Automation of production

I REMEMBER those days when it was very difficult to build and deploy Local Area Networks (LANs) in office and factory environments. At that time, all LANs were hard wired, and these were not yet directly connected to the internet. Later on, LANs became easier to build and deploy, and were practically coming out of a box. In this latter stage, LANs became the means to connect to the internet from offices and factories, usually via wireless or WI-FI means.

I also remember those days when factory automation was very difficult and very expensive, so much so that only big corporations could afford it. Perhaps it was during that time when either mainframes or server farms were needed to automate factories, but nowadays, factories could be automated using only very simple industrial computers. Not the ordinary personal computers (PCs) used in offices, but their heavier duty versions called Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs).

Actually, I am not talking about giant factories that only the big corporations could afford, but about smaller factories that even small and medium entrepreneurs (SMEs) could afford, in a category that used to be known as cottage industries. That is so because PLCs are now priced below one hundred thousand pesos, which is just about the price of high performance PCs. At that price, it would be very easy for SMEs to recover their costs, even with just a few production runs.

Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) is a computer controlled software system that runs on the PLCs, or rather, that makes the PLCs run. These two technologies are working together like body and soul, in a relatively new science called mechatronics, a seamless combination of mechanical and electronic elements. In other words, this new science converts mechanical actions into electronic processes.

It was not too long ago when the buzzword was mechanization, being the next step to manual actions. Nowadays, the buzzword should be automation, being the next step to mechanization. For a long time now, computerization has always been a popular buzzword, but nowadays, computerization is practically synonymous to automation, usually used in reference not only to factory automation, but also to office automation and store automation.

Factory automation pertains to the manufacturing of products, whereas office automation pertains to the provision of services. In the past, the creation of value added was focused more on the manufacturing of products, but that has drastically changed now, as new value added could also be created in the provision of services, within the context of what is usually called nowadays as a service economy. All said, it is always good to have a good balance between products and services.

Right now, we are exporting manpower by way of our Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) and we are also exporting services by way of our Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industries. These two sources of national income may be good for now, but there is no assurance that we could sustain these sources in the long run. What is definitely sustainable is the export of more products along with more services other than BPO. Either way, both of these could be supported either by factory automation or office automation.

Sad to say, our economy was not able to jump substantially from the agricultural age to the industrial age. In a manner of speaking, we might have significantly jumped from whatever industrial infrastructure we might have now, into the information age. Regardless of where we Filipinos are now, some advanced thinkers are now saying that all of human civilization is now in the transformation age, being the next step from the information age.

To put it in simpler terms, PLCs and SCADA systems could automate the entire agricultural process from the farming stage to the packing stage. The farming stage could include irrigation and moisture controls among others, while the packing stage could be the culmination of all prior stages including sizing, grading, sorting, washing and drying, among others also. The packing stage could also include labelling and secondary packaging.

The lack of postharvest facilities has always been a problem in Philippine agriculture. So much has been said about what the problems are, but up to now, no one seems to have proposed any affordable and sustainable solutions. These are actually the two key words, meaning that we should be able to afford not only the costs of building these systems, but also the costs of sustaining these same systems. Among the postharvest facilities needed are those for drying, storing and packing, only some of the many processes that PLCs and SCADA systems could handle.

Store automation focuses more on purchasing, warehousing, accounting and retailing systems. The automation of these processes would definitely save more money and earn more money for the business owners, but the hope is that they would pass on some of their savings and earnings to their customers. That would actually make a lot of good business sense; because the more satisfied the customers are, the more they would patronize the businesses.

PLCs and SCADA systems would still fall under the ambit of information and communications technologies (ICTs), but these are not really too dependent on the telecom companies. On the other hand, point-of-sale (POS) systems are now very dependent on telecom companies, especially so that POS systems could now be fully integrated with internet and mobile systems./PN

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