If you’re a manufacturer and you want to become a smart factory, there’s a few things you MUST do if you’re to succeed.

The primary one is to ensure you have equipment from which you can actually EXTRACT information in the first place!

This might seem like an obvious statement, but believe me, even factories that have already-integrated landscapes still forget some basic rules.

Below is a check-list that you MUST go through with equipment vendors, otherwise you risk not only a lack of communication ‘openness’ in your manufacturing landscape, you also risk your business continuity and investment, should a vendor (for example) go out of business. I’ve seen this happen and it’s not pretty!

Crucial questions to ask equipment vendors before you buy

The questions below can make some vendors squirm, especially when they claim “it’s our IP!” It might be their IP but it’s your equipment. You own the kit, you own the control panel, you own the PLC in it, so why don’t you own the source code?

Here are the questions you need to ask:

  1. Is the PLC/HMI/SCADA code available for you to modify?
  2. Is it password protected and if so, do you know what it is?
  3. Do you OWN the source code or at least a perpetual license?
  4. Is it in English? (always a favourite!)
  5. Is it easy to understand and well written (object-oriented)?
  6. Can it communicate via Ethernet and is connectivity and an Ethernet-module configuration included in their price?
  7. What key parameters are available for extraction into (say) a site-based historian/SCADA/MES system (temperature, pressure, flow, power, water etc)?
  8. What performance parameters does the vendor recommend be monitored and/or stored?
  9. What brand / model is the PLC and do you have the vendor software for it as well as programming experience, or will you have to outsource or train internal staff?
  10. Can recipes / programs be remotely selected by (for example) an Execution system?
  11. Can the recipes / programs set-points be written to (for example), to have dynamic values?

Do yourself a favour and ensure these questions form part of your purchasing checklist BEFORE you place the PO!

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Buyer beware

The vendor can issue you with a perpetual license for their code, or keep the code in escrow, or several other methods to ensure you don’t on-sell their code to their competitors (really? because that’s what they’re worried about!)

If the code is password-protected, one elegant way I’ve seen it work is this:

  1. The vendor puts a sealed envelope in the control panel, with the password written inside
  2. On the envelope is a message that simply says, “If this envelope is opened before [insert end of warranty period], then the warranty is void.”
  3. Once the warranty period is completed, you have the password.

SIMPLE!

So, find a way to make it work or FIND ANOTHER VENDOR!

There’s no excuse in this modern world of connected systems, IIoT, Industry 4.0 and smart factories, to have a piece of kit unable to communicate within a smart factory context, simply because of a paranoid vendor.

In the end though, the purchasing decision lies with you, the customer, so make sure it’s a wise one! After all, you’re going to want the kit to last you a very long time …

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