Tension in Industrial Automation: Open Systems and the User's Dilemma

Tension in Industrial Automation: Open Systems and the User's Dilemma
Tension in Industrial Automation: Open Systems and the User's Dilemma

There is tension in the air in today’s automation environment. While consecutively attending the 2019 Hannover Fair and Automate 2019, this tension became clear to me, as a result of the influx of new technology between established suppliers, new suppliers, and manufacturing/production users.   Many manufacturing company leaders are understanding that they need to apply technology in order to remain competitive in a world punctuated by their personal experiences with consumer technology. The digitalization of manufacturing is the next logical step in modernization following the re-platforming of enterprise systems with high performance technologies including real-time ERP, analytics, AI, and cloud applications.   This integration of manufacturing automation into the enterprise is essential to accomplish the digitalization transformation and to be competitive.


A Strategic Business Issue for Industrial Automation

The technology gap, between the industrial automation and the rapid influx of new technologies, has created an awareness among manufacturing management and personnel that this gap is a strategic business issue.  Management people I have spoken to are becoming concerned that competitors throughout the world are not burdened with old ways of doing things and will more easily leverage technology in their operations to gain a significant competitive advantage. 

The industrial automation industry has experienced relatively few changes over the years, compared to other industries. In fact, many of the major industrial automation innovations of the recent past, such as adopting Microsoft Windows, Industrial Ethernet Networks, and Application Virtualization were accomplished using Commercial Off the Shelf Technology (COTS) created by the computer industry.  Even more telling is the contrast between the level of usability, flexibility, and multivendor interoperability in the business enterprise and IT groups, as opposed to traditional industrial automation supplier offerings.

In many companies, this has led to exploration, experimentation, and implementation of various alternatives, starting with cloud-based historians, HMI's, and process optimization, using COTS technologies such as Amazon WEB Services and AZURE.


A Technology Gap Can Become a Productivity Gap

The lack of multivendor software portability and interoperability continues to greatly concern and perplex many users, since it costs them significant amounts of resources, and lost productivity in engineering, programming, commissioning, and lifecycle maintenance.   Knitting together multivendor systems, which may be incompatible, in order to achieve manufacturing production goals, can also decrease system reliability with the prevalence of gateways, special interface hardware and custom software.

Most of the present system architectures create “islands” of control, which take a great deal of application engineering, extra hardware and software to build into coordinated plant automation and control systems controllers. Ideally, it would be much easier to configure holistic control, based on real-time business management goals with open multivendor architectures.  Ironically, a prominent user asked the question of a panel of major automation suppliers at an ARC conference a few years ago, why their controllers couldn’t talk directly to each other. Essentially, the answer was if you buy everything from one automation vendor, this is in not a problem!  This attitude among suppliers hasn’t changed much since.

It is worth remembering the pointed comments of Don Bartusiak, the Chief Engineer at ExxonMobil Research & Engineering, about the lack of program portability in industrial automation in contrast to the portability of spreadsheets, word documents, and other applications on any vendor’s computer or smart phone.  As we see in industrial automation no control applications can be reused directly on other vendors’ PLC and DCS systems.


Creating an Ecosystem

Industrial automation systems are still relatively closed architectures when compared to modern computing technologies, which leverage the talent and innovation of an open ecosystem. While Android and Apple have thriving ecosystems for applications, the industrial world does not have that.

Many major industrial automation vendors have gated partner ecosystems, exposing their unique interfaces only to partners that are allowed into the programs and who can help them sell more products.

Today, OPC UA is the only open industrial standard that is compatible with the general computing industry web services infrastructure.  IEC 61131-3 and PLCopen standards for programming are being adopted at various levels by some automation vendors, but as yet have not been fully embraced at a level that accomplishes seamless multivendor application program portability, even though there is a reusability certification process.


Early Adopters & Laggards

Automation analysts and vendors frequently categorize manufacturing users, grouping them as innovators, early adopters, late majority and laggards for their adoption of new automation technology. Users today have become significantly more sophisticated, technologically, and with greater cooperation with IT people are starting to do the categorizing themselves.

“Which automation vendors are innovators, early adopters, late majority and laggards?”

This categorization should be an important consideration for those in industrial automation, because it determines if their automaton systems will continue to be effective and, more importantly, competitive. The computer industry has proven, many times over, that no single vendor can provide as strong a solution as an ecosystem of suppliers, empowered by open architectures.


Not Mature Enough for a Unified Industrial Architecture

The Internet and enterprise computing are driven by open standards. Yet, today, we see industrial automation as a use case of computing that has not matured enough to embrace these concepts. One only needs to look at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) web site to get an idea of the scope of standards in the computing industry. 


New Business Models Can Benefit Everyone

Industry forums and presentations focused on digitalization will invariably mention the concept that companies need to be looking at new business models.  This is also the case for traditional industrial automation vendors.  The pattern is clear. Further, with open multivendor interoperable standards automation companies still need to be able to compete on traditional dimensions including quality, reliability, customer service, and value.  

Isn’t this the motivation for existing vendors, ideallyto best serve their customers?  In my mind, traditional automation suppliers would do well to understand that the industry is going to be reshaped, possibly radically, by new entrants from outside the industry.

Having the breadth of offerings to deliver a complete package can be a differentiating factor in an open multivendor environment.   Think of it this way. When PCs were built up with plugin boards, were people more likely to order a complete Dell computer package? Or would they use their interoperability options to forgo the display card and network card and purchase them from other sources?  In most cases, people bought the package. Yet they still had the flexibility to add other plugins to meet any unusual requirements.  The user was not locked into a single vendor architecture and this broadened the market, enabling a wider range of applications. Everyone benefited.


A State of Transformation in Industrial Automation

I think we are still in a state of transformation in the industry. The dilemma that all users face, at this point, is how to deploy systems at an acceptable integration cost. Yet this might be analogous to users’ dilemmas in the early days of the battle between PC hardware and software versus minicomputer and mainframes, when companies were faced with the need to upgrade information systems in order to remain competitive. The open PC options were not broad enough to satisfy the need.

Indeed, industrial automation has unique dilemmas. Take system architecture, the framework that defines the structure and functions of an automation system. The industry started with closed architectures, out of necessity, and the competitive advantage is evolving towards open multivendor interoperable architectures.  This creates an investment-timing dilemma for industrial automation users, because if they invest too heavily in existing closed or semi-closed architectures, then it can limit manufacturing flexibility and competitiveness in the long term.


Mainframe, Minicomputer, PCs: An Analogy

In my opinion, the computing analogy remains the most prominent. The large computer companies that fell by the wayside, during the PC revolution, lost because they were focused on their traditional competitors, rather than on the other entities who found that customer value that could be delivered with a change in system architecture and the unbundling of systems. Back then, as today, consumers were smart. Once users learned the value of these open architectures and how much more they could create, with multi-vendor applications in their operations, that’s what they wanted.  In the computer industry, this created a host of new winners and delivered devastating losses for many of the traditional suppliers.

Suppliers either adapt with technology, or they lose customers and die. This is true in every industry. The industrial and process automation industries will be no exception.

We are already seeing an influx of technology companies, from outside the traditional industrial automation field, with superior technologies that are enticing users, and this is exactly why it’s so important for manufacturers to look beyond traditional suppliers and learn what is truly possible in order to keep their businesses competitive.

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About The Author

Bill Lydon is a Contributing Editor for Automation.com 

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