Bill’s Top 10 Automation & Control Trends for 2019 – Accelerating Change & Reaching the Tipping Point

Bill’s Top 10 Automation & Control Trends for 2019 – Accelerating Change & Reaching the Tipping Point
Bill’s Top 10 Automation & Control Trends for 2019 – Accelerating Change & Reaching the Tipping Point

The pace of technological change in the automation industry seems to be accelerating as we head into 2019, driven by innovations developed for Internet of Things and general computing. In last year’s Bill’s Top 10 Automation & Control Trends for 2018 - A Year of Technology Driven Change, I shared the view that 2018 would look to bring structural and architectural changes that would be disruptive to organizations and suppliers that resist change.  As we enter the new year, there are indeed signs of disruption in various industrial automation niches, leading to a prominent question for 2019.

Question: Is the industrial automation industry approaching a tipping point with innovative new system architectures, software, and edge devices leading to broad disruption?

As usual a caveat as we begin: I’ve been involved in this industry for years, as both a designer and applier of automation and controls in the field, and I still don’t know with certainly what the future will hold. Still, after another busy year talking to a wide range of users, suppliers and industry consultants, and attending over 20 industry conferences and related events, I have another year’s worth of informed insights to share on the latest trends that will shape automation in 2019.  As always, I invite everyone to share their own thoughts, criticisms, and perspectives on this exciting time for automation with me at [email protected] or on our LinkedIn group


The Next Frontier for Manufacturing Automation

The digital revolution of manufacturing and process business continues to evolve with many functions being digitized and refined over the years. These functions include:

  • Accounting
  • Supply chain
  • Human resources
  • Procurement
  • Customer services
  • Business intelligence
  • Distribution management

In contrast, established industrial and process automation systems have not transformed at the same rate.

Yet today, there is change. We are seeing a clear trend with the integration of industrial automation into the entire business information and computer architecture, enabling manufacturers to compete successfully.

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” Peter Drucker


Manufacturing Competitiveness at Stake

In countless industries, we have seen companies, who leverage disruptive innovations, position themselves to become industry leaders, bastions of productivity, and economically prosperous.  One example that Industry 4.0 discussions universally employ is the the early automotive industry. These arguments cite Henry Ford’s domination, in the early years of the automobile industry, with the world’s first moving assembly line producing Model T’s and 93 minutes.  Yet, decades later, the 1990’s saw United States automakers innovating less in manufacturing. The US automakers eventually started losing significant market share to Japanese automotive manufacturers, who were leveraging newer management methods, advanced manufacturing methods and aggressive use of automation, and robotics. United States automakers, during that time, had access to the same technologies and methods, but they were not moved to take advantage of them until compelled by economic factors. By that point, for some of them, it was too late.  The lesson here is that if new transformative technology and methods are not adopted by manufacturers, they may soon struggle to remain competitive and profitable.


1. Enterprise Systems Absorb Plant Floor Computing

Tighter integration of Operational Technology (OT) and Information Technology (IT) continues to accelerate. In multiple industries, business systems can now process real-time transaction to be more responsive in all functions, including Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) functions. This is being driven by lean manufacturing efforts, which work to optimize entire process including supply chain, production, delivery, genealogy, and customer service. Enterprise systems (ERP, etc.) have helped to deliver this real-time transaction processing and are driving down to the edge, which is resulting in the displacement of traditional HMI and other middleware.

Further, this effort is satisfying requirements to achieve real-time synchronized manufacturing operations.  Innovative industrial automation vendors are already producing automation controllers designed to leverage the business network, and directly communicate with enterprise business systems. This communication uses Web services, and other IoT transport mechanisms, to facilitate the integration and synchronization of the entire manufacturing enterprise. including machine and process sensor inputs and outputs.  There are notable industry standards being leveraged to accomplish this including: OPC UA, MQTT, AMQP, and B2MML.

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2. Open Architecture Initiatives

A driving force behind the development of Industry 4.0 is the realization that pursuing low labor rates is no longer a winning strategy. Organizational competitiveness and flexibility can only be accomplished by leveraging the advanced technologies, centering on automation, in order to enable a successful transition.  Germany’s Industry 4.0 initiative has ignited worldwide cooperative efforts in ChinaJapan and India.

Developing economies logically have a key advantage in this area, since they are typically not burdened with legacy automation system and machine investments.  This allows them to leapfrog organizations, who are attached to older expensive legacy equipment, by taking advantage of these new initiatives. This is a familiar pattern characterized by Japan's post-World War II record boom of economic growth. Today we see Japan with significant market share gains in a number of areas including automotive, television, and electronics.

Some of the leading open architecture initiatives that are working to enable the digital transformation include:

Made in China 2025

This past year, China announced increased financial support for major projects of its “Made in China 2025” initiative with the total funding to exceed 10 billion yuan ($1.5 billion).   In addition, local authorities will also increase financial support for “Made in China 2025” projects with over 10 billion yuan expected to be invested by local governments nationwide.   The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) will also cooperate with China Development Bank to provide financial services including loans, bonds, leasing to support major projects, with an estimated 300 billion yuan of financing in place in the 2016-2020 period. 


Make in India

The government is set to launch round two of its flagship Make in India program with the focus this time on futuristic segments such as robotics, genomics. chemical feedstock and electrical storage.   The government's industry department is in the process of formulating a five-year roadmap for each of the priority sectors to be covered under Make in India 2.0, a senior government official reported the Economic Times. 


Industry 4.0 for Process

This effort, the application of Industry 4.0 concepts to improve process automation, is being driven by NAMUR and VDI/VDE in collaboration with several prominent leaders in the industry, including: ABB, BASF, Bayer Technology Services, Bilfinger Maintenance, Endress+Hauser, Evonik, Festo, Krohne, Lanxess, Siemens, and Fraunhofer ICT. The concepts are expressed in  NAMUR’s Process Sensor 4.0 Roadmap, which describes smart-networked sensors as a foundational part of the Industry 4.0 process architecture.  These sensors will communicate with controls, and automation systems and simultaneously and directly with business systems.


The Digital Transformation Monitor

The DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION MONITOR lists fifteen national initiatives for “digitizing” industry, which have been launched across Europe in recent years. With value chains increasingly distributed across Europe, the further digitization of industry brings challenges that can only be addressed through a coordinated EU-wide effort. Seven more initiatives are under preparation. The development of these national initiatives is an important element of the European Platform of National Initiatives on Digitizing Industry. A first preliminary analysis maps the national measures along the action lines of DEI strategy, building on the results of the Digital Transformation Monitor (DTM) and the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI). A country overview with relevant information for digitizing industry for all 28 Member States is available.


The Open Group, the Open Process Automation Forum

The Open Group’s Open Process Automation Forum, formally launched November, 2016, is focused on developing a multivendor standards-based, open, secure, and interoperable process control architecture.   The Open Group has a track record of success in this area with the FACE standard. This standard has led to the deployment of higher function software designed to lower lifecycle cost. The defense avionics industry is one prime example of an industry that has transitioned from a proprietary solutions to fully open systems architecture.

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3. Ethernet & Networking Advances

Ethernet, both wired and wireless, has become the workhorse network of choice throughout manufacturing and production.  Ethernet is used for all communications including data, audio, video, and industrial control networks leveraging shared infrastructure. Speed and performance continue to increase, with Gigabit Ethernet (GbE or 1 GigE) and accelerated use of fiber optic networks.  In this area too, there are some interesting developments as we enter 2019:


Advanced Physical Layer (APL)

Named the Advanced Physical Layer this is based on IEEE 802.3 the IEEE P802.3cg 10 Mb/s Single Pair Ethernet Task Force Working Group is focused on using a single pair cable operating at 10 Mb/s with power delivery.  This may include conforming to requirements for use in hazardous locations, up to Zone 0, Division 1.2.1 5G Wireless.  The focus is on a replacement for legacy point–to–point & point-to-multipoint including 4-20 mA, HART modem, RS-232, RS-485, CAN (Controller Area Network), and FlexRay.   There is an expectation of a standard in 2019.

There is work being done to define the requirements and develop the necessary technology meet requirements for use in hazardous locations up to Zone 0, Division 1.2.1 5G.

The FieldComm Group, ODVA and PI (Profibus & Profinet International) are working together to promote developments for Industrial Ethernet, in order to expand use of EtherNet/IP™, HART-IP™ and PROFINET™ into hazardous locations in the process industry. This is intended to leverage the work currently underway in the IEEE 802.3cg Task Force.


5G Wireless

There are a number of industrial plants that have implemented a 5G wireless network, within their facility that provides high speed deterministic communications.  Beckhoff and Huawei had an extremely impressive concept demonstration, at Hannover Fair 2018, using established Huawei 5G and X-Ethernet to demonstrate deterministic high-speed coordinated motion over both wired and 5G wireless communications.

5G  is the fifth generation of cellular mobile communications targeted to succeed the 4G (LTE/WiMax), 3G (UMTS) and 2G (GSM) systems. 5G performance targets high data rate, reduced latency, energy savings, higher system capacity, and massive device connectivity. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) IMT-2020 specification demands speeds up to 20 gigabits per second.  The first phase of 5G specifications in Release-15 will be completed by March 2019, to accommodate the early commercial deployment. The second phase in Release-16 is due to be completed by March 2020, for submission to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), as a candidate of IMT-2020 technology. 


Time-Sensitive Networking (TSN)

There is a great deal of discussion and (in some quarters) excitement about the prospect of Time-Sensitive Networking (TSN), wchich many believe will become the  single unifying deterministic network shared by all applications throughout the computer industry.  Since TSN is a totally-managed, shared network architecture, all network traffic -including all industrial protocols in the plant - would need to conform and be compliant with the TSN set of standards in order to achieve deterministic and reliable communications.  Based on interviews and discussions I’ve had with people involved in the IEEE committees, they report that the entire standard will be completed in a few years. 

Creating a practical multi-vendor TSN architecture has challenges and adds new layers of complexity for industrial ethernet networking, with network timing tightly coupled to network configuration and management.  The most similar network, in my experience, was the Allen-Bradley The ControlNetTM network. This was a tightly time scheduled and managed network dedicated to industrial control and monitoring, with those tight-scheduled communications yielding high determinism.   While complex, the scope of the issue was limited to industrial automation applications with one set of software and controllers from a single vendor, Allen-Bradley.  In contrast, TSN is seen as a common multivendor sharednetwork for multimode communication of general computing, VOIP, professional audio, video, file transfer, industrial automation, building automation, and any other data communication. 

In order to take advantage of TSN time-scheduling, it would seem that control programming software and controller firmware will have to be redesigned, in order to accommodate the definition of I/O point and variable timing specifications.

Since the goal is to support multiple industrial network protocols along with data and multimedia applications, this will require an industry-wide shared network manager and an API standard to which all vendors need to conform. Yet, when asking multiple people about standardization in this area, it is obvious that no open defined standard exists and there are certainly no identified certification groups on the horizon.

Before the entire standard is completed there are likely to be offerings by other industrial automation suppliers, but I suggest that buyers be extra cautious as those solutions could become “white elephants”.

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4.  The Invasion of the Robots

The adoption rate of robots continues to accelerate, as further innovations, collaborative robots, lower prices, simplified programming and user acceptance continue to increase popularity.  The growth of collaborative robots, in particular, is evident, with these robots working cooperatively with people, integrated vision systems, and innovative grippers. The prices for these robots position them for a wide range of applications.  This particular breed of robot is following a similar pattern that ignited the personal computer revolution - providing a product with less power than larger offerings, but with added value for a broader number of users.  The rate of robot adoption is accelerating throughout the world, particularly in China, as the country is now the largest purchaser of robots in the world.    

The International Federation of Robotics Executive Summary World Robotics 2018 Industrial Robots noted in 2017 that robot sales increased by 30% to 381,335 units, a new peak for the fifth year in a row.   Asia is still the world's strongest growth market, with a total of about 261,800 units sold in 2017; a rise of 37% more than the global sales volume of 2015 (253,300)  in this region. Industrial robot sales in the second largest market, Europe, increased by 18% to almost 66,300 units and an annual average increase rate of 10% between 2012 and 2017. About 46,100 industrial robots were shipped to the Americas, 12% more than in 2016, establishing a new peak for the sixth year in a row. Five major markets represent over 73% of the total global sales volume in 2017: China, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the United States and Germany.

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5. The Emergence of Open Systems from New Sources

New open system options are continually emerging in industrial automation, from both nontraditional suppliers and standards groups, and I expect this will accelerate in the coming year. These options could enable multivendor interoperability at all levels of the system architecture, while simplifying integration, expanding the number of options available for applications, and making applications easily portable across vendor platforms.  In contrast, there are still far too many incumbent industrial automation suppliers today with highly-gated automation partner programs.  Selected based on protective commercial criteria, only these third-party partners are technically and legally enabled to work with the vendor’s unique tightly bound closed architectures. Suffice it to say, there are significantly fewer obstacles to innovation in open ecosystems.

There are some interesting Industry 4.0/Smart Manufacturing open-sourced edge platforms emerging which leverage the knowledge and technologies from the general computing and IoT industry:


The Eclipse Foundation

The Eclipse Foundation’s Open standards for Industry 4.0 allow for solutions that are interoperable, modular and vendor independent. The following relevant standards are supported through different open source projects:

  • OPC UA - Eclipse Milo is a full implementation of OPC UA.
  • MQTT - Eclipse Paho and Eclipse Mosquitto provide a client and broker implementation of the MQTT messaging protocol.
  • Production Performance Management Protocol (PPMP) is a payload specification to capture data that is required to do performance analysis of production facilities.
  • oneM2M – oneM2M is a service layer standard that defines common service functions that can be shared by applications, gateways, and devices.  oneM2M includes defined interworking with standards such as OSGi, DDS, OPC UA, and Modbus so that industrial data can be aggregated and exposed to applications uniformly.
  • Eclipse 4diac provides the development tools and the runtime to create control systems for PLCs that is based on IEC 61499.  4diac also integrates OPC UA and MQTT into PLC to ease PLC connectivity.
  •  » IoT Gateway Eclipse Kura provides a portable Java/OSGi edge computing framework for building IoT Gateways that can be deployed into Industry 4.0 solutions. Kura supports a wide variety of fieldbus protocols including OPC UA, Siemens S7, and Modbus.  Eclipse Kura also features a modular and visual data flow programming tool called Wires. Wires allows to define data collection and  processing pipelines at the edge by simply selecting components from a palette and wiring them together.
  • Digital Twin Eclipse Ditto is a framework to create and manage digital twins. Ditto exposes a unified resource-based API that can be used to interact with devices, abstracting from the complexity of different device types and how they are connected. It helps to structure the devices into their distinct aspects of functionality and can optionally enforce data types and data validation based on a formal device meta model, based on Eclipse Vorto.


EdgeX Foundry

The Linux Foundation’s EdgeX Foundry is a vendor-neutral, open source project providing a common open framework for IoT edge computing and an ecosystem of interoperable components. It is designed to unify the marketplace and accelerate enterprise and Industrial IoT.  The project is aligned around a common goal: The simplification and standardization of Industrial IoT edge computing, while still enabling the ecosystem to add value. 

EdgeX Foundry leverages cloud-native principles, including microservices and platform-independence, but is architected to meet specific needs of the IoT edge. This includes accommodating both IP- and non-IP based connectivity protocols, security and system management for widely distributed compute nodes, and scaling down to highly-constrained devices.

EdgeX Foundry has gone through rapid refinement, as illustrated by the reduction of computer resource requirements -from the initial 2.5 GB to 128 MB memory requirement – to make it suitable for embedding in sensors and control devices. 

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6. Embedded Cyber Security

Cyber security provides protection at the fundamental root entry points for intruders. This effort, developed in the software industry, utilizes powerful Systems on a Chip (SoC) embedded in edge devices, including industrial controllers, process controllers, smart instrumentation, and other devices.   This is particularly important, as the cybersecurity attack surface continues to expand.  These vulnerabilities grow with the proliferation of edge computing devices with a growing number off Internet of Things (IoT) applications including consumer, municipal, industrial, connected vehicles, connected health, smart farming, and smart supply chain. 

In problem solving, it is always important to identify root causes. Any entry point into a system is a root level cause of cyber security concern.  Systems on a Chip (SoC) and other highly integrated solutions are driving control, monitoring and analytics to the edge, providing functions that in the past were done in a PLC or DCS controller.  The key building blocks of these efforts include cybersecurity functions and features embedded in Systems on a Chip (SoC), which incorporate microprocessors, communications, cyber encryption, cloud security services, secure update services, and other functions.

These efforts are in the early stages of development, with many vendors and standards groups operating without common standards at this point.  These efforts are leaving users with a simple question: Should we hold off on new purchases of industrial controllers, process controllers, and instrumentation until these secure SoC and methods are integrated into the devices? 

The ultimate goal is to incorporate this new breed of cyber security processors into IoT devices and implement more cybersecure systems throughout industrial and process automation components.

There are prominent cyber security initiatives:


Microsoft Azure Sphere

Microsoft is making an unexpected push into the chip business. Announcing “Azure Sphere,” Microsoft is combining a chip design, a cloud security service, and a Linux kernel with the goal of better securing billions of IoT devices around the world.  In 2016, Microsoft announced that it had co-designed a FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array), in order to enhance the intelligence of its cloud servers. This was the first instance of a Microsoft designed chip.  Expanding on this genesis, Microsoft’s representatives at the 2018 Hannover Messe described how the Azure Sphere includes a microcontroller (MCU) design which the company is licensing, royalty-free.  Other features include:

  • The Microsoft hardware security module Pluton Security Subsystem, which creates a hardware root of trust, stores private keys, and executes complex cryptographic operations to create secure devices.
  • A new crossover MCU which combines the a Cortex-A processor with the Cortex-M class processor.
  • Built-in network connectivity, which provides secured, online experiences and ensures devices are up to date.

The first Azure Sphere chip is the MediaTek MT3620, which incorporates Arm Cortex-A7, first shared by Microsoft as the result of years of close collaboration and testing between MediaTek and Microsoft. Other early partners include ARM, who worked closely for the integration of Cortex-A application processors into the Azure Sphere MCUs.



The Google CLOUD IoT CORE is a system designed for the management of connected IoT devices,  such as sensors, with Google’s cloud. This platform also serves as a secure pipeline for getting data to and from those devices.  This effort has been enhanced through Google’s Partner ecosystem, which offer devices and kits that work with the Cloud IoT Core. These partners include: Allwinner Technology, Arm, Intel, Marvell, Microchip, Mongoose OS, NXP, Realtek, Sierra Wireless, and SOTEC.   Microchip, specifically, provided a prime example of a Google chip partner delivering a Trusted and Secure Authentication solution with the ATECC608A chip

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Amazon FreeRTOS

Amazon is promoting the Amazon FreeRTOS, an IoT operating system for microcontrollers, which are qualified through The Amazon FreeRTOS Qualification Program (Amazon FQP).   Amazon FreeRTOS is open-sourced and it extends the FreeRTOS kernel, a real-time operating system for microcontrollers.  The Amazon FQP outlines a set of security, functionality and performance requirements that all microcontrollers (along with the associated hardware abstraction layers and drivers) must meet.  Amazon FreeRTOS has a large ecosystem of existing tools developed for the system. Amazon FreeRTOS includes software libraries designed to help users program IoT capabilities into devices. One example includes the configuration of devices to a local network using common connectivity options like Wi-Fi or Ethernet. Amazon FreeRTOS also includes an over-the-air (OTA) update feature to remotely update devices with feature enhancements or security patches.  In order to secure this operating system, the Amazon FreeRTOS comes with libraries to help secure device data and connections, including support for data encryption, key management, and Transport Layer Security (TLS v1.2).  Partners today that support Amazon FreeRTOS features and capabilities include Espressif, Microchip, NXP Semiconductors, and STMicroelectronics.


Arm Mbed IoT Platform

Mbed’s Arm TrustZone technology is a System on Chip (SoC) and CPU system-wide approach to security. TrustZone is hardware-based security, built into SoCs by semiconductor chip designers who want to provide secure end points and a device root of trust. The family of TrustZone technologies can be integrated into any Arm Cortex-A and the latest Cortex-M23 and Cortex-M33 based systems.  The Arm Mbed IoT Device Platform is made up of two sets of products: device software and cloud-based device management services. These products are designed to securely move data from sensor to server.  The Arm Mbed IoT Device Platform is a fully integrated device management solution. It provides the operating system, gateway, device management services, and partner ecosystem to speed adoption and deployment of IoT solutions.  Further, the Arm Mbed IoT Platform provides connectivity and communication for constrained devices. Partner companies have enabled 6LoWPAN, Bluetooth Low Energy, Thread, LoRa, WiFi, NFC, RFID, Mobile IoT (LPWA), cellular and Ethernet on Mbed.  The Mbed IoT platform secures the device itself from untrusted or malicious code, the communications between device and cloud, and the lifecycle of the system itself using uVisor, Mbed TLS, and Mbed Client respectively.



7. Is Stricter Cyber Security Regulation on the Horizon?

There are already mandatory standards for industrial cybersecurity in some critical industries and the discussion continues to debate broader regulations which require all industries to legally comply with cybersecurity measures. 

Suppliers and users are certainly discussing the need for cybersecurity and generally draw the parallel to plant and machine safety. There are clear similarities: both provide a protection function and require technology, training, best practices, systems, and procedures. If cybersecurity follows the same course as industrial safety, it will be the force of law and related fines that will eventually prompt a culture of security investments and industry best practices.  Consider the United States experience after the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) became law on December 29, 1970. It took many years of OSHA inspections and non-compliance fines before safety became deep-rooted in industry.

Much like safety, it is hard to justify cybersecurity investments until companies look in the “rear-view mirror” and see the disasters that have already happened. Management is now understanding the value of safety systems. Industrial safety measures are increasingly being considered as investments that ultimately save money long term by reducing disability pay, improving productivity, and increasing uptime. Still today, there is a marked tendency for many businesses to do as little as possible until prodded by laws and major disasters. Hopefully, today’s manufacturers have matured enough to learn from our safety history and to embrace cybersecurity measures, reaping the related benefits.  A prime example of cyber security regulation initiatives is as follows:

Underwriters Labs has taken on the development of the UL Cybersecurity Assurance Program (CAP). This effort - including input from major stakeholders representing the U.S. Federal government, academia and industry – has a goal to elevate the security measures deployed in the critical infrastructure supply chain.  The standards were developed to provide cybersecurity criteria for product testing, in order to validate the security claims of vendors.  The UL CAP security efforts are recognized within the U.S. White House Cybersecurity National Action Plan (CNAP) as a way to test and certify network-connectable devices within the IoT supply chain.   This would parallel fire safety laws, product certifications, and facility site certification.  Given that UL in North America is a prime certification group for electrical, industrial control panel builders, fire safety, and physical security, it is really not surprising that they would be involved in cybersecurity as well.

Data privacy and ownership has also become a prominent discussion.  The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) (Regulation (EU) 2016/679), for example,  is a regulation by which the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union and the European Commission intend to strengthen and unify data protection for all individuals within the European Union (EU). It also addresses the export of personal data outside the EU. The GDPR aims primarily to give control of personal data back to citizens and residents and to simplify the regulatory environment for international business by unifying the regulation within the EU. When the GDPR takes effect, it will replace the data protection directive (officially Directive 95/46/EC) of 1995. adopted on 27 April 2016, the regulation becomes enforceable from 25 May 2018 after a two-year transition period and, unlike a directive, does not require national governments to pass any enabling legislation. Thus, it will be directly binding and applicable.

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8. New Automation Hardware Platforms

Powerful open platforms are starting to be deployed as automation and process controllers, and the introduction of these devices continues to rise.   These devices may well disrupt existing PLC and DCS controllers, and their vendors, with high performance processing and low cost.   These platforms are being delivered from a range of suppliers including DellAdvantechBeckhoffB&RNEXCOMOPTO 22HilscherHarting, and Logic Supply.  Yet, even still, many traditional industrial automation field controllers have remained closed proprietary computers, highlighting the analogous relationship to the obsolete computer mainframe and minicomputer era.

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9. User Unrest with Status Quo

There is growing unrest in the user community over the lack of implementation in process and industrial automation. Having come to the understanding that industrial automation systems technology is lagging in these industries, many in the community feel this limits delivering functionality and value compared to other computer industry, IoT, and consumer products.  

In fact, a growing number of industrial automation users I meet are experimenting and piloting new solutions on their own, using the new breed of edge devices and tools available as standard off-the-shelf solutions and particularly Raspberry Pi devices.  Amazon sells a wide range of edge devices to build such solutions.

One example I witnessed was a pharmaceutical company, which used OPC servers at each of their production sites to gather information which created plant historians on Amazon Web services; at a fraction of the cost of existing solutions and with greater flexibility. This strategy is also being used to implement analytics using off-the-shelf tools.

The influx of hardware and software, based on open standards, is shifting implementation of industrial automation system functions to from vendors to the users.  We’ve already seen this trend in the application of virtualization in the factory, which was driven by the goal lower total cost of ownership and improved performance. Users were well ahead of industrial automation vendors in deploying this innovation in their operation, yet in some cases, vendors threatened to void their system warranties.   Now we see automation vendors embracing virtualization.

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10. Incumbent Automation Suppliers Dilemma

I believe the automation industry structure is fundamentally changing. Driven by the need for manufacturing to meet worldwide competitive threats that leverage technology to improve operations, we see industries like computers, consumer electronics, open sourced, and IoT software and hardware, fueling changes which are now being driven by Industry 4.0. The scope of these changes encompass the entire manufacturing organization, creating a holistic system which integrates

  • Design
  • Supply chain
  • Workflow
  • Continuous Realtime quality
  • Manufacturing & processes
  • Outbound Logistics
  • Customer Responsiveness.

This holistic system is only possible with multivendor open systems that enable efficient and frictionless integration.   The computer industry has been on this path for many years, and it continues to accelerate with the Internet of Things and the wide range of open source standards we discussed earlier.

History has proven the disruptive impact that technology and new architectures can have on the directions of industry. The computer industry, in particular, shows a clear record of established suppliers that fail, because they lose sight of the fact that they need to earn the respect of customers by providing better quality products, important features, and superior service at a fair price, rather than “locking in” the customer.  Some of the names of such companies are very familiar from the speed of their collapse, names such as:

  • Digital Equipment Corporation
  • Burroughs
  • Interdata
  • Data General
  • Wang
  • Control Data Corporation
  • Compaq
  • PALM
  • Blackberry
  • IBM
  • Modcomp Computer Systems

That transition led to an ever-widening selection of lower cost and easy-to-use software, which didn’t require programming and increased the number of potential applications (think spreadsheets). This dramatic industry expansion ended up badly hurting incumbent suppliers that did not adjust to the change.

In automation, incumbent suppliers - whether aware of it or not - are facing the innovator’s dilemma. This phenomenon, described by Clayton Christensen, is one of successful, outstanding companies doing everything they believe is “right” and yet still losing their market leadership – or collapse entirely – as new, unexpected competitors rise and take over.  As incumbents become trapped in their existing products and organizations - making refinements rather than drastic and innovative changes to meet customer needs - they become trapped by their own success, and the expectation of increasingly greater annual sales.  These companies can struggle to make the decision to invest in new innovations and technologies, which may change industry but may also lower their sales volume. This kind of short-term thinking has claimed a long list of victims in various industries, and for those that remember buying pre-Microsoft Windows HMIs, this situation may be obvious.

In today’s automation ecosystem, incumbent industrial automation suppliers desperately need to move beyond closed and highly gated automation partner programs.  Their time is quickly drawing to a close. Yet, for these same suppliers, it can be difficult to move to an open multivendor interoperable architecture, because they have architectures that tightly bind software applications with the distributed code and firmware in their field controllers and end devices. Yet, that is exactly why it must happen. It is becoming a continuous and loudly-heard complaint from users; when they add a system-level software feature and are informed they must do an expensive upgrade of field hardware.

Incumbent automation vendors would do well to rethink how they can contribute value to customers in this new environment.  If incumbent automation vendors don’t participate in and implement fully open systems, they may see their place rapidly usurped by intruders from the computer and IoT industry.

A disruptive innovation is an innovation that creates a new market and value network that will eventually disrupt an already existing market and replace an existing product.

In times of rapid change, experience could be your worst enemy. J. Paul Getty

I believe that the incumbent automation suppliers’ major value is in their relationships and the development of the key elements of automation systems for overall industrial production, including application software/firmware, reliable field hardware, and solid customer service.  If they cannot compete on those dimensions, they need to look for different business.

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The Automation Professional Will Be Increasingly Critical for Success in 2019

The growing number of new technologies, from outside the traditional automation vendors, are rapidly expanding the tools that can be applied to improve manufacturing productivity, profitability, and competitiveness.  These significant changes, driven by the new technologies, make automation professionals more critical to the successful selection and application of these technologies and related strategies.  The automation professional’s role is critical to help business leaders make informed and productive technological investments as well as implementation decisions in order to yield profitable results.   The alternative for these business leaders is to take the onus on themselves, potentially making uninformed decisions that could be costly. Regardless, I believe 2019 will prove to be a critical year for manufacturers as we inch closer towards disruption in the industry.

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About The Author

Lydon brings more than 10 years of writing and editing expertise to, plus more than 25 years of experience designing and applying technology in the automation and controls industry.

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