For the past two decades, automation technology has remained at a plateau. As the year 2013 arrives developments are brewing, which augurs well for new growth inflection points.
The Internet of Things (IoT) can literally monitor everything, generating massive amounts of data that cannot properly be used by today’s manufacturing control systems. Vast productivity benefits can result from effective IoT data utilization.
Cloud computing is rapidly being accepted for data storage and processing. For industrial automation, the Cloud is a transformative approach that fundamentally changes how masses of IoT-generated data can be used for real-time interaction. Massive data, the cloud and analytics can combine to offer breakthrough production efficiency. Major growth will result for automation companies that can demonstrate practical productivity results.
Smart-phones and tablets are everywhere and the changes are clearly being reflected in industrial automation environments. Most automation companies are now offering support utilities using iPad, iPhone and Droid apps. More and more factory and plant equipment diagnostics and service functions are becoming accessible via mobile equipment, with 2-way audio and video visibility to aid trouble-shooting and service procedures.
The days when expert operators stayed behind control-room operator panels are quickly disappearing. With minimal training, every technician can be an expert, working from any location with wireless connected tablets to view operating information, displays, alarms and diagnostics. This is changing traditional work-shift arrangements where experienced engineers had to be present on night shifts when little was happening, just in case.
Emboldened by mobile communications trends, supposedly conservative industrial plants and factories have begun to accept the clear advantages of industrial wireless sensors and actuators. After being bogged down in the confusion of emerging standards, industrial wireless is finally starting to generate significant revenues for several market participants.
In the United States, the trend to outsource jobs to China and other low-cost countries is slowing. Even Apple from its technology pinnacle has announced that some of its hardware products will soon be manufactured in the USA. Many companies are reversing earlier offshore outsourcing of manufacturing jobs. Leading the reverse trend are the kinds of jobs that are considered core to the business, requiring higher skills and more training than what is typically available offshore.
Many software and engineering jobs will continue to be outsourced to India and other countries, but the pendulum is finally swinging in the other direction. Offshore developers cannot find skilled engineers fast enough and some of them are actually hiring in the U.S. and Europe to bolster their capabilities.
I am continuing to predict that the automation supplier top-ten line-up will change, with mergers, acquisitions and divestitures. The question remains—which company will acquire whom? In a fast-changing global environment, growth by acquisition seems risky. The majors—Siemens, ABB, Honeywell, Emerson, and Schneider—are acquiring outlying businesses because there are few automation-core businesses worth buying. As China and India keep advancing, expect major acquirers to come from that direction.
Several growth opportunities will be emerging this year. The new automation leaders will be those who can demonstrate that their products and services can yield significant productivity improvements, and navigate the complexities of global automation markets. When the inflection point arrives, the leadership lineup will surely change.
>> Jim Pinto is a technology futurist, international speaker and automation industry commentator. You can email him at email@example.com or review his prognostications and predictions on his website: www.jimpinto.com.
>> More Pinto Prognostications: How did mobile operator interfaces trends and the pervasive Internet andplay out, review Pinto’s 2012 prognostications. Visit bit.ly/awcolumn077