Radical innovation is disruptive. It creates an inflection point that generates fast growth for the innovators and inevitable decline for those that are stuck in old paradigms. In the automation business few companies originate radically new technology to generate growth; usually, commercial technology is adapted for industrial needs. The two largest segments of industrial measurement & control systems—Programmable Logic Controllers (PLC) and Distributed Control Systems (DCS)—were 1970’s era developments but give hints of the future.
The PLC was invented in response to the needs of U.S. automotive manufacturers. Control, sequencing, and safety interlock logic for automobile production was accomplished using large numbers of relays, cam timers, drum sequencers and dedicated closed-loop controllers. Because electricians needed to rewire hard-wired backplanes, the process for updating facilities for the yearly model changeover was time consuming and expensive. PLC relay ladder logic allowed quick re-programming by the average electrician. Some four decades later, the PLC has become a commodity and the market is worth several billions of dollars.
DCS reduced the complexity of large central control rooms with mainframe computers by offering much smaller size at a drastically reduced price. DCS has now morphed into different shapes, sizes and form-factors; this market segment too has expanded to several billions of dollars worldwide.
While there are isolated pockets of growth in the automation business, no other innovations have succeeded in achieving an equivalent inflection point by offering improvements of ten times or more in price, performance and operating advantages.
The only recent innovation that was developed to address true customer needs is Emerson Process Management’s CHARMS. Recognizing that input/output (I/O) connections represent the bulk of wiring in the typical process control system, this innovative rethink of I/O wiring, called “I/O on Demand,” essentially eliminates the need for a physical path from signal-source to controller. Instead, new single-channel CHARacterization ModuleS (CHARMS - cute name) relay I/O info via the Ethernet backbone to any controller, providing single channel integrity and flexibility down to the channel level. On a typical project with thousands of hardwired points, I/O-on-demand can eliminate as much as 90 percent of intra-cabinet wiring—the magical 10-times improvement which signals an inflection point in the market.
The next innovation
Where might the next automation innovation paradigm shift occur? For one, wireless is a broad-based enabling technology, but most automation majors have failed to pursue the true breadth and depth of the shift in capabilities. They offer the same form-factor, complexity, sales channels and pricing margins to maintain the same-old, same-old financial ratios. No one has reduced size, price and complexity to a level that stimulates use in a much wider range of applications across broader markets. Soon there will be a plethora of inexpensive WiFi-based sensors all over process plants and factories. Perhaps this can only be done by an upstart, entrepreneurial enterprise or new entries from China or India.
iPad and its equivalents may deliver another automation paradigm shift. One has only to view the dinosaur that blinks on the cover of WIRED magazine, or read the latest issue of Time with touch-text and multi-media advertising, or browse the latest iPad issue of Automation World, to recognize the imminent demise of snail-mail print delivery which arrives days later. Or, what about iPad versions of operator interface? Review the advantages of the latest iPad version of ThinManager 6.0 for example.
Automation is overdue for the emergence of new innovation paradigms. Look for new leaders to blaze the path to explosive new growth.
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>> Jim Pinto is a technology futurist, international speaker and automation industry commentator. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or review his prognostications and predictions on his website: www.jimpinto.com.