Automation & Control Trends in 2013

  • January 11, 2013
  • Feature
January 2013
By Bill Lydon, Editor
This article is an update to my 2012 Trends Article and expresses my thoughts on major automation and control trends for 2013 and beyond. These opinions are based on a wide range of inputs from users, suppliers and industry consultants, and from attending numerous industry forums, conferences and trade shows every year. Years of hands-on experience as a designer and applier of automation and controls in the field are also reflected in these opinions. I invite readers to contact me to critique and share thoughts based on another perspective.
Enterprise Automation System
Industrial plants of any reasonable size are unlikely to have a single control system architecture installed and the trend is to have a software platform to unify operations and information flow to improve decision making, increase agility, reduce risk, and improve production efficiency. This is going to be accomplished more often by selecting a unifying software architecture supplied by one vendor. These platforms are based on an open software architecture that incorporate a high performance real-time database and support various industry standards including OPC, OPC UA, B2MML, multiple native protocol drivers, ERP interfaces, and IT database interfaces. The key to success will be software platforms that can integrate 3rd party software applications using open standards and be easily configured for applications without custom software. Enterprise Automation software is just starting to emerge with a great deal of hype with many suppliers claiming to have an integrated offering. The reality is the majority of suppliers still have loosely coupled software applications that do not make for a cohesive enterprise control system. Users need to carefully evaluate offerings to select a legitimate integrated enterprise software solution.
Collapsing Architecture
New technology is making it possible and desirable to create streamlined 2-3 layer automation systems to increase performance and lower software maintenance costs. This is a significant simplification of the five layer system model the automation industry has been centered on for years that has been typically expressed in the 5 level Purdue model.
 Level 5 - Business Systems
 Level 4 - Plant Level (ERP, MRP, and MES)
 Level 3 - Operation Unit Level
 Level 2 - Machine/Process Automation Level
 Level 1 - Controller Level
 Level 0 - Sensor/Actuator Level
Existing automation systems generally reflect this architecture with software running on general purpose computers at levels 2, 3, 4, and 5. Levels 2, 3 and 4 devices typically incorporate a database and communications interfaces to buffer and synchronize information between each level in addition to associated HMI and other interfaces. Historically, the constraints of computing costs and networking bandwidth dictated this configuration. This multilevel, multicomputer computing model however is complicated and creates a great deal of cost, ongoing configuration control and lifecycle investment. In the new model, controllers communicate information to all levels directly from level 0 and 1 to level 4 and 5 using the appropriate protocols, particularly WEB services.
Automation Computing Engines (ACE)
More capable controllers, Automation Computing Engines (ACE), that embed Level 2, 3 and 4 functions are coming on the market and this will continue to accelerate, enabling the collapse of the automation architecture. The first of this breed of have dual core and quad core CPUs that are Automation Computing Engines for control and functions that make them extensions of enterprise systems on the plant floor including embedded historians, analytics, alarm management, equipment diagnostics, advanced control optimization, and rules engines. These powerful devices perform meaningful data refinement at the information source on the plant floor. The incorporation of higher level functions directly into these new controllers eliminates the need for Level 2, 3 and 4 computers, thereby improving system performance, eliminating bottlenecks, eliminating duplicate databases, simplifying configuration control, and lowering software maintain costs.
OPC UA brings open computing industry standards, allowing engineers to implement Digital Factory concepts and increase production efficiency.  OPC UA technology provides an efficient and secure infrastructure for communications from sensor to business enterprise computing for all automation systems in manufacturing, SCADA, and process control. By leveraging accepted international computing standards, OPC UA puts automation systems on a level playing field with the general computing industry. OPC UA uses industry standard Web Services which are the preferred method for system communications and interaction for all networked devices. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) defines a Web Service as "a software system designed to support interoperable machine-to-machine interaction over a network.” This is precisely the task of automation systems. OPC UA is being incorporated into the fabric of controllers. For example, the PLCopen OPC UA function block is an extension to the IEC 61131-3 standard that encapsulates mapping of the IEC 61131-3 software model to the OPC UA information model. This provides a standard way for OPC UA server-based controllers to expose data to OPC UA clients including controllers, HMIs, MES, LIMS, ERP and other systems.  
Panel Free Installation
The goal is to eliminate control cabinets and simplify wiring. The idea of designing automation products to eliminate the need to mount devices in cabinets started with IP67 and IP20 I/O devices that supported industrial networking protocols. Embedding an entire IEC 61131-3 controller into IP 67 and IP 20 I/O blocks is another example of reducing the number of parts and eliminating cabinets. The new trend goes further with controllers, drives, servos, valves, and HMI devices that do not require mounting in a panel, thus reducing cost, simplifying installation and lowering maintenance labor.
Big Data - Information Leverage
The amount of data in automation systems has been exploding with monitoring of a wider number of real-time data. Tools to analyze these large big data sets are emerging that will be used to improve productivity and innovation. Accelerators for this trend are more powerful low cost computers, wireless sensors, and analytical software. The lower cost of computing power has enabled the use of sophisticated analytical software for operations and productivity improvement. This has opened the door for companies to find more ways to use analytics to improve efficiencies. Predictive maintenance is a good example of analytics that is used to predict problems before they occur, avoiding interruptions in production. In addition to lowering downtime, this also maximizes the use of skilled maintenance people, who are in short supply. More users and suppliers are going beyond software dashboards to use the power of computing to create advanced control and automation. Further, sophisticated analytics can substantially improve decision-making to improve and refine manufacturing processes.
Retrofit & Upgrade
The opportunity for retrofit and upgrades is huge and will continue for a number of years. The ARC Advisory Group estimates that $65 billion worth of process automation systems are nearing the end of their useful life. At least $22 billion of these systems are installed in North America, most of which are over 20 years old. In the U.S. and Europe, manufacturers are more likely to keep existing systems and add newer features and functions to conserve capital. Almost every automation supplier has a wiring system and some offer a software conversion program to move customers from an old system to a newer one, preserving existing sensor wiring.  Many users see more value in leaving the systems as is and bolting on new functions. Software add-ons at the top end of these older systems are used to add asset management, advanced control, and other functions. Gateways have become extremely popular to add newer controllers, sensors, and wireless sensors to existing systems at the bottom end. The life of the I/O hardware, controllers, and sensors of old systems are proving to be far longer than the 10-year life originally envisioned.  In many cases, investing in the replacement of older production equipment with new more efficient machines is a more productive investment than automation system replacement.
Remote Monitoring
Remote monitoring continues to grow with improved and refined hardware and software tools. Remote monitoring capabilities will continue to become more powerful allowing the shrinking pool of automation and control experts to help solve plant problems without the need for travel. These tools allow experts to institutionalize their knowledge using onsite rules based systems at the plants they service. This ability will grow in developed countries that have a shrinking pool of experienced people and in developing countries where there is a serious lack of people with knowledge, experience, and skills. Cellular phone technology continues to improve and is being used more often to implement remote monitoring since it is readily available and easy to deploy. The incorporation of cellular and SMS technology into controllers will grow to support this trend. Developments in this area will continue to leverage technologies including the Internet, cloud computing, rules based software, IP video, and audio communications.
Information Security
More advanced methods, software, and hardware will be developed to protect automation, control, and SCADA systems from cyber security attacks. Cyber Security has been under discussion for quite some time but it seems to be an issue that doesn’t come to the forefront until there are major disasters like Stuxnet and the attack on Saudi Aramco that wiped out 30,000 computer systems in August of 2012. It is likely there will be more successful attacks that will be motivators for improving industrial automation system cyber security in the future.  In my opinion the “big game” has not started yet, adversaries are just learning, poking and gather data. Looking back into history winners of classic military battles generally get good reconnaissance and probe at their opponents’ defenses before launching major attacks. Carrying the war analogy further, there are typically campaigns with many battles. Hardening of industrial Ethernet networks may well require migrating to IPV6 that incorporates a stronger security model, Internet Protocol Security (IPsec) that encrypts each IP packet of a communication session and hardware encryption method at each network connection.
Integrated Machine Design
The vision of having a complete systems approach to designing a product, machines, and production lines as a holistic process is starting to happen and will accelerate.  Software design and modeling tools are available to optimize, debug, increase yield, improve quality, and cost reduce the manufacturing process before a production line or single machine is built. Designing machines and associated automation in an integrated software design environment, using modeling and simulation, has tremendous capabilities. During the process engineers can optimize for lowest energy consumption and completely generate controller code for machine automation.  Open standards enable linking modeling software to automatically generate controller code for robots, machine tools, PLCs and other industrial controllers. The PLCopen XML interchange standard for example is being used by simulation and modeling software vendors to automatically generate controller programs. The adoption of these technologies gives companies an edge over their competition by lowering costs and risk. To fully taking advantage of this approach, the traditional silos in a company must work collaboratively.
The use of robots in a wider range of industries is accelerating with lower cost, more agile robots. “Intelligent” robots can be created by the integration of robot with a vision system incorporating recognition software. In addition, robots are becoming simpler to program including the ability for users to teach robots to perform tasks. Early last year, the International Federation of Robotics reported 2011 robot sales increased by 38%, the highest level ever recorded for one year. The most important countries of the growth were China, United States and Germany with growth rates between 39% and 51%. The two biggest markets remain Japan followed by the Republic of Korea. The automotive, food and beverage, metal and machinery industries increased robot orders above average. Robots allow manufacturers to achieve goals of increased productivity, reliability and quality. Improvements in safety, flexibility, accuracy and ease of use, coupled with lower cost, are accelerating adoption.
Ongoing Developments
Trends by definition are changing and evolving so is constantly covering the industry to provide readers with information and insights they can use to be leaders. Recognizing this is one view and opinion based on my experience and perspective, I invite readers to contact me to critique and share thoughts based on their perspectives.
What do you think?

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