Forces Driving Innovation in Industrial Automation

  • February 26, 2016
  • Feature

By Bill Lydon, Editor

Since the beginning of 2016, I have been thinking about where the automation industry used to be and the forces that will be shaping it in the future.

Past Innovations

Over the years there have been only a handful of truly disruptive industrial automation and control technological shifts that significantly impacted manufacturing productivity and efficiency. Those technologies include:

  • Fundamental Control - Pneumatic PID control, Direct Digital Control (DDC)
  • Numerical Control
  • Distributed Control System (DCS)
  • Programmable Logic Controllers (PLC)
  • Microsoft Windows HMI’s/Historians/MES
  • Fieldbus Networks (i.e. Modbus, Profibus; DeviceNet)

During each technology shift, there was typically resistance by traditional suppliers to adopt new technologies. The shift to use Microsoft Windows on the plant floor illustrates this point. Wide adoption of Microsoft Windows to replace proprietary operating systems had a significant impact on the industry. The first versions of Windows were released in the late 1980s. Traditional automation vendors resisted the use of Microsoft Windows for a wide range of reasons. It was the early adopter startup Wonderware that used Windows to create the modern HMI. Wonderware was founded in 1987 based on co-founder Dennis Morin’s vision of Windows-based Human Machine Interfaces (HMI). His vision was inspired by an early 1980s video game that allowed players to digitally construct a pinball game. His idea was that operators monitoring factory operations would be more productive if they used a machine that was fun and easy to use. Automation users found Wonderware to be significantly more effective than any other offering on the market. Over time all major industrial automation suppliers adopted Microsoft Windows to satisfy user demand.

Internet of Things (IoT)

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

Based on the past technology adoption pattern it will take time for traditional industrial automation suppliers to incorporate these technologies into their products. The first rationale in justifying adoption of new technologies is to be sure they are reliable and this is certainly a factor. After new technologies become stable there are internal forces at suppliers that inhibit adoption including fear of undercutting current sales volumes and profits. As noted before there is a long history where it has taken time for suppliers to broadly adopt new technology including the shift to PLCs, DDC (direct digital control ), DCS (Distributed Control Systems), fieldbus networks (i.e. Modbus, DeviceNet, Profibus, HART), Microsoft Windows, and more recently Ethernet. The availability of IoT technologies enables new innovative industrial control and automation products to be developed and commercialized by innovative companies. Users will decide if these provide enough value to abandon traditional approaches.

The growth of more powerful IoT technology at lower costs is explained by Moore’s Law and the Experience Curve. Gordon E. Moore, the co-founder of Intel and Fairchild Semiconductor, coined Moore's law.  The law has been accurate at predicting the number of transistors in a given integrated circuit size doubles approximately every two years thereby increasing processing power and speed. A semiconductor industry executive explained to me years ago that once an integrated circuit production process for higher density chips is running at full capacity, the cost of production for the same size chip is essentially equal even though the chip is more powerful. Microprocessors and memory chips are the best examples of this.

Couple this law with the Experience Curve popularized by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) which states every time production of a product doubles, the production cost decreases 10% to 25%. The Consumer Technology Association (CTA) latest semi-annual industry report, U.S. Consumer Technology Sales and Forecasts, illustrates these points with the following projections for 2016 sales products:

  • Smart TVs - 27 million units
  • Streaming media players - 15.8 million units
  • Bluetooth/Airplay-capable speakers - 17.4 million units
  • Wireless headphones - 3.9 million units
  • Smartphones - 183 million units
  • Tablets computers - 60 million
  • Laptops - 27.6 million units

Forcing Factor - Operational Technology (OT) & Information Technology (IT) 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. It is refreshing to see innovative industrial automation suppliers that are already providing building blocks to accomplish the vision of the connected enterprise. Now powerful automation controllers directly communicate using OPC UA Web services with enterprise business systems. Automation is becoming part of the business information loop.

There are a number of industry standards that are being leveraged to accomplish integration, including Web services standards, OPC UA, B2MML, PLCopen, and IT database interfaces. OPC UA is the broadest major standard providing contextualized data and leveraging accepted international computing standards. The standard puts automation systems on a level playing field with the general computing industry to enable 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. 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. The function blocks provide a standard way for OPC UA server-based controllers to expose data to OPC UA clients.

Industrial Automation Architecture

Achieving the goal of advancing automation requires frictionless communications and interaction between enterprise systems and manufacturing field I/O (inputs/outputs like sensors, actuators, analyzers, drives, vision, video, and robotics). In this environment, fully open communications and data interchange standards are required for successful integration and many of these initiatives are leveraging standards. Based on demonstrations and applications, this revolution is driving intelligence into edge devices like sensors, actuators, analyzers, drives, vision, video, and robotics. This revolution is parallel to the trend in general computing. For example, CISCO offers application processors in Ethernet switches to host edge applications, including analytics and potentially automation controllers.

Related Articles:


Did you enjoy this great article?

Check out our free e-newsletters to read more great articles..