Automation Innovation: Where We've Been, Where We're Headed

People whose job involves scanning new technologies in order to lead their company’s innovation efforts discuss what has had the greatest impact on automation and what they see on the horizon.

Conservative, stodgy, slow to adapt, slow to change…

These terms have all been applied to manufacturing companies and the suppliers that provide automation products and services for them. Automation World wanted to start the new year by looking at the ideas and innovations that have driven automation, and at the technologies developing now that will impact automation in the future.

To be sure, there are plenty of pundits who can point to reasons for concern about the state of innovation in the automation industry. And as always, there is a need for industry leaders to remain vigilant to the task of pushing the state-of-the-automation-art forward at a practical pace that supports and maintains profits and productivity advances. But this article and the two companion feature articles that follow (see “The State of Innovation in Automation,”, and “Automation World Readers Voice Innovation Needs and Concerns,”) show that innovation and technology adoption are alive and well in the industry.

For this article, Automation World sought out the people who are paid to constantly survey the world of technology and direct engineering operations of their companies; our goal was to determine what advances to the state-of-the-art of automation may be on the horizon, and to perhaps provide readers with a glimpse of their own automation futures. The views of these experts vary, but technologies adapted from commercial “high tech” markets permeated the thinking that has advanced automation—and will lead the way to the future.

PC drivers

Comments from James Truchard, president and chief executive officer of automation supplier National Instruments Corp., in Austin, Texas, drive right to the point. “Over the last 10 years, the most significant innovations in automation have come from incorporating personal computer (PC) technologies into industrial devices. It’s now common to see industrial versions of floating point processors, DRAM (dynamic random access memory), solid-state storage devices such as CompactFlash, fast Ethernet chip sets and Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) in industrial control products,” Truchard says. “This has enabled vendors and end-users to develop more powerful software with the flexibility and usability of PC-based control systems that can run on real-time operating systems for reliability. Industry analysts at ARC Advisory Group (an analyst firm in Dedham, Mass.) named these devices programmable automation controllers, or PACs. PACs offer the same ruggedness and reliability of a PLC (programmable logic controller), but tend to be much faster and more flexible.”

The theme of open systems is echoed by Peter Zornio, chief strategic officer at Emerson Process Management, another Austin, Texas-based automation supplier, who reflects on his years in the process business. “Every vendor spent a boatload of money to develop open systems, say from about 1993 until about 2002,” Zornio point out. “We went from building automation systems that were purpose-built with their own networking and hardware to today’s automation systems with the same fundamental technology as the information technology (IT) area except for actual controllers and devices.

“Customers wanted easy integration and lower-cost hardware from the PC market,” Zornio adds, “but they didn’t bank on the increased support and security problems. Now they are pushing back, which will precipitate the next area of innovation.”

Zornio, whose company has invested heavily in wireless technology, also notes, “Of course, I’m going to say wireless [is a major advance].” According to his analysis, wireless may not yet have had the transformative effect on today’s automation systems as some advances seen in the past. But Zornio expects that continuing innovations in wireless will make a significant impact on automation systems of the future.

Sujeet Chand, senior vice president and chief technology officer of supplier Rockwell Automation Inc., in Milwaukee, links information and communications. “The evolution of information and communication technologies is having a transformative impact on the design, operation and maintenance lifecycle of industrial automation systems,” he says.

Networking impact

“In the design phase, advances in mechatronics and simulation technologies allow us to simulate and verify the performance of machines and manufacturing systems before building them. The ‘CAD-to-part’ lifecycle can now be a continuum, with bi-directional flow of information. This allows manufacturing companies to drive continuous improvement in time-to-market, quality and production.” Chand observes. “For the operation and maintenance phases of the lifecycle, the rapid adoption of standard Ethernet in industrial automation and the application of Web interoperability standards are enabling the integration of factories with IT and business systems, and helping manufacturing companies drive plant-wide and supply chain optimization.”

Many cite networking in general as a significant innovative technology. Says Raj Batra, president of the Industry Automation Division of vendor Siemens Industry Inc., in Alpharetta, Ga., “Controlling safety on a common bus structure, has been one of the innovative technologies with a huge impact today. With programmable safety control, there was a paradigm shift. That market is still very much growing since there are instant productivity savings. With networking, there were even greater benefits.”

“I look at the idea of innovation much as Thomas Edison, ‘anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent,’ ”says Dave Skelton, director of automation at Middletown, Pa., supplier Phoenix Contact USA. As far as past innovations feeding today’s automation advances, he also cites networking. “Industrialization of commercial communications technologies, especially Ethernet infrastructure and wireless, count as the top innovations of the past few years with an impact on automation today. The reason I say this is simply just sales success. This enables the opportunity to have the IT world meet the manufacturing world in a straightforward way.”

Ben Orchard, application engineer at Temecula, Calif., automation supplier Opto 22, chimes in with observations on the importance of commercial networking technology. “Certainly the most important innovation in automation over the last 10 years has been the advent and widespread implementation of Ethernet and the Internet Protocol (IP) as viable industrial communications standards,” Orchard says. “Without Ethernet and IP there would be much less interoperability between automation devices and systems. This gives the user many options in determining what physical interface or application protocol is best for a particular application.”

Chris Will, chief technology officer at software supplier Apriso Corp., in Long Beach, Calif., keeps his eye on what’s happening in software. “Certainly, the first parties to introduce XML (eXtensible Markup Language) and its successors—Web services, service-oriented architectures (SOAs) and business process management suites [and also its siblings including composite application frameworks and workflow engines]—into the automation space deserve the title of innovation. All of the dominant software infrastructure providers today are pushing all three technologies.”

Sloan Zupan, product manager at vendor Mitsubishi Electric Automation Co., in Vernon Hills, Ill. takes a different tack. “The most significant innovations are related to sophisticated integration of different control disciplines into a single platform. This includes things like PLCs, robots, computer numeric controllers (CNCs), human-machine inferfaces (HMIs) and vision systems. Combining these technologies allows users to choose just the right mix of control disciplines for every application.”

Integration capabilities

Peter Terwiesch, chief technology officer of automation supplier ABB Ltd., in Zurich, Switzerland, adds, “Advances in integration capabilities, remote access, the intelligence in the devices and assets themselves, plus the unification of previously competing communication protocols, is contributing to the users’ ability to optimize their assets. While devices have become far more intelligent over the last decade, during which microprocessors have penetrated deeply into the world of field devices and provide a wealth of diagnostic and operations information, the real value of this information only materializes once a customer is able to access and use it, “ says Terwiesch.

“In addition, advances in remote access technologies to reach and then use information from devices in hard-to-reach or hazardous locations helps the customer have all of the needed data points to accurately assess a production situation, or prevent a potential problem,” he adds. “Wireless communication further enhances this opportunity by opening an additional channel for diagnostic information from smart devices that, as a result of how they were connected, could previously only communicate process values.”

Taking a look around a process plant, Jason Urso, vice president of technology at process systems supplier Honeywell Process Solutions, in Phoenix, lists several technological innovations that have impacted automation and plant operations. “Operator effectiveness tools and abnormal situation management best practices derived from innovations such as modern graphics and visualization techniques, plus alarm management tools that reduce alarm flooding, are top innovations of the past. The advent of open systems has enabled plants using legacy systems to migrate their HMI while retaining their control and input/output (I/O) infrastructure. Industial wireless is enabling significant improvements in efficiency as well as cost. And finally, diagnostics from field instruments using Hart or Foundation Fieldbus are now allowing plants to be more proactive about instrument maintenance.”

Switching gears, so to speak, to an outlook directed at discrete manufacturing, Bosch Rexroth Corp. Vice President of Technology Scott Hibbard, in Hoffman Estates, Ill., points to three innovations driving current automation. “First is industry acceptance and integration of precision motion control in factory automation. What was even a decade ago an esoteric technology relegated mainly to precision metal cutting equipment has gained mainstream acceptance in almost every field of automation,” says this vendor executive. “Next comes the integration of motion and logic. And, lastly, Ethernet-based fieldbuses are achieving the demands of automation applications while playing well with other information technology in a manufacturing environment.”

Having surveyed the underlying technologies and trends of how automation has arrived at where it is today, now it’s time to ask the technologists to pull out their crystal balls. What are the technologies that are going to propel innovation in the next few years?

Rockwell’s Chand says, “In the future, we will continue to see the transformation of today’s manufacturing plants to optimized plant and supply networks through the proliferation of advanced sensing and wireless communication, continued adoption of Ethernet, greater utilization of advanced control techniques, and sustainable and safe production methods.”

Zornio from Emerson Process already identified wireless technologies as both a past innovation driving today’s automation, but also a technology driver for future automation innovation. “The other big thing—a big transition—is reduction of complexity,” he adds. He calls it human-centered design. “It used to be, in the  ’80s and ’90s, if new technology came along and you could say there was some benefit, customers would say great, ‘I’ll get the people I need.’ Let’s face it. PCs were not for wimps. It’s not an excuse any more to have technology that’s hard to use. Look at iPhone. It’s the same thing in automation.”

Siemens’ Batra sees the coming ties of product lifecycle management (PLM) design-to-manufacture strategy as a key future innovation. “Marry the virtual world with the real factory floor and that will cause a tremendous paradigm shift in the way companies operate—the digital factory.”

Russ Agrusa, president and chief executive officer of Iconics Inc., a manufacturing software supplier based in Foxborough, Mass., says software giant Microsoft Corp.’s latest operating system, Windows 7 is a “game changer.” He continues, “The new Windows 7 Multi-touch ease-of-use capabilities allow a more natural way to interact with the manufacturer operations.”

Rashesh Mody, vice president, portfolio and strategy, at automation supplier Invensys Operations Management (IOM), in Plano, Texas, says, “Two to three things could be game changers. Cloud computing could be a phenomenal change. Next is the virtualization and simulation thread. Much of this technology is geared toward decreasing the total cost of ownership of IT resources. Business process will also be the subject of much innovation—how we interact with our integrators and customers, how to manage workflow. All these are extensions of the common thread of how you manage information.”

This emerging trend that is garnering much publicity in the technology sector of “cloud computing” is also known as “Software-as-a-Service (SaaS).” The technology entails keeping your application and data on a remote, hosted server (the “cloud”) with client access from anywhere there is an Internet connection with any device with sufficient display to view the results.

Wayne Morris, chief executive of software supplier myDials Inc., in Lafayette, Colo., sees both information and corporate view coming together with a SaaS component. “Combining automated control of processes and enterprise manufacturing intelligence with a broader, holistic perspective of continuous process improvement across an entire value stream will be facilitated by emerging technologies,” Morris predicts. “These include combining and correlating performance metrics across the value stream; near-real-time metric update enabled by continuous metric processing rather than traditional batch-oriented OLAP (online analytical processing) cube crunches; intuitive, interactive visualization and analysis of metrics powered by Web 2.0 technologies; and SaaS-enabled holistic supply chain, demand chain and distribution channel management that spans multiple companies.”

Michael Saucier, chief executive officer of Transpara Corp., another software supplier based in Pleasanton, Calif., looks to leverage the information revolution that has opened up databases combined with wireless networking and device connectivity to innovate the way that information is delivered to people in the future.

“Looking ahead,” says Saucier, “I’d say the exploding adoption of smart devices is going to be the biggest factor driving automation and manufacturing operations. I think we’re at the very beginning of tapping the potential of mobile business intelligence apps. People are realizing that the handset can be used for something besides e-mail and baseball-score updates. You can put any type of business, operations or manufacturing data on the handheld as long as you consider the form factor when planning for deployment. Mobile business intelligence is the killer app for personal digital assistants in manufacturing environments.”

Roll-out display

The coming of the mobile, connected worker must be more than a passing fancy. Doug Donzelli, chief executive and vice president of engineering at Mountain View, Calif., automation supplier Apprion, notes that wireless technologies are one underpinning of the shift to “real-time, mobile, highly productive workers.” Companies can put data into their hands using wireless. “The second technology driver will be OLED (organic light-emitting diode) screens. Imagine the ability of a worker to go out and roll out a four-by-eight-foot video screen at a job site—not just a two-by-three-inch screen. Plus OLED is inherently Class 1 Div 2 rated. So, combine real-time information, wireless communication, larger data pipes, better visualization. Will the mobile worker take the control room out with him or her?”

Truchard of National Instruments focuses on the chip and programming level of automation for most of his research. He notes, “Although PACs represent the latest in programmable controllers, the future for PACs hinges on the incorporation of embedded technology. One example is the ability to use software to define hardware.”

Consider Field Programmable Gate Arrays. “FPGAs are electronic components commonly used by electronics manufacturers to create custom chips, allowing intelligence to be placed in new devices. These devices consist of three main components: configurable logic blocks that can perform a variety of functions, programmable interconnects that act as switches to connect the function blocks together and I/O blocks that pass data in and out of the chip. By defining the functionality of the configurable logic blocks and the way they connect to each other and to the I/O, electronics designers can create custom chips without the expense of producing a custom ASIC (application-specific integrated circuit). FPGAs are comparable to having a computer that literally rewires its internal circuitry to run your specific application,” Truchard explains.

Terwiesch of ABB foresees three areas of innovation. “There will certainly be significant advances in visualization, in terms of seeing the process and the amount of real-time information that is available. The ability to zoom in on a particular data set, or aspect of process condition, in real time, will improve the productivity of operators and plant managers. The ability to realistically simulate in real time what might happen if a particular action is taken, or to not have to place the operator in a hazardous environment or situation, will provide great results in terms of process efficiency and safety. We will also see more widespread use of virtualization of automation networks that will require a fraction of the physical hardware needed to run a process (For example, a process that needs 14 servers could only need two.)—the continued unification of standards.”

Honeywell’s Urso adds, “First and foremost, wireless will continue to have a tremendous impact on the automation industry. Secondly, [we'll see] an increased amount of sensing in plants. We’re going to start seeing innovative new sensing technologies emerging, including nanosensors and video with associated analytics algorithms. Third, remote service and support will play a bigger role in increasing plant efficiency. Finally, we expect to see more plants converting process data into actionable knowledge by integrating operator and business applications at the operator console. The operator will become more of a business optimizer as opposed to a process operator.”

Graham Harris, president of supplier Beckhoff Automation LLC, in Burnsville, Minn., says, “I see not only new Ethernet- and PC-based technologies leading the charge toward innovation in manufacturing and automation, but also the fusion of more advanced engineered solutions into high-powered, centralized devices. One could think of this as bringing more multi-tasking to the automation controller. This is typically implemented with a single industrial PC equipped with a modern multi-core processor and covers not just PLC, automation, motion control and HMI on one controller, but pushes beyond to include various forms of high-precision measurement, condition monitoring, vision and even robotics/kinematics.”

Energy star

John Kowal, an independent packaging automation consultant in Chicago, sees new technologies in operator panels simplifying training and experience partly though incorporating onboard multimedia. He expects to see something similar to an “Energy Star” rating for machines based on overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). And, from a cultural rather than technological perspective, he sees a growth of trans-national partnerships.

Zupan of Mitsubishi thinks embedding IT technologies such as service-oriented architecture into the automation platform will have the greatest impact. “Customers desire a greater level of integration between automation equipment and IT to better manage asset management, inventory management, production scheduling, key-performance-indicator reporting and remote administration.”

Hibbard of Bosch Rexroth thinks that open communications standards along with the automation market embracing the Internet will fuel future innovation. He adds, “Energy consumption—whether looked at for environmental impact or due to depleting traditional energy resources, society is and will be affected by energy consumption. With manufacturing consuming arguably one third of all energy produced, there will be a lot of attention paid to how automation technology can better manage energy consumption in a manufacturing environment.”

Truchard adds some words of advice for engineers of the future who will be innovating with these new technologies. “With a focus on green engineering and the trend toward integrating embedded technology into more aspects of an automation system, it may soon not be enough for an engineer to specialize in only one form of engineering. In the next five to 10 years, expect standard development platforms and high-level abstraction tools to revolutionize the way engineers design embedded automation systems. Engineers are already incorporating measurements and control algorithms into their mechanical models through digital prototyping tools. They are also programming embedded systems and reconfiguring FPGAs through high-level graphical programming languages. With increased measurement data, higher-level software tools and more capable embedded automation controllers, engineers are well-equipped to design the next generation of high-performance and high-efficiency production machines.”

 
Current Technologies
Future Technologies
• Ethernet
• Advanced sensing
• Integration
• Cloud computing
• Mechatronics
• Digital factory
• Multiple control
• Mobile applications
• Networking and diagnostics
• OLED displays
• Open systems
• Reduced complexity
• PC technologies
• Software-as-a-Service
• Standards
• Software configurable hardware
• Visualization
• Sustainablility
• Web Services
• Virtualization

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