Automation trends are not as rare as they once were years ago. Today we can easily see new trends around robots as a service, innovative new methods of material handling, and remote monitoring, just to name a few. But one of the early trends in automation that’s clearly still going strong is the shift toward the importance of software.
That’s not to imply that automation hardware is not critical. It’s just that many hardware features and functions have become commoditized to a large degree, leading the ability for companies to differentiate and innovate to become more connected to the capabilities of specific software packages.
This trend has become important as the worlds of IT and operations technology (OT) converge across industry.
The most recent example of this trend can be seen in Emerson’s announcement that it is incorporating AspenTech’s portfolio of asset optimization software into its Plantweb digital ecosystem. This combination of technologies is a result of Emerson’s transaction with AspenTech in May 2022. That transaction involved Emerson contributing $6 billion to AspenTech in exchange for a 55% stake in the company.
Prior to the addition of Aspentech’s software, key features of Plantweb have been its Optics Analytics, Insight, and digital twin software to optimize plant-wide systems performance via insights into plant assets and their operating condition; pervasive sensing technologies for non-intrusive measurement of process and asset variables; and data management technologies to ease the process of data identification, contextualization, security and governance.
Emerson says AspenTech’s software leverages the information provided by Plantweb’s other components to “enable companies to optimize the business and sustainability performance of their plants and enterprise through advanced asset and business optimization software.”
Here’s how Emerson explains the “see, decide, act, and optimize” capabilities of the newly expanded Plantweb with AspenTech:
- The ability to “see” is provided via Emerson’s sensing and measurement technologies, via capabilities such as leak and corrosion detection, tank, safety and equipment monitoring, personnel awareness, process measurements, and liquid and gas analysis.
- Automation systems and software, such as batch and advanced control, SCADA, PLCs, safety systems, asset and alarm management, remote monitoring, artificial intelligence and digital twins, enable the “decide” capability through analytics and improved visibility. Emerson says its software drives better decisions through on-demand access to expertise, while automated workflows empower personnel to focus on high-value activities rather than low-value tasks.
- Emerson technologies such as digital valve control, process isolation, pressure regulation, motion control, and air handling provide the “act” capabilities to protect people, equipment, and the environment.
- The ability to “optimize” has expanded with AspenTech’s software via the ability to perform capital estimation, facility modeling, economic analysis, reservoir modeling, planning and scheduling, process and dynamic simulation, process knowledge management, supply chain management, process and energy analytics, management execution, electricity grid management, and operations and asset performance management.
Following on this trend around the centrality of software to industrial automation, Peter Zornio, chief technology officer for Emerson, said, “Plantweb has remained a platform for continuous innovation in the industry since its introduction in 1997, including the world’s first integrated digital safety loop, machinery health monitoring and the pervasive deployment of wireless technologies. Now Plantweb sets the software foundation for the future of ‘boundless automation,’ where the intelligent field, edge, and cloud become a seamless architecture for world-class responsiveness and performance.”
Bulanda noted that the historical automation architectures we’re all familiar with were purpose-built, with operational data isolated from hardware and software systems. These architectures, by design, created layers of automation, across which data could not easily be shared. But as industrial businesses move toward decentralized operating models and self-optimizing plants, there has been a growing demand for a unified software environment that allows for data to stream across the enterprise when and where it’s needed.
Zornio added, “The shift to a software-defined architecture across the cloud, edge, and intelligent field will eliminate functional and architectural silos” to create thi “boundless automation” platform. “Such a platform is required to truly enable all the benefits promised by digital transformation applications and programs,” he said.