Is Industrial Automation evolving to IT?

  • August 01, 2014
  • Feature

By Bill Lydon, Editor

Industry 4.0, Internet of Things (IoT), Industrial Internet, Industrial Internet Protocol (IP) all relate to the modernization and improvement of industrial automation. Is industrial automation evolving to become an integral part of enterprise computing, also referred to as IT?


The basic concept of these terms is the integration of the real world with computing systems to improve responsiveness and efficiency. Accomplishing this integration is the vision of a massively instrumented world of intelligent sensors and actuators communicating using IP.

The overall goal for manufacturing in leveraging this concept is seamlessly linking the plant floor to enterprise and supply chain.  This linking would achieve superior responsiveness and efficiency in the manufacturing process.


Industrial automation has a history of adopting commercial technology as it becomes broadly available. There is a flood of new integrated devices and solutions coming on the market. For example, tablet computers with Wi-Fi are being broadly used to improve operations and maintenance efficiency. Other core technologies from the computer industry support the IoT concepts.  These include powerful embedded microprocessors with integrated IP communications, big data, analytics, open communication standards, open data interchange standards, and highly reliable/self-healing networks.

IoT hardware with CPU, power and communications

For example, Intel Edison is a dual-core Intel Quark CPU @ 400 MHz. In an SD card form factor, it supports Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and more than 30 industry-standard I/O interfaces via a 70-pin connector.

These new technology building blocks are being used to sense and optimize control. Using big data and analytics, systems can accomplish advanced levels of optimization and efficiency. Applications include health care, traffic control, vehicle safety, energy, agriculture, and manufacturing. These new main stream technologies and IoT concepts can be applied to improve manufacturing performance and enable better integration with business systems.

Open Systems

Since IP is the primary protocol, the building blocks inherently support open standards, resulting in a wide range of hardware and software available. This is in contrast to industrial automation systems that are still relatively closed architectures. For example, the industrial world does not have large ecosystems for applications, like Apple and Android. OPC UA is the only open industrial standard that is compatible with the general computing industry web services infrastructure.

Highly Distributed Control & Automation

The IoT developments are enabling manufacturers to build of highly distributed systems that are more responsive and reliable. The IP-enabled manufacturing automation architecture will distribute more functions into new breeds of powerful industrial controllers and sensors/actuators using embedded processors. This coupled with big data analytics allow overall optimization and synchronization of manufacturing and processes with business systems and supply chains.

Is Industrial Automation evolving to IT?

Some industry professionals are calling the application of these new concepts and technologies the 4th industrial revolution – a revolution that changes manufacturing business models. IoT will streamline, collapse, and create system architectures that are more affordable, responsive, and effective. In this new architecture, cumbersome middleware software melts away. Controllers become powerful automation computers. There is frictionless communications with enterprise systems based on open standards. Real-time control is driven down to processors in highly distributed controllers, sensors, and actuators. These devices communicate directly with enterprise business systems over open wired and wireless (Wi-Fi) Ethernet.

Intense changes are coming.

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