  • send performance metadata from your system to the cloud for analysis and preventative maintenance recommendations.

Next Steps

Successful communication between robots, peripherals, and software systems can make or break a project. Mistakes and project delays due to poor project planning and systems architecture design can easily cost millions, so here are some recommendations to increase the success of your project:

  • At the earliest phases of project planning, develop a robotic system data and communication strategy that addresses the needs of your individual project. Involve all critical stakeholders from both engineering, mechanical teams, and customer project managers.
  • With customer stakeholder input, develop a plan for the system that extends at least ten years beyond the initial implementation. For example, should the system be able to support cloud-based processing in the future?
  • Document the boundaries between each robotic system and the specific type of data required by each system. At this point, before a protocol is decided, you should define latency and bandwidth requirements.
  • Plan for the future. For example, don't lock yourself into digital I/O if TCP is a better long-term option. Also, ensure that the data plan includes data necessary for future system scalability (e.g., performance metadata).
  • Identify the range of communication protocols supported by each piece of robotic hardware on your network. Critically reassess the importance of any hardware with limited protocol support.
  • Identify where the team thinks data issues are most likely to occur. Consider factors like data bandwidth limitations, data complexity, data manipulation, data corruption, and data retention requirements.
  • Assess the skills available on your team to ensure you have the human capital needed to execute your strategy. Identify any critical technical skills missing from the group and augment those skills with additional team members or contractors.

About Go West

As experts in robotics and robotic systems communication, Go West uses knowledge from multiple industries to provide creative, elegant solutions to manage complexity. We understand what is possible and practical in every aspect of robot communication. Our expertise in developing engineering software architecture that creates a more productive flow and reduces or eliminates downtime gives our clients a higher ROI.

We enjoy helping robotics integrators produce the best automation experience possible for long-term success and scalability. Want to know more about our process? Please send us a note and let us know how we can help you.

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