Integrators Dish on Industrial Technology Trends

The value of remote access for viewing control system data and training purposes, along with lessons from automation project failures, were among the key takeaways from 2021 for industrial system integrators.

A session at Inductive Automation’s virtual Ignition Community Conference 2021 featured four system integration professionals offering their viewpoints on the automation trends they see as having been the most impactful this year. The session, led by Shay Johnson, sales engineer at Inductive Automation, featured Jake Hall, business development manager, Feyen Zylstra; Brian McClain, business development manager, Corso Systems; Cody Warren, senior controls engineer, Tamaki Control Ltd.; and Dustin Wilson, senior project manager, Phantom Technical Services.

Cody Warren, senior controls engineer, Tamaki Control Ltd.Cody Warren, senior controls engineer, Tamaki Control Ltd.Though the conversation tackled several points, from enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems adding plant floor software packages to high-performance HMI (human machine interface), Ethernet at the device level, remote access technologies, and the reasons why automation projects fail were among the most engaging topics of discussion.

The rise of “Ethernet I/O on the device level has been huge lately,” said Warren. “I think customers are seeing the value of that as opposed to the hardwired approach. A lot of the work we've been doing the past couple years has been upgrading old, out-of-date PLCs and I/O. And it’s easier to do this with the arrival of IO-Link masters.”


   Listen to this podcast explaining IO-Link and why it's popularity is increasing in the U.S.


The value of remote

Like every business, industrial operations continue to struggle with maintaining effective operations amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Dustin Wilson, senior project manager, Phantom Technical Services.Dustin Wilson, senior project manager, Phantom Technical Services.“You never know when someone is going to be at work the next day, so being able to call on your integrators remotely and for us to be able to utilize Industry 4.0 and IoT (Internet of Things) to see and diagnose issues remotely, in real time, instead of having to be on site has been a huge benefit—because every customer is limiting how many feet actually touch their floor right now,” said Wilson. “A lot of what we’ve done these past two years would have been impossible without some of the improvements that have happened with Industry 4.0 and Ignition. I can't imagine having sneaker net right now and trying to make changes to programs where you have to physically be on the plant floor to make an adjustment.”

McClain concurred with Wilson’s comments about the importance of remote technologies, adding, “Remote data monitoring has been a recurring theme we've seen over the last year not just from supervisors, but managers who want remote access to their production data because they may not be able to go into the facility, or it may not be safe to do so.”

Brian McClain, business development manager, Corso Systems.Brian McClain, business development manager, Corso Systems.Efforts made by the IT departments at industrial companies have been beneficial in enabling this, McClain said. “IT departments in these facilities have made big strides here recently to help create an environment that has made remote access feasible. I remember it wasn't too long ago when trying to do something like exposing a visualization dashboard or data for supervisors to see outside of their network was virtually impossible. You would talk to IT departments about opening some ports to create the right networking architecture for this and you would just get these blank stares. But now, more organizations are seeing the benefit of this and creating systems and secure methodologies that we can use to implement and deliver these remote access solutions.”

Also, “the amount of remote training I have seen happen in the past 18 months is unprecedented,” added Hall.

Hall noted that the lack of in-person conferences since early 2020 has likely contributed to the increased interest in remote training and videos.

Automation project failures

The integrators on the panel agreed that the current heightened level of interest in automation in response to digital transformation trends has been accelerated with the advent of COVID-19. Likewise, the urgency to implement technology to address pandemic-related issues has also increased the rate of implementation difficulties.

Jake Hall, business development manager, , Feyen Zylstra.Jake Hall, business development manager, , Feyen Zylstra.Hall referenced a statistic that indicates only about one quarter of IoT initiatives in manufacturing are successful. He believes the reason for this is largely due to unclear business objectives and the lack of road maps for these projects.

“A lot of times, the systems are so complex they’re unable to be communicated effectively to the integration team,” he explained, noting that project changes made during development and implementation, often due to a lack of clear understanding on all sides, can cause costs to rise by 50x.

To avoid this, Hall recommend two things:

  • Aligning your projects teams together—is there a detailed complete spec or document that's keeping everything up to date?
  • Learn and proof—From the data you're able to collect, are you able to act on it? Then, from your implementation, are you able to define the root causes [of problems]?

The ability to overcome project failures depends on your ability to define the problem and then validate and deliver systems to address it.

From there, “are you able to learn and improve?” Hall asked. “If you can't do those things, you're probably not going to be successful with your implementation.” 

Wilson stressed the importance of being able to define your long-term goals for the project. “Once you have your long-term projections, you can model the system correctly so that once you do have all the data available, it has context to it. By modeling your data correctly, you can know exactly where to find all your control points for a motor. Then, when you push those data points into the cloud and you're doing Big Data analytics on them, you’ll have a consistent format for everything in it.”

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