A few years ago at the annual ARC Advisory Group’s Forum, ExxonMobil made clear its intention to use of open, interoperable automation and control systems—a move that ran counter to many technology suppliers’ business models built on closed, proprietary systems. Following from that announcement, the Open Process Automation Forum (OPAF) was launched to help direct and coordinate efforts around helping ExxonMobil’s vision become a reality for industrial manufacturers and processors as a whole.
Unsurprisingly, more than a few technology suppliers were less than thrilled at this new direction. But it’s a direction general information technology (IT) had already gone down and most realized it was only a matter of time before it became a requirement in the automation technology industries as well.
During a press conference at this year’s ARC Forum, John Conway, vice president of strategy and partnerships, at Schneider Electric said the company is calling on all stakeholders across industry to embrace “universal automation.” He described this term as referencing “plug-and-produce automation software components based on the IEC 61499 standard,” contending that adoption of a universal automation layer based on this standard can provide “limitless opportunities for growth and modernization across industry.”
“We’re calling on industry to join us in this pursuit of universal automation,” Conway said, noting Schneider Electric is currently working with the OPAF and other technology vendors around use of IEC 61499. The company is also working with ZVEI, the German electrical and electronics vendor association, around “modular, distributed software systems,” he said, with several other major vendors involved.
An important facet of Schneider Electric’s announcement involved the release of the company’s EcoStruxure Automation Expert version 21.0. "the first software-centric industrial automation system,” adding that the company plans to release updates to it every two to six months based on customer requests.
Key capabilities of this new automation system, according to Schneider Electric, is its ability to decouple automation applications from the run-time environment for ease of re-use and updating, as well as automating low-value engineering tasks. Because it’s built on IEC 61499, Schneider Electric says the software is vendor agnostic and can interoperate with any other automation system via the IEC standard.
Another factor behind Schneider Electric’s call for greater interoperability across the industrial automation sector is its new relationship with Wood, a supplier of engineering and automation technologies and services to the manufacturing, processing, and energy industries. The agreement between Schneider Electric and Wood gives Wood’s automation and control group access to Schneider Electric’s EcoStruxure Automation Expert for the delivery of open, standards-based automation to Wood’s global energy and industrial customers.
“By combining our diverse capabilities and domain expertise in automation with the IEC 61499 technology, we can unlock unprecedented innovation for our customers,” said Bridget Fitzpatrick, global process automation authority at Wood. “The siloed nature of industry is holding us all back,” she added. “We agree that collaboration is essential to next-generation industries, and IEC 61499 is the enabler.”