Major Automation & Control Trends 2011

Major Automation & Control Trends 2011

 
By Bill Lydon - Editor, January 2011
 
I am taking a risk at the beginning of the year to provide my thoughts on automation and control industry trends.  I invite readers to contact me and share any other trends or expand on the trends listed below. This is a snapshot of some trends I am seeing in the automation industry.
 
Ethernet
 
The two dominant growing communication types for industrial automation systems are standard TCP/IP Ethernet and a number of industrial network protocol standards on Ethernet.  The TCP/IP Ethernet IT network has become the workhorse bridging information between automation and business systems. Industrial protocols had converged to a few mainstream protocols for sensor/actuator networks, with the dominant being Modbus, DeviceNet and Profibus. The growth of Ethernet communications at the controller level has seen an increase in the number of protocols for industrial automation including EtherNet/IP, PROFINET, EtherCAT, SERCOS III, Modbus TCP/IP, POWERLINK, IEC 61850, Foundation Fieldbus High Speed Ethernet (HSE), and CC-Link IE. The biggest issue will be how far up the architecture will industrial Ethernet protocols be accepted for business systems.
 
Information Leverage
 
Systems monitor a wider number of real-time data and the industry has been finding ways to refine that data into useful information for improving operations and identifying problems before they occur. Accelerators for this trend are more powerful low cost computers, wireless sensors, and analytical software. The lower cost of computing power has enabled the use of sophisticated analytical software for operations improvement. This has opened the door for companies to find more ways to use analytics to improve efficiencies. Predictive maintenance is a fast-growing area of analytics that is used to predict problems before they create problems, avoiding interruptions in production. In addition to lowering downtime this also maximizes the use of skilled maintenance people who are in short supply.
 
Information Synergy
 
Automation people are learning how to go beyond simply providing IT-based business systems with information to collaborating and creating new ways to improve operation and efficiencies.
 
Retrofit & Upgrade
 
In the U.S. and Europe, manufacturers are more likely to keep existing systems and add newer features and functions to conserve capital.   Other new and growing markets are installing new systems.
 
Remote Monitoring
 
Today’s systems have the ability to support powerful remote monitoring which allows experts to help solve plant problems without the need for travel. This ability will grow in importance because of a shrinking pool of experienced people and growth in developing countries.
 
Mobile Operator Devices
 
Mobile devices have decreased in cost dramatically and allow operators to mange multiple machines while moving around a plant. This ability includes the use of Smartphones, tablet computers, netbooks, and notebook computers. There is growing use of integrated video in these devices that enables the person in the plant to consult with experts and “show” problems in real-time.
 
Virtualization
 
Virtual machines allow sharing of hardware resources which allows multiple applications and operating systems to run on a server. Virtualization is simplifying support, increasing reliability, and improving performance of systems. Consolidating automation software from multiple computers on a virtual system also eliminates Ethernet switches and routers which simplifies systems and increases performance.
 
Enterprise Automation System
 
Industrial plants of any reasonable size are unlikely to have a single control system architecture installed and the trend is to unify operations. This is going to be accomplished more often by selecting a unifying software architecture supplied by one vendor. This platform will incorporate a high performance real-time database; support various standards including OPC, multiple native protocol drivers, ERP interfaces, and IT database interfaces.
 
Energy
 
There has been more concern for energy conservation since energy costs are a bigger "raw ingredient" of production. A larger concern is the global demand pull that will lead to increased prices and shrinking supply.  Concerns about potential shortages will keep interest in energy conservation strong. This trend is leading to metering use and finding ways to more efficiently use energy in operations.
 
Raw Materials Optimization
 
Global demand pull is increasing prices and decreasing supply of raw materials. Smart companies will respond by applying advanced optimization technologies to maximize output from production.
 
Information Security
 
Advanced and more sophisticated cyber-attacks on industrial and process plants have created greater concerns and interest in securing databases and networks.  Viruses and worms prey on networked systems, while remote workers tend to expose critical company data to industrial snoopers through holes in weak remote systems.   There will be more security technology, assessments, training, and certifications.   
 
Wireless 
 
The growth of wireless applications will continue exponentially.
 
Automation and control engineers that I talk with are using the technology to save money and implement new innovative applications. There are multiple standards but most users don’t seem to focus on the standard - they are simply applying wireless to solve problems that have high payback, regardless of the standard. Even if users have to throw away the radio in two years to replace it with something meeting a standard, it is a sound investment today. Industrial wireless standards will be more important in the future if wireless technology is used for most of a system installation.
 
Wireless Ethernet, 802.11, is becoming the plant information backbone utility.
 
The 6LoWPAN movement is relatively new but strong. By incorporating IEEE 802.15.4 (low-cost, low-speed ubiquitous communication between devices) into the IP architecture, it has the potential to be a game changer worth watching.
 
Ethernet Driving to Sensors
 
Ethernet is starting to be used more often at end devices including motor drives, vision, flow sensors, motor control centers, safety relays, and analytical instruments. There is an emerging movement for IP addressed sensors since it leverages standard IP technologies.
 
What do you think?

Contact me to share your thoughts on trends in the automation industry.