Putting Intelligence In

Feb. 6, 2008
When we started Automation World, my mantra was that we covered intelligent use of automation. Our marketing people devised the tag line “intelligence for the business of automation.” When I was meditating on the technology trends in automation along with this month’s theme, it struck me as interesting that intelligence was the recurring theme.

The top technology trends we’ll see play out this year include information, networking and integrated control. These separate trends actually are inextricably bound by both a common underlying computing technology and the business needs of the manufacturing enterprise. Information standards such as eXtensible Markup Language (XML) and Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) are slowly working their way into manufacturing in the guise of OPC UA and products such as SAP’s Netweaver and Wonderware’s ArchestrA. These are woven into the transmission control protocol/Internet protocol (TCP/IP) networks we see everywhere.

The third element is controllers. A morphing of personal computer (PC) chips and programming advances has powered a new wave of programmable logic controllers (PLCs)—and some say distributed control systems (DCSs) as well. Leveraging the immense product development effort of the PC industry, as well as the lower prices afforded
by mass production, many start-up companiesprojected PC-based control to be a disruptive technology. Clayton Christensen’s book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” on disruptive technologies, appeared at the height of the PC-based control boom, establishing him as the thought leader of the movement.

Instead of the anticipated replacement of one technology by another—and the rise of new companies replacing old—the PLC changed. The new term is Programmable Automation Controller or PAC. Over the years since this term was coined and a few PLC suppliers changed to the PAC product, we see that this is still a technology in the midst of change. Some companies have always had something that could be called a PAC. Some companies are clinging to the PLC concept. Others see the new technology as a way to not only integrate the PLC with motion control and information handling, but are also hoping that it will help move the companies into new market areas now dominated by the distributed control system or DCS.

The tipping point

 As Managing Editor Wes Iversen researched his article on PACs (see page 30), he found virtually all points of the spectrum of technological change covered. Several companies base their entire platform on it. Others say that customer adoption has been slow, but seem to be reaching a tipping point. Others disdain the new technology and acronym, maintaining that the current way is still better. At any rate, customers will decide as they look at the business needs demanded by senior corporate management and pick the platform that will help them move the company forward.

As we discuss these trends at Automation World, we not only cover them in various forms in the magazine, but we also have developed some focused publications to provide in-depth coverage. We started with Packaging Automation Review—covering an area of machine building where all the facets are coming together. It appears quarterly beginning in March each year. Industrial Ethernet Review, covering the convergence of digital networking into the TCP/IP world, appears quarterly beginning in February each year. Performance Management Review covers the information space and moves to the Web this year in order to make way for coverage of the latest disruptive technology—wireless. Wireless World Review kicked off last month, and will appear quarterly.

There once was a phrase that has somewhat gone into disrepute: “from the sensor to the boardroom.” If you look at this coverage, that’s really what we’re talking about—getting sensors on the network, then into information, then using information to make machines and plants operate more effectively. And that’s why we’re all here.

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