Automation Fair 2023: Building the future of industrial operations

The theme of “Discover what’s possible” at Automation Fair 2023 is a major building block toward better industrial manufacturing.

By Chris Vavra November 8, 2023
Courtesy: Chris Vavra, CFE Media and Technology

Industrial manufacturing insights

  • Training, collaboration, and technology partnerships are crucial for the future of industrial operations, emphasizing the importance of empowered and skilled frontline workers.
  • Sustainability, facilitated by digital twins, plays a pivotal role in manufacturing efficiency, allowing companies to simulate processes, optimize operations, and respond swiftly to market demands.
  • Generative AI is emerging as a transformative force in manufacturing, promising to enhance worker tasks, increase job satisfaction, and revolutionize frontline work processes.

Rockwell Automation’s 32nd Automation Fair in Boston is focused on highlighting the future of industrial manufacturing operations and helping people what the future can and should be. The theme, “Discover what’s possible,” was emphasized in many forms throughout the keynote on Wednesday.

Blake Moret, chairman and CEO of Rockwell Automation, said of the event, “We’ve grown in attendance, the number of exhibitors and the breadth of what we’re offering. But always at its core, Automation Fair, has been a training event.”

Training and learning and collaboration, Moret said, is key to the future. “Even with all the capabilities Rockwell has, we can’t do it alone. We have partners every step of the way. That ecosystem is what sets us apart,” he said.

Moret said future success is about connecting the imaginations of people with the potential of technology. “We want to combine the technology and expertise to create outcomes to help customers be more resilient, agile and sustainable,” he said.

Blake Moret, chairman and CEO of Rockwell Automation, delivering the keynote address at Automation Fair 2023 in Boston.

Blake Moret, chairman and CEO of Rockwell Automation, delivering the keynote address at Automation Fair 2023 in Boston. Courtesy: Chris Vavra, CFE Media and Technology

That resiliency and strength isn’t just about technology, Moret said. The future of industrial operations depends on empowering people on the plant floor.

“We want to drive efficient upskilling and provide support to your frontline,” he said. “A winning hand is having enabled, energized people who are comfortable interacting with the technology that gives them superpowers. It’s so important, especially when you are dealing with workforce shortage critical to project completion. When you have scarce resources, making them comfortable and successful is the difference between a successful and unsuccessful project.”

Sustainability, digital twins’ role inb manufacturing efficiency

Sustainability is many things to many companies. For Moret, he described sustainability as, “Being more an efficient steward of the inputs you have. Limit the amount of energy, water and other resources.”

Sustainability is also about speeding production and capacity and expansion and doing it with the same set of tools used for the control systems and tying everything together efficiently.

Using digital twins and digital transformation is tied into sustainability, Moret said, by allowing companies to simulate what will happen without needing to use physical materials in a wasteful trial-and-error session.

“We can use digital twins to simulate processes and commissioning and model those operations and gamify potential changes to the layout. We’re able to move faster to debottleneck and improve capacity,” he said.

Tying sustainability and digital twins can help accelerate the speed to market as well as give manufacturers and their customers the ability to respond to market.

The rise of generative AI in manufacturing

Judson Althoff, CCO, Microsoft, talked with Moret about artificial intelligence’s (AI) role in manufacturing and the impact it’ll have. Althoff admitted AI was considered more of a novelty or some abstract idea in late 2022. During the rise of ChatGPT in early 2023, there was excitement mixed with fear about what AI could do and what it would mean for the future of jobs.

“Today,” Althoff said, “companies have 100 big ideas of what they can do with generative AI and it’s an education process. Generative AI has the potential to impact many ways people learn. We can accelerate learning curves and make it more inclusive. We’re also using generative AI to build generative AI capabilities, which gives us a time-to-market advantage.”

Judson Althoff (left), CCO of Microsoft, discuss manufacturing trends and themes with Blake Moret, chairman and CEO of Rockwell Automation.

Judson Althoff (left), CCO of Microsoft, discuss manufacturing trends and themes with Blake Moret, chairman and CEO of Rockwell Automation. Courtesy: Chris Vavra, CFE Media and Technology

Generative AI can produce various types of content, including text, imagery, audio and synthetic data. This is not a new technology, but the rise of machine learning (ML) algorithms that are more responsive and human-like in their thought processes, combined with developing technology, has made generative AI a major potential force in manufacturing.

AI is becoming more commonplace in manufacturing and can enhance workers’ jobs and bring them greater joy, Althoff said, because their tasks are more rewarding and less manual. Generative AI can allow them to do their jobs better and it’ll get to the point where workers are not going to want to work with companies that do things like they had before.

Another key to helping people accept AI as part of their jobs, Althoff said, is the power of the prompt.

“Frontline workers hold such a golden wealth of expertise on how things actually get done. You see how things really get done. There’s a complexity into frontline workers to make their work more efficient.” Generative AI can help by helping workers troubleshoot on the spot with easy prompts, which can help reshape how people work on the front lines and make it more democratized.

Althoff said that’s critical for future success. “None of us are as smart as all of us,” he said. “We need to aggregate the entire intelligence of the company.”

Get ready for AI transformation

If digital transformation, the industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and Industry 4.0 were major theme of the 2010s, Althoff believes AI transformation is going to be the driving force for manufacturing’s growth in the 2020s.

“AI transformation is the new call to action for everyone,” he said. “Everyone should be thinking how it changes employees, customer interaction business processes and bend the curve on innovation.”

Chris Vavra, web content manager, CFE Media and Technology,

Author Bio: Chris Vavra is web content manager for CFE Media and Technology.