Automation & Control Trends in 2015

  • February 01, 2015
  • Feature

By Bill Lydon, Editor

This is an update to previous automation and control trends articles and expresses my thoughts for 2015 and beyond. These opinions are based on a wide range of inputs from users, suppliers and industry consultants, and from attending more than 20 industry forums, conferences and trade shows last year. My 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 ([email protected]) to critique and share thoughts based on their perspectives.

Big Picture - Lean Automation System Architecture

As I have forecast in past trends articles, 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

In the new model, controllers/devices communicate information to all levels directly from level 0 and 1 to level 4 and 5 using the appropriate protocols and particularly using WEB services with a major focus on OPC UA.

This trend is developing because computing is being driven down into more capable controllers, intelligent devices and sensors and up to plant level computers. It is poised to accelerate with initiatives such as Industry 4.0, OPC UA, and the Industrial Internet of Things Consortium.

This is going to take time to develop as old and new system concepts clash but will accelerate with new innovative products.

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Enterprise Automation

The value of tight integration between the plant floor and enterprise business systems as a way to improve manufacturing is becoming clear. In the scheme of business evolution, this is the next logical step of integration. Enterprise business systems (ERP, etc.) systems have traditionally used a batch architecture that do not reflect what is happening real-time in manufacturing until the system is “backflushed” to update information. This creates numerous problems that impact quality, supply chain, and customer service. This disconnect is a draw on profits. The role of automation systems will change as enterprise business systems evolve to real-time transaction processing, which will result in highly synchronized operations. Some vendors are already accomplishing this with automation controllers that directly communicate using OPC UA with enterprise business systems. There are a number of industry standards that are being leveraged to accomplish this, including OPC, OPC UA, B2MML, ERP interfaces, and IT database interfaces.

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Increased efficiency is achieved as enterprise business and automation systems interchange real-time transaction information.

Big Data, Analytics, Optimization; Cloud

Big data will be leveraged to analyze and optimize automation processes and improve productivity and efficiency. The amount of data in automation systems has been exploding because we are monitoring a greater number of real-time data providers. Tools to analyze these large big data sets are emerging from the Internet and IT industry. Predictive maintenance is a good example of analytics being 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. Furthermore, sophisticated analytics can substantially improve decision-making to improve and refine manufacturing processes. More powerful automation controllers and embedded intelligence in motor controls, analytic instruments, vision cameras, and sensors will be used to perform local analytics and optimization.

Cloud computing is providing a resource to do more at a lower cost without being a database “guru.” The ability to use analytics tools as a cloud service is an exciting opportunity. Early offerings include Google Analytics & Measurement Protocol and Microsoft AZURE Machine Learning.

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Cloud analytics is a game changer for predictive maintenance and improving production efficiency.


OPC UA is advancing as a major communication standard that leverages accepted international computing standards. OPC UA puts automation systems on a level playing field with the general computing industry and enables the implementation of Digital Factory concepts and increased production efficiency. OPC UA technology provides an efficient and secure infrastructure for communications from sensor to business enterprise for all automation systems in manufacturing, SCADA, and process control. PLCopen OPC UA function blocks, introduced in April 2014, are extensions of the IEC 61131-3 standard that encapsulate mapping of the IEC 61131-3 software model to the OPC UA information model. The extensions provide a standard way for OPC UA server-based controllers to expose data to OPC UA clients.

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OPC UA is the only open standard for frictionless communications built on accepted computer industry standards; linking industrial software, controllers and sensors directly to enterprise business systems.

Internet of Things

Since last year, the Internet of Things (IoT) developments and application in other industries has accelerated. There is a great deal of value promise and hype about how this will benefit industrial automation. Initiatives including Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet are influencing the thinking that is driving this change. The new, high level of communications and computing at end devices is opening the possibilities for holistic and adaptive automation with the goal of increasing efficiency. This is a logical evolution in step with the Internet of Things (IoT) trend and will lead to more responsive and efficient production. The goal of the IoT is to provide frictionless communications and interaction from manufacturing field I/O (inputs/outputs) including sensors, actuators, analyzers, drives, vision, video, and robotics, to achieve increased manufacturing performance and flexibly. This revolution will drive intelligence to the edge with the ultimate goal of all industrial devices supporting IP, including field I/O.

There are some interesting things happening, including network infrastructure companies like CISCO adding application processors in Ethernet switches that could host analytics and automation controllers.

There is a great deal of hype and spin about the Internet of Things that over time will settle down and provide clarity.

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Cooperative Robots

There is a new breed of light and inexpensive robots that can work cooperatively with people. These robots are priced significantly less than $40,000, making them applicable for a very large number of applications. This breed of robots is following a same pattern that ignited the personal computer revolution - providing a product with less power than larger offerings that adds value for a broader number of users. The rate of robot adoption is accelerating. Particularly interesting is China is now the second largest purchaser of robots in the world. The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) said in its 2014 World Robot Statistics report forecasts by 2017 more industrial robots will be operating in China's production plants than in the European Union or North America.

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Integrated Automation Design

There is progress on completing the vision of a holistic systems approach to designing a product, machines, and production lines, including automatic control code generation. This is not moving as fast as I originally thought, but progress in being made. A key component is simulation software that is becoming lower cost and easier to use. Fully leveraging these new technologies will require an organizational shift to break down traditional silos in a company and work collaboratively. An open mind is required to embrace change, innovate, and leverage these technologies. The big gains are using software to perform product and manufacturing design, including automation, and using simulation of operations before committing investment to physical installation. Simulation allows product designers, manufacturing engineers, and automation engineers to collaborate and make changes that improve production efficiency, quality, and profits.

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The installation of wireless points is still in its infancy if you consider that it is only a fraction of hardwired devices being installed today. Wireless devices are increasingly being used but there are two strong headwinds. One, the price of wireless devices is high, limiting the number of applications; and two, there are cyber security concerns with wireless implementations.

The prominent industrial wireless standards today include ISA100.11, IEC62591 (WirelessHART), IEC62601 (WIA-PA developed in China), ZigBee, 802.11 and many proprietary wireless devices.

It is interesting to note that I have seen 802.11 and Bluetooth sensors being used in industrial applications. Both these technologies have lower prices and richer ecosystems due to high volume consumption.

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Remote Monitoring

Remote monitoring continues to grow with improved and refined hardware and software tools. The shrinking pool of automation and control experts has forced companies to consider remote monitoring. It allows experts to solve plant problems without the need for travel, and institutionalize their knowledge using onsite rules-based systems. 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, is readily available and easy to deploy. As a result, cellular is used more often to implement remote monitoring. 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.

Cellular headsets with built-in video cameras are enabling experts to remotely look over the shoulder of local site people and guide them in real-time to solve problems.

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Panel Free Installation

Panel free installation appears to be growing in Europe with the goal of eliminating control cabinets and simplify wiring. Using IP67 and IP20 connections, companies can eliminate the need to mount devices in control cabinets. European automation and control suppliers are leading this trend to reduce cost, simplify installation and lower maintenance labor. Available products include controllers, drives, servos, valves, and HMI devices.

Smart I/O

Intelligent sensors and control devices that are “plug-n-play” without the need for external software may become a reality in the next few years. The IO-Link standard seems to be gaining early adoption for plug-n-play and panel free connection of devices to systems. On April 7, 2014, at the Hannover Messe, ODVA formally announced the DeviceNet of Things Special Interest Group (SIG). The goal is to extend DeviceNet to more types of devices using IP 20 connectors and provide an alternative to IO-Link and ASi. At this point, it is unclear if this also has the goal of plug-n-play without external software.

IoT developments may provide some building blocks to accomplish plug-n-play without external software.

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Bottom Line - Competitive Risk/Opportunity

As these automation and control trends evolve, users and automation suppliers have risk and opportunity. The first risk is adopting these technologies before they are proven and suffering through growing pains. The second risk is not adopting them when they become stable, and before competitors use them to be more responsive and efficient in the marketplace. Companies that embrace transformational changes will have an opportunity to outpace their competition and thrive. 

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