Automation & Control Trends in 2016

  • February 22, 2016
  • Feature

By Bill Lydon, Editor

This article expresses my thoughts on major automation and control trends for 2016 and beyond. These opinions are based on a wide range of inputs from users, suppliers and industry consultants, and from attending over 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 other perspectives.

Internet of Things (IoT) Technology

The discussions about the impact of Internet of Things (IoT) technology on industrial automation and control are intensifying. Ongoing developments of technologies that drive the Internet of Things will lead to lower cost and higher performance industrial automation systems.  IoT-enabling technologies include high-performance low-cost processors, rugged low-cost sensors, analytic software, vision systems, cloud computing, and highly distributed system architectures. These developments are expanding the options to design lower cost and higher value industrial automation systems.

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Broader Architectural View

Industry 4.0 and other initiatives are driving change and leading to holistic, adaptive automation that integrates the manufacturing plant with other business functions, including inbound logistics, customer service, and outbound logistics. A major part of these initiatives is the application of technology to optimize the coordination of all aspects of industry, including design, supply chain, manufacturing automation, and lifecycle management. We are experiencing an evolution that will lead to more responsive and efficient ecosystems of customers, suppliers, manufacturers, and distribution logistics.

Increased manufacturing performance and flexibly requires frictionless communications and interaction between enterprise systems and manufacturing field I/O (inputs/outputs), including sensors, actuators, analyzers, drives, vision, video, and robotics. In this environment, fully open communications, data and application interchange standards are required for successful integration.

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Business Enterprise System & Industrial Automation Integration

Tighter integration of Operational Technology (OT) with Information Technology (IT) continues to grow. The value of tight integration between the plant floor and enterprise business systems is recognized for improving manufacturing efficiency, quality, and flexibility. This is the next logical step of business system integration with all systems evolving to real-time synchronized operations including PLM (Product Lifecycle Management), ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning), asset management, process optimization, manufacturing optimization, supply chain systems, quality systems, and customer service systems.

Innovative industrial automation vendors are already providing building blocks to accomplish the vision of the connected enterprise. Powerful automation controllers directly communicate with enterprise business systems using OPC UA Web services, and therefore become part of the business information loop. There are a number of industry standards being leveraged by vendors to accomplish this integration, including OPC UA, B2MML, PLCopen, and IT database interfaces.

OPC UA is the broadest major standard providing contextualized data and leveraging accepted international computing standards. This puts automation systems on a level playing field with the general computing industry to enable implementation of Digital Factory concepts to 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. PLCopen OPC UA function blocks are extensions of the IEC 61131-3 standard that encapsulates mapping of the IEC 61131-3 software model to the OPC UA information model and provides a standard way for OPC UA server-based controllers to expose data to OPC UA clients.

A development worth watching is the evolution of business enterprise systems becoming real time transaction processing systems that logically make them candidates to perform more of the industrial automation functions.

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Lean Automation Architecture

As I have forecasted in past trends articles, the evolution to streamlined 2-3 layer automation systems will increase performance and lower software maintenance costs in the future. This is a significant simplification of the five layer system model that has been typically expressed in the 5 level Purdue model. 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 and particularly using Web services like OPC UA. This trend is accelerating with computing being driven down into more capable controllers, intelligent devices and sensors and up to plant level computers.

The evolution is poised to accelerate with initiatives such as Industry 4.0, Smart Manufacturing, and the Industrial Internet of Things Consortium. The industry is seeing the benefits from early steps in this evolution. Two examples are virtualization of system software to run on single hardware platforms and eliminating plant floor computers with thin clients. Another application is synchronization of manufacturing using RFID and other auto identification methods in the production process. This identification information was traditionally read into a PLC and eventually communicated to the ERP system to coordinate production. To achieve synchronized manufacturing and accomplish track and trace, these RFID and other readers now communicate directly to the enterprise system on the standard business Ethernet network.

The trend to the lean automation architecture follows the general technology trends with high-level computing done in the cloud and more power at the edge. Consider the smart phone - a powerful computer, many times multi core - that performs a number of tasks locally but leverages the cloud and communications to achieve functions.  Examples include finding an open table in a restaurant or determining the best traffic route to drive.

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Cloud Historians

Data historians have proven their value in the process industries and now in discrete applications. However, the limiting factor has been the initial cost and ongoing lifecycle software maintenance. The use of the commercial cloud services provides an economical means for broader numbers of companies to leverage historic data and apply analytics were appropriate.

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Democratizing Analytics

Significant developments are bringing to users a new generation of cloud services and tools to create analytics. Analytic software to accomplish advanced process control (APC), optimization, and predictive analytics has typically been expensive and difficult to use. This is changing. Driven by a wide range of Internet of Things applications these cloud based-tools with refined integrated design environments provide platforms for users and industry experts to create and deploy analytics economically. These platforms significantly lower the cost of implementation broadening the range of applications where analytics can be applied. This is analogous to how spreadsheets empowered users to use computers much more effectively. In addition to improving efficiency and productivity, more analytics can substantially improve decision-making to improve and refine manufacturing processes. Examples of these new offerings include Google Analytics & Measurement Protocol, Microsoft Azure machine learning and AWS IoT (Amazon Web Services IoT).

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Smart Sensors

Plug-n-play smart sensors and control devices that use embedded intelligence have proven to provide benefits.  HART is an example of an open architecture that provides contextual data from sensors. The cost of implementing smart sensors has changed dramatically. The most recent implementation that is gaining rapid adoption is IO-Link. There are also some Ethernet sensors that communicate using industrial and other protocols that at some point may become practical in the future.

Embedded intelligence in end devices will be used to perform local analytics and optimization for systems to provide greater value. Device examples include motor controls, analytic instruments, vision cameras, and sensors.  A specific product example is Schneider Electric’s new Altivar drives that incorporate embedded functions, including HTML5 Web Server, PLC & HMI, and Embedded Power &Energy Dashboard.

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

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Cooperative Robots

More collaborative robots were introduced in 2015.  Based on discussions, vendors indicate that unit sales growth is high. These new breed of light and inexpensive robots can work cooperatively with people. The latest collaborative robots are integrating vision systems and more advanced software to provide situational awareness. These robots are priced 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. Vendors are providing a product with less power than larger offerings, but they add 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), in its 2015 World Robot Statistics report, noted that in 2014 robot sales increased by 29%. This represents the highest level ever recorded for one year and growth in all industries.

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Wireless Cost Breakthroughs

IoT developments and products may be the driving factor that lowers the cost of wireless sensors.  Cost has been limiting the number of applications deployed. 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. 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 that Bluetooth sensors are being used in some industrial applications. Bluetooth is a technology widely deployed in commercial applications and is now low cost and reliable. A recently published report by ON World finds that annual shipments of wireless chipsets used for sensing and control applications will approach half a billion this year.  This growth is due to plummeting component costs, open source software, developer platform advancements and growing demand for Internet of Things (IoT) technologies.

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Panel Free Installation

Panel free installation continues to grow in Europe and is gaining adoption in the United States. The goal is to achieve significant cost savings by eliminating control cabinets and simplifying wiring using IP67 and IP20 connections. European automation and control suppliers are leading this trend by offering controllers, drives, servos, valves, and HMI devices that do not require a panel.

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Bottom Line - Competitive Risk/Opportunity

As these automation and control trends evolve, users and automation suppliers will experience 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 are stable and before competitors use them to be more responsive and efficient in the marketplace. The challenge with major shifts in technology is to determine what is valuable and when to invest. Companies that embrace transformational changes as an opportunity will outpace their competition and thrive.

Our goal is to provide you with the information and analysis to make informed decisions to improve productivity and efficiency. We attend a wide range of industry events, study the technology, and interview automation industry experts and vendors. If you have questions about industry happenings or would like to know more, please feel free to contact me anytime at [email protected].

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