Why Walled Gardens Are Rarely a Good Fit for Industry

July 1, 2024
Though “walled garden” technologies offer seamless interoperability within their ecosystem, the realities of industrial automation require open standards, modular solutions and vendor diversification to mitigate operational risks and higher costs.
I have seen vendor pitches where they compare their product to the iPhone in an attempt to tie their product to Apple’s versatility and security. But we’ve started to use this term derisively when we see something referred to as the iPhone of process control or automation. To our engineers, this indicates that the product is part of what’s known as a “walled garden”.
The term walled garden refers to a vendor's ecosystem where products and services are designed to work seamlessly within their own network but are incompatible or difficult to integrate with those from other vendors. While this can create a streamlined experience within the vendor's ecosystem, it can limit interoperability and hinder the adoption of best-in-class solutions from multiple sources.
The most significant impacts of walled garden technologies in industrial automation include:
  • Stifling innovation by limiting access to new technologies that might better serve a company's needs. We have found this to create a profound impact on PAT (process analytical technology) and QbD (quality by design) in the pharmaceutical industries where emerging technologies need to be integrated into existing systems. New process monitoring solutions or control options may simply be out of reach until the walled garden manages to integrate (and often white label) the innovation. 
  • Reduced interoperability. Walled gardens restrict the ability to integrate new, potentially superior technologies from other vendors, thus limiting operational flexibility.
  • Limited configuration and customization options. Equipment vendors typically view themselves as equipment manufacturers first who also provide automation capabilities. This limits their automation configuration and customization options.  
  • High switching costs. Transitioning away from a locked-in vendor can be expensive, requiring significant investment in new equipment, retraining staff and potential downtime.
  • Maintenance and upgrades. Ongoing costs associated with maintenance and upgrades can be higher when limited to a single vendor's solutions.
  • Challenges with scale up and out. For pharmaceutical manufacturers, as an example, scale-out is not an option with a walled garden technology not focused on the good laboratory practice space. Scale-up is also a challenge when switching between automation platforms as a process moves from a process development lab to pilot to plant scale. 


Walled gardens in application

I have an iPhone. But that is based on my need. I don’t need the configuration and customization options that a more open platform would provide. I don’t need the bleeding edge of innovation to solve the daily Wordle and stream music. 
As automation groups across industry continue to modernize, awareness of walled gardens is crucial. By prioritizing open standards, modular solutions and vendor diversification, companies can mitigate the risks associated with these practices and ensure a more flexible, innovative and cost-effective approach to automation. The goal for industry should be to create an ecosystem where technology serves the business's evolving needs rather than restricting its potential.
William TomHon is a sales director for the process automation division at Catalyx North America, specialists in the science of operational processes and an integrator member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about Catalyx, visit its profile on the CSIA Industrial Automation Exchange

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