Industrial Automation Absorbed by IT (Information Technology)?

  • February 01, 2016
  • Feature

Bill Lydon’s Automation Perspective

By Bill Lydon, Editor

“Industrial Automation Absorbed by IT,” may be the future headline if the industrial automation community does not make a commitment to multivendor, open-interoperability, and Internet of Things (IoT) technology. Effective IIoT implementations in manufacturing require open communications and interoperability standards for all edge devices, including sensors, actuators, motor starters, and other field devices. The alternative is Information Technology standards will drive down to enable synchronized, make-to-order manufacturing and other more efficient production methods. One of the factors changing the architecture of industrial manufacturing systems is newer real-time enterprise business system. Business systems already encompass factory floor edge devices including RFID, bar code, thin clients, and video. Real-time business system connected enterprise architecture may well make it into the plant floor all the way to control and automation edge devices.

If this comes to pass it may not be the optimal solution for industrial automation effectiveness.

Industrial Automation Way Behind

Compared to the information technology, industrial automation architectures and products significantly lag in the adoption and implementation of meaningful new technology and open interoperability standards.

IT Expanding Scope

Early in my career when I worked at a large company, the data processing department was the group that provided information and on-demand reports for other departments. Over time the role of information technology organizations expanded dramatically with software applications including MRP (Material Resource Planning), ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning), BI (Business Intelligence), CRM(Customer Relationship Management), MES (Manufacturing Execution Systems ), SCM (Supply chain management), MOM (Manufacturing Operations Management), EQMS (Enterprise Quality Management Software), BPM (Business Process Management), and PLM (Product Lifecycle Management.)

The corporate IT function and the role of the CIO (Chief Information Officer) have become a key part of the corporate management team and they are recognized for strategic importance at the board room level. Companies have been evolving with the emergence of CIO’s who are business savvy and understand the role of the IT department. One of the CIO’s jobs is to leverage technology to achieve higher levels of productivity and efficiency to increase profits.

I have observed companies where the CIO has been is given responsibility for manufacturing automation. This generally means that the industrial automation group becomes part of the IT group. A better model is cooperation between IT and industrial automation groups to achieve corporate goals. Having an industrial automation executive at the same level as the CIO would provide a better balance and corporate focus on manufacturing automation.

Manufacturing Company Winners & Losers

I believe that the application of industrial automation technology is fundamental for manufacturing competiveness. Low-cost labor is no longer a winning strategy. Companies must use automation as a competitive weapon and leverage the latest technology to maintain success.

Locked in the past…

Manufacturing companies that are locked into system architectures that are not aggressively leveraging the latest open technology and IoT interoperability standards are increasing their risk of failure. It has been proven over the years that the application of new technology can significantly change an industry; if manufacturing managers misread the issues in either direction the consequences can be devastating. For example, the early adoption of robotics by Asian countries created a huge advantage in their manufacturing competitiveness.

Velvet Rut

It is comfortable to hold onto the past with industrial automation vendors that claim to have a future-proof architecture, and they promise to incorporate new technologies when they become relevant in the future. This logic is faulty when there are structural architectural and technology changes. This reminds me of the days when long dead mainframe companies denied that open communications networks and PCs would change the industry. Data processing departments that stayed with these diminished or long-gone vendors became significantly less effective.

Bright Spots

There are a number of industry initiatives to modernize the manufacturing industry, including Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute, Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition, and German Engineering Federation (VDMA) Industry 4.0. The most cohesive and encompassing initiative is Industry 4.0. Industry 4.0 creates a new architectural view of manufacturing that addresses the application of new technology to increase efficiency and responsiveness in all aspects of manufacturing, including supply chain, product lifecycle management (PLM), industrial automation, machine design, mechatronics, and smart sensors.


Progressive vendors, particularly in Europe and Asia, have and will continue to introduce new innovative smart sensors, drives, and related products that embrace embedded automation and open interoperability standards.  These vendors are embedding OPC UA, FDT, IEC 61131-3, and PLCopen standards in edge devices.

In order to be more effective, companies need to change rigid silos into agile and flexible ecosystems.

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