Automation Innovation As You See It

Jan. 26, 2012
Despite varying observations collected in this year’s annual survey of Automation World subscribers, results show a clear consensus across industries about what constitutes innovation, as well as what technology is considered to be most innovative in the field of automation over the past decade. Respondents also offered their predictions for future automation innovation.

It would be simple to say “innovation” is the buzzword du jour. The reality, however, is that innovation has been the predominant buzzword for business over much of the past decade, easily surpassing terms like “collaboration,” “synergy” and “paradigm.”

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of innovation’s tenacity is that it started being most heavily used a year or two before the economy fell off the cliff (or was pushed, depending on your perspective) in late 2008. Before the recession, it was a mantra for business and product differentiation. Today, while the term maintains its differentiation meaning, it has morphed into a core survival tactic.

If there is one facet of innovation that seems to go generally unobserved, it is that innovation does not always equal complexity. More often than not, it means exactly the opposite.

Though Apple has shown the business world for decades that hiding complexity behind a simple-to-use interface is the way forward, most companies remain fixated on the complexity aspects of innovation.

“The more complexity there is in the market, the more that something simpler stands out,” said John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, in his book “The Laws of Simplicity.” A recent survey by Automation World of its subscribers shows that Maeda’s conclusion is accurate in the eyes of the technology end user.

When asked: “When it comes to the automation technology you apply in your job, which aspect do you consider to be the most innovative?” sixty percent of respondents chose ease of implementation or ease of connectivity. Their other choices were reduced energy consumption, high levels of precision and reduced footprint.

Given choices that directly save money and precious space on the factory floor, or that enable the attainment of higher quality, ease (i.e., less complexity) still wins the day. And not just in terms of simply being preferred, but in being viewed as truly innovative.

Ethernet gets the nod
In response to the survey question: “What do you consider to have been the most innovative development in automation technology over the past 10 years?” more than a third of the respondents agreed that integration of Ethernet at the system and device level was the most innovative automation technology they had seen. Most interesting was the high level of agreement — 41 percent — this option received for a question that featured an “other” option.

Responses in the “other” category were, not surprisingly, widely scattered over an array of suggestions. A few of the “other” suggestions most widely cited included software advances, retrofit replacements, faster processors and even several write-ins citing “all of the above.” The options given were: high-precision control, mobile and remote connectivity, industrial wireless devices and integration of Ethernet.
Mobile and remote device/system connectivity was the next highest vote getter after Ethernet, garnering nearly 25 percent of responses.

Of particular interest when reviewing the responses to this question about the most innovative development in automation over the past decade comes from consideration of the survey’s respondents. Of the more than 225 respondents to the survey, the division between discrete and process industries was basically 50/50, with 19.8 percent in the batch processing industries, 30.8 percent in continuous processing, and 49.3 in discrete manufacturing.

This even division of responses between discrete and process industries indicates that the view of Ethernet as the most innovative automation advance over the past decade is a shared perception across both industry sectors. A closer inspection of the survey data shows that 62 percent of those citing Ethernet as the most innovative automation technology work in the process industries.

RELATED CONTENT: Click here to read what Automation World readers think are the most innovative automation technologies they’ve seen in the past year. 

Innovation predictions
Asking survey respondents to look into the future and offer their thoughts on the future of automation technology innovation is always captivating. Some of this year’s responses offered some intriguing possibilities.

For example, Danny Rich of Sun Chemical Corp. (Parsippany, N.J.) thinks that fiber optics will be used to replace all wires in a facility to address NEMA explosion issues.

Totally new properties and capabilities will be introduced into automation technologies with the continued development of nano materials and machines, says Eugene C. Clark of the Kohler Co. (Kohler, Wis.).
The use of wireless technologies and integration interfaces, according to Rick Rice of Crest Foods (Edmond, Okla.), will one day be used to link “dumb” devices on a production line to create a complete control solution and data collection point.

Howard Bales of CH2M Hill (Englewood, Colo.) and Jeff Taylor of JWC Environmental (Costa Mesa, Calif.) generally concur with Rice’s view. Bales contends that reality will soon catch up with the hype surrounding the integration of information in the factory to optimize production. Taylor says that “we will see more processing power put to the device level” as device communication and capability expands. He cautions, however, that these smart devices will only be as smart as the person who programs them.

Technology suppliers weigh in
Though this article is based on survey results about what Automation World subscribers think about innovation, we also wanted to hear from the automation technology suppliers.

Surprisingly, some executives in the automation technology sector don’t see major innovations on the way, but rather a series of incremental improvements to existing technologies.

“The technologies are available. I don’t think there needs to be any major breakthrough in innovation to make great gains in automation for manufacturing and processing,” says Ted Klee, senior vice president of global supply chain at Schneider Electric (Knightdale, N.C.). “Today there is intelligence built into everything, from circuit breakers to contactors to push buttons and switches. Monitoring of process parameters and energy consumption [via this embedded intelligence] is key to future automation activities and efficiency improvements.”

Allied Electric’s (Fort Worth, Texas) vice president of product management, Scott McLendon, agreed saying, “I don’t know that I see a major innovation in the near term, but I do see more incremental improvements in the areas of distributed intelligence, wireless communications and ease of application/integration (e.g., plug and play).”

Claes Rytoft, chief technology officer at ABB (Zurich, Switzerland), concurs with the thought that incremental improvements will be key to the next steps in automation innovation, though he sees a different set of improvements taking place. “Automation will continue to expand beyond the classical scope, integrating planning, quality, optimization and electrical systems to increase productivity, reduce energy consumption and lower the environmental impact,” he says.

One executive who sees distinct elements of innovation playing a greater role in automation technology contends that the next wave of manufacturing innovation is already taking place. 

“The next major innovation in automation is happening now,” says Dr. Helmuth Ludwig, industry sector CEO, North America cluster, Siemens Industry Inc. (Alpharetta, Ga.) “With the use of digital collaboration and engineering platforms, companies can design and optimize manufacturing environments and automation processes before they are built. The ability to digitally design a product, simulate its real-world use and stresses to ensure that it is optimized to meet all relevant requirements while, at the same time, being able to virtually design, test and optimize its manufacturing process is now possible. This even extends to the ability to minimize the energy consumption footprint of a manufacturing process before installing a single motor.”

Also predicting that the next wave of innovation in automation will come via software and data is Colin Winchester, vice president of operations at Software Toolbox (Matthews, N.C.). He sees the next set of innovations in this area growing out of the ability to share complex manufacturing data across manufacturing systems and different business units.

“Standardizing on complex data objects will enable easier sharing of data from the PLC (programmable logic controller) level all the way up to ERP (enterprise resource planning),” says Winchester. “The OPC Foundation is playing a key role in this movement by focusing on OPC UA complex data objects.”

Winchester adds that although the forthcoming mobile technology updates associated with these new standards-based technologies will be most noticeable as they are introduced, the less-visible changes to information flow, driven by the OPC UA standard and including all open industrial standards protocols, will have a much greater long-term effect on productivity and profitability.

Jason Moore, product line manager at Eaton (Cleveland, Ohio), also sees the future of automation innovation arising from the area of interoperability and associated standards. “Open PLC and HMI (human machine interface) solutions and devices will define the next generation of automation solutions because of their ability to enable decentralized intelligence, which allows customers to simplify their control systems, thereby reducing the time required to install and commission control systems while lowering costs,” he says.

About the Author

David Greenfield, editor in chief | Editor in Chief

David Greenfield joined Automation World in June 2011. Bringing a wealth of industry knowledge and media experience to his position, David’s contributions can be found in AW’s print and online editions and custom projects. Earlier in his career, David was Editorial Director of Design News at UBM Electronics, and prior to joining UBM, he was Editorial Director of Control Engineering at Reed Business Information, where he also worked on Manufacturing Business Technology as Publisher. 

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