Prioritizing Innovation in Automation

Jan. 30, 2017
Consider how innovation is ranked in your company. You could be missing out on important improvements or revenue opportunities.

If you work in the automation industry, you owe a big thank you to General Motors, a man named Dick Morley and a hangover. In a 2008 interview with Manufacturing Automation, Morley recalls the New Year’s morning (hence the hangover) in 1968 when he, in a single day, mapped out what we now know as the programmable logic controller (PLC). As Bedford Associates’ 84th project, it was known as the 084. But then a new company was formed, and as with all things in the automation industry, a catchy name was needed. The team settled on Modular Digital Controller, and Modicon was born.

Around the same time, General Motors had put out an RFP based on a whitepaper that called for an electronic replacement of physical relay systems. GM was so impressed with what Modicon had to offer, they bought a million dollars’ worth of controllers, which was no small amount for the time period. I would have loved to be able to sit in the room the first time the 084 was demonstrated. The PLC was such a disruptive technology at that time because control cabinets used to be so much larger and executed control strategies with massive amounts of relays. I had the unique opportunity to see a system like this in use at a plant in Connecticut a few years back, and the constant clickity-clack automation orchestra was mesmerizing. What was even more incredible was knowing you could replace the logic and hardware in the dozen or so SUV-sized cabinets with a PLC chassis that was less than 3 ft long.

Modicon’s 084 gave way to the 184, 284 and later 384. The creation of Modbus was enabling controller-to-controller communications and early SCADA systems were paving the way for connected enterprises. There’s been innovation in every facet of automation. Have you ever seen an Allen-Bradley PanelView 1400e? If not, you’re missing out because this behemoth of an HMI was actually a panel-mount CRT monitor that weighed almost 40 lbs and had a staggering 128 kb of RAM. Although this seems ridiculous compared with HMI and thin-client technology of today, it was revolutionary for a lot of manufacturers at the time.

Some of the technology advancements currently coming from automation vendors are more evolutionary than revolutionary. A little more memory, a little more processor, and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) capabilities are all great things, but for many it’s not the same level of “wow factor” as a revolutionary development like the 084 or even a single-loop controller.

Consider the current state of various consumer products, such as phones. New phone models mean a bigger screen, better camera or faster processor, which are all great improvements but improvements that are evolving with consumer use as opposed to revolutionizing consumer use. For many, it’s just not the same flare as the moment Steve Jobs demonstrated scrolling on a touch screen for the first time to a captivated audience.

This is also not to say that new releases and developments are meaningless, but more of a call to action for innovation. I think that innovation looks a little different than it did in the automation industry of old. Some would argue that it’s because there is not much left to invent, while others would argue that the inventors have no interest in inventing—whether for fear of cannibalizing revenue or fear of being too cutting-edge.

The IIoT movement is bringing along a large demand for revolutionary developments. What could possibly be more IIoT than virtualized controllers that orchestrate control strategies through smart distributed control nodes? Or what could be more IIoT than SCADA systems being developed with ARM builds? Manufacturers are asking and vendors are beginning to answer the call.

There’s also a huge amount of innovation coming from the engineering and integration side. We believe a lot of the IIoT movement will center on designing intelligent network and security strategies, as well as data contextualization and usage plans. Connecting your plant and collecting all data possible is great, but pairing with a company that understands the data being collected and who can help use it in ways that drive KPIs is critical. Partnering with a company that is constantly scanning the horizon of new technology to evaluate breakthroughs and work on mitigating early adoption risks will pay dividends years from now. Most importantly, partnering with a company that understands they have a social responsibility to keep plants safe and secure both physically and digitally will be a necessity as more smart devices with questionable security protocols inhabit automation networks.

I remember a couple years ago when we first looked at using the Raspberry Pi and tablets as HMIs, it was seen as more of a gimmick than reality. Now we have a working SCADA and batch deployment where physical HMIs and thick-client computers have been eliminated, and we are using tablets and thin clients to take control of machines by scanning employee IDs and taking pictures of QR codes. Not only does this provide a way for scientists and operators to interact with equipment in a manner they expect from their personal technology, it provides a means to replace, upgrade and validate with relative ease.

When you start looking at how to choose a system integrator or automation partner, prioritize innovation. The interesting thing about our deployment on tablets is that we’ve been able to push early adoption by adopting it ourselves to understand and eliminate conceptual phase ending problems.

I recently asked one of our clients why they partner with companies like us. I assumed it was for relevant process and batch expertise, or perhaps virtualization and IIoT services, but the answer was a focus on innovation. This client is located far enough away that travel is required, but the benefits of partnering with an innovative company outweigh the cost of travel. This is a trend we are seeing across the country. More and more companies are realizing that in the grand scheme of things, planning and coordinating long-term onsite support is one of the easier portions of large projects. Also, pairing with an innovative but remote company comes with an expectation for immense and creative remote support options. The feedback we get after a project is that prioritizing innovation over locality alone leads to better executed projects and more access to leading-edge technologies.

To me, innovation in our industry means a lot of things. It means QR codes on bioreactors controlling batches with tablets. It means spending downtime between projects evaluating new technologies and identifying places they can be deployed. It means running mock testing scenarios on a virtualized plant to identify potential problems for clients. It means hiring the best and brightest engineers and building diverse and flexible engineering teams. It means creating software when necessary, but also continually pushing the bounds of off-the-shelf solutions to understand limits and potential untapped uses. It means designing systems for expansion as a standard, not as an option.

Does innovation rank high in your company’s and team’s priorities? By placing size or locality as a top priority, are you sacrificing access to cutting-edge project execution? By simply keeping things running, are you missing out on process improvements and additional revenues? By deploying legacy standards and running through the same motions project after project, are you really getting industry-leading infrastructure or are you getting new plastic running at the same functionality of a system deployed years and years ago?

Innovation comes in a lot of different packages. Sometimes it’s a revolutionary development like Modicon’s 084 and sometimes it’s controlling a process with a tablet. Regardless of what innovation means to you, make sure it means a lot. Your company, projects and processes will thank you.

William Aja is vice president of customer operations at Panacea Technologies Inc., a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about Panacea Technologies, visit its profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.