Bill's Top 10 Automation & Control Trends for 2017 - Convergence, Divergence, or Chaos?

  • February 06, 2017
  • Feature
Bill's Top 10 Automation & Control Trends for 2017 - Convergence, Divergence, or Chaos?
Bill's Top 10 Automation & Control Trends for 2017 - Convergence, Divergence, or Chaos?

By Bill Lydon, Editor,

2016 was an exciting year of innovation and exploration in industrial automation. While the calendar year has now changed, the buzz throughout the industry has not. Major control industry suppliers are refining their longstanding offerings with the new technologies and, more importantly, nontraditional suppliers are entering the fray, leveraging the technological and IoT advancements to introduce new and different products. All this cutting-edge development further fuels the excitement, but also begs a relevant question:

Will these developments lead to convergence, divergence, and/or chaos in 2017 and beyond?

I’ve been involved in this industry for years, as both a designer and applier of automation and controls in the field, and I still don’t know what the future will hold. Still, after a busy 2016 talking to a wide range of  users, suppliers and industry consultants, while attending over 20 industry conferences and related events, I have many educated insights on the trends that will shape automation in 2017.  This article will discuss ten of the most influential trends that I see playing a prominent role in the industry this year.  I invite everyone share their own thoughts, criticisms and perspectives on this exciting time for automation.

1. Internet of Things (IoT) Technology Will Cut Automation Costs

The discussions surrounding Internet of Things (IoT) concepts, and the technology impacting the industry, are becoming more intense. The ongoing developments of technology and products is driving the Internet of Things with connected innovations including higher-performance processors, sensors, analytic software, vision systems, cloud computing, new communications (wireless & protocols) and highly distributed system architectures, among many other products. This, logically, should lead to lower cost and higher performance industrial automation systems, and will continue to expand the options to design lower cost and higher value products to benefit the industry. 

There are already powerful developments on the way. Take, for example, Intel’s new modular compute platform. Called the Intel Compute Card, the platform has all the elements of a full computer, including Intel SoC, memory, storage and wireless connectivity with flexible I/O options.  Device makers simply design a standard Intel Compute Card slot into their device and then utilize the best Intel Compute Card for their performance and price needs. The Intel Compute Card will be available in mid-2017 and will come with a range of processors options, including the latest 7th Gen Intel Core processors.

Intel Compute Card is a complete computer with a footprint of 55mm X 95 mm.

2. Leaner & Flatter Architecture Will Come to Automation

As I have forecasted in past trends articles, the evolution to streamlined 2-3 layer automation systems is starting to occur, increasing performance and lowering future software maintenance costs. This is a significant simplification of the five layer system model (typically expressed in the 5 level Purdue model) that the automation industry has been centered on for years. In the new model, controllers communicate information to all levels directly from level 0/1 to level 4/5 using the appropriate protocols and particularly using WEB services.  This trend is accelerating, with computing being driven down into more capable controllers, intelligent devices & sensors, and driven up to plant level computers and cloud hosted applications.   This progression towards lean automation architecture follows general technology trends, seeing high-level computing done in the cloud and enabling more power at the edge. Consider the smart phone -a powerful computer and many times multi-core -- which performs a number of tasks locally but leverages the cloud and communications for functions such as finding an open table in a restaurant or determining the best traffic route to drive.

3. Open Industrial Automation Architectures Will Simplify Integration

2016 saw the emergence of open industrial system architectures, with key themes centering on computing at the edge, multivendor interoperable open systems, and tight integration with business systems. Older industrial automation architectures are currently not completely open but have communities of gated ecosystems, which presents an obstacle for multi-vendor integration. This new ‘open’ way of thinking, along with the application of advanced technology, is intended to create more responsive, efficient, and flexible manufacturing that tightly integrate ecosystems of customers, suppliers, manufacturers, and distribution logistics.  Achieving these goals requires frictionless communications and interaction between enterprise systems, manufacturing field I/O (inputs/outputs) including sensors, actuators, analyzers, drives, vision, video, and robotics to achieve increased manufacturing performance and flexibly.  Creating superior integrated industrial automation systems in this environment requires fully open source communications, contextual data definitions & frameworks, and application interchange standards. These are some of the prominent recent initiatives:

Industry 4.0

Driving change with the goal of creating holistic and adaptive automation system architectures, Industry 4.0 is influencing thinking which advocates integrating the manufacturing plant with other business functions including inbound logistics, customer service, and outbound logistics.  A driving force behind the development of Industry 4.0 is the realization that pursuing low labor rates is no longer a winning strategy. Remaining competitive and flexible can only be accomplished by leveraging the advanced technologies, centering on automation to enable a successful transition.  Germany’s Industry 4.0 initiative has ignited worldwide cooperative efforts including: Made in China 2025, Japan’s Industrial Value Chain Initiative, and Make in India,

Industry 4.0 for Process

The application of Industry 4.0 concepts to improve process automation is an effort being driven by NAMUR and VDI/VDE in collaboration with several prominent leaders in the industry, including: ABB, BASF, Bayer Technology Services, Bilfinger Maintenance, Endress+Hauser, Evonik, Festo, Krohne, Lanxess, Siemens, and Fraunhofer ICT. The concepts are expressed in  NAMUR’s Process Sensor 4.0 Roadmap, published in 2015. This roadmap describes smart-networked sensors as a foundational part of the Industry 4.0 process architecture.  These sensors will communicate with controls, and automation systems with even the capability to talk directly with business systems as well.

The Open Group, the Open Process Automation Forum

The Open Group’s Open Process Automation Forum, formally launched November, 2016, is focused on developing a multivendor standards-based, open, secure, interoperable process control architecture.  The organization is made up of users, suppliers, and other industry participants.

4. Vendors Must Embrace Portable Applications

One of the most challenging issues facing the automation industry, is the lack of multivendor portability of applications and this must change.  The drivers behind open automation architecture initiatives recognize that without open ecosystems, providing portable applications between vendor platforms, innovation is stifled.   On outdated technology, applications created for a specific vendor’s controller cannot typically run on another vendor’s controller without spending unproductive hours rewriting them.  Don Bartusiak, Chief Engineer at ExxonMobil Research & Engineering uses this analogy: Think of having to rewrite all your documents, spreadsheets, and presentations every time bought a computer from a different vendor. In today’s connected industry, non-portable applications represent an inexcusable waste of time and resources.

The IEC-61131-3 standard, along with PLCopen standards, provide two basic frameworks for supported, multi-vendor portable applications. The most basic level for this is the interchange of Structured Text programs between controllers. The most up-to-date method is using the PLCopen XML Interchange standard.  Yet, going into 2017, the challenge remains getting vendors to adopt these interchange standards.

 PLCopen Certifications for Vendor Products are listed on the PLCopen website:

Vendors need to enthusiastically embrace either these standards, or another new industrial control application open architecture interchange and reusability standard, or computer industry solutions will fill the void and traditional suppliers will suffer. Nontraditional suppliers are already demonstrating and selling products that are programmed with IoT software. One such example, Node-Red open source visual programming, is already being used by vendors for data acquisition and control on a number of platforms including Raspberry Pi.

5. Operational Technology (OT) & Information Technology (IT) Merge

The progressively tightening integration of Operational Technology (OT) and Information Technology (IT) continues to grow, as business systems are evolving to handle real-time transaction processing, satisfying requirements for real-time synchronized manufacturing operations.  Innovative vendors are already providing building blocks designed to accomplish the vision of the connected enterprise. 2016 saw several new, powerful automation controllers, which directly communicate with enterprise business systems using OPC UA Web services and other IoT transport mechanisms, that are already becoming part of the business information loop.  There are a number of industry standards that are being leveraged to accomplish this including OPC UA, B2MML, PLCopen OPC UA, and IT database interfaces.  These functional changes may minimize the need to have Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) in many applications

Further, there is the new breed of today’s system integrator. These integrators, with both IT and OT knowledge, experience, and knowhow helping companies converge IT and OT, are assisting customers in creating solutions by generating ideas, defining business challenges, assessing risk and identifying gaps in business process or technology capabilities.  They are capable of designing, testing, and implementing systems to deliver the results using the latest IT and OT concepts and technology.

6. Edge Devices Will Flourish

The rapid rise of Internet of Things concepts and technologies, including high power/low cost processing and communications technologies, is enabling new intelligent nodes, which operate at the network edge to improve manufacturing performance and efficiency.  This will be a growing trend. Some tangible examples of these edge devices include:

ABB Motor Monitor

ABB has developed a compact sensor that is attached to the frame of low voltage induction motors without wiring.  Using on-board algorithms, the smart sensor relays information about the motor’s health (via a smartphone and over the internet) to a secure server in order to deploy intelligent services.

Emerson Rosemount Wireless Steam Trap Monitors

Emerson’s Rosemount 708 Wireless Trap Monitor is mounted externally using ultrasonic acoustic event detection, and provides visibility into steam traps and pressure relieve valves (PRVs) by accurately communicating acoustic level and temperature data. Further, the monitor transmits device data, event status and leak detection via the WirelessHART®network.

Bosch XDK110

The Bosch XDK110 wireless sensor device enables rapid prototyping of sensor-based products and applications for the Internet of Things (IoT).  The unit measures 40mm X 60 mm and features 32-Bit microcontroller (ARM Cortex M3), 1MB Flash, 128 kB RAM, sensors, Bluetooth 4.0 low energy IEEE 802.15.1, Wireless LAN IEEE 802.11b/g/n, internal Li-Ion rechargeable battery and integrated antennas.  Sensors built-in include: accelerometers, gyroscopes, magnetometers, inertial measurements, humidity, pressure, temperature, acoustic noise sensors, and digital light sensors.


The Harting Technology Group’s edge computing device, the MICA (Modular Industry Computing Architecture), is a platform designed to run edge applications.  A modular IP67 fan less industrial computer hardware with hardened electronics, high EMC ratings and industrial-grade connectors, the MICA is packaged in a compact enclosure that protects against dust, oils, splashes, shocks and vibration.   MICA features a 1 GHz ARM processor, 1GB of RAM and 4 GB eMMC flash memory (additionally up to 32GB on a micro-SD card). Programs run in Linux containers that provide virtualization of applications.

Mazak Corporation’s SmartBox

Machine tool manufacturer Mazak recently introduced their SmartBox, built with Cisco hardware and software, to perform machine analytics.  This unit collects sensor data, synthesizes information within a local fog application, and performs real-time analysis for process optimization and predictive maintenance.  The unit communicates data to other equipment and enterprise systems to accomplish plant level analytics using the MTConnect open standard.

7. Democratizing Analytics and Edge/Cloud Historians Boost Big Data

Driven by a wide range of IoT implementations, outside of industrial automation, significant developments have brought users a new generation of cloud services and tools to create analytics. Previously, much of the software used to accomplish advanced process control (APC), optimization, and predictive analytics has been difficult to use and expensive, but 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 economical analytics.  These platforms significantly lower the cost of implementation and help broaden the range of applications where analytics can be applied, very similar to how Excel spreadsheets empowered users to use computers more effectively. In addition to improving efficiency and productivity, more analytics can substantially better inform decision-making in order 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).

Data historians have proven their value in the process industries, and now in discrete applications as well, but the biggest limiting factors have been the initial costs and ongoing lifecycle software maintenance. Yet, the use of the commercial cloud services is providing an economical means for many companies to leverage historic data and apply analytics where appropriate.  I have talked with a number of major users that are collecting plant data, using OPC, OPC UA, and other gateways, and are delivering the data to standard cloud applications from providers such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure cloud services.  They are finding this approach efficient and highly flexible.

8. Smart Sensors Will Be Everywhere

“Plug and play” smart sensors and control devices, which use embedded intelligence and do not require external software, have been proven to provide benefits (HART being a recent open architecture example) by providing increasing amounts of contextual data. The cost of implementing smart sensors has dropped dramatically, with most recent IO-Link addition that is gaining rapid adoption.  There are also Ethernet sensors, that communicate using industrial and related protocols, which provide data for automation and communicate directly with business systems. Interestingly, I have been seeing Bluetooth sensors, typically found in commercial applications, being used in industrial applications, as well.

In November, Endress+Hauser introduced the FMR10 and FMR20 free space radar level transmitters to measure liquid levels in storage tanks, open basins, open channels, weirs and canal systems. The FMR10 has a 4-20mA output and comes standard with Bluetooth for configuration. The SmartBlue App that runs on any Bluetooth enabled smartphone or tablet (iOS, Android) will provide secure communications with the transmitter in order to configure or view envelope curves. The encrypted and password-protected Bluetooth wireless connection allows operators to monitor the sensor’s output and perform configurations in hazardous or unsafe locations without exposing personnel to dangerous conditions.

9. Wireless Networks Will Be the (Cheaper) Standard 

IoT developments like these may also be the driving factor that lowers the cost of wireless sensors, which had been limiting the number of applications deployed. The installation of wireless points is still in its infancy, considering that they are still dwarfed by the number of hardwired devices being installed today.  The prominent industrial wireless standards today include ISA100.11, IEC62591 (WirelessHART), IEC62601 (WIA-PA developed in China), ZigBee, and 802.11.

10. Collaborative Robots Will Become More Affordable

The number of collaborative robots exploded in 2016, as it has in multiple years before last, and my discussions with vendors indicate unit sales growth is high.  These new breeds of light and inexpensive robots are designed to work cooperatively with people and integrate vision systems along with advanced software to provide situational awareness.  These robots have average prices which have dropped significantly under $40,000, making them suitable for a much very larger number of applications.  This breed of robots is following a similar pattern that ignited the personal computer revolution - providing a product with less power than larger offerings, but adds value for a broader number of users.  The rate of robot adoption is accelerating throughout the world, which has been particularly interesting as China is now the largest purchaser of robots in the world.    

The worldwide number of domestic household robots is forecasted to be 31 million between 2016 and 2019. These forecasts are takes from the 2016 World Robotics Report, "Service Robots", published by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR).  This should drive the price of robots lower with increased unit volume.

Bill's Bottom Line - Big Competitive Risk. Bigger Opportunity

As these automation and control trends evolve, users and automation suppliers are faced with both risk and opportunity. The first risk is adopting these technologies before they are proven and suffering through the resulting growing pains. This is a significant challenge for businessnes, but less dire than the second. By not adopting these automation trends and technologies at the point of stability, companies are at risk of the Blockbuster effect- where competitors use technology to be more responsive and efficient to their consumers’ needs, taking business away or even crippling from your company in the marketplace.  The challenge with these major shifts in technology is that it is difficult to determine what is valuable and when to invest. Companies that are able to embrace these transformational changes will outpace their competition and thrive.

Our goal at is to provide you with the information and analysis you need to make informed decisions that will best maximize your company’s productivity and efficiency. We are constantly attending a wide range of industry events, studying the technology, and interviewing experts and vendors from across the automation industry. If you have questions about the latest happenings in the industry, or would like to know more about trend or technology that we discuss here, or if you simply want to share your different perspective on the industry, please feel free to contact me anytime or follow me on Twitter.


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