Need Some Juice

It hit me like one of those times when your kids point out the obvious that you’ve been either missing or avoiding. During an interview, Nic Gihl, Schneider Electric vice president of industrial automation and control, threw the phrase “our industry” into an answer.

Since Automation World began two years ago, I’ve had the opportunity to interview many industry leaders. He is one of the first to acknowledge that we have an industry.

We have many superb managers in the industry. They are busy rebuilding what, in some cases, were companies in decline. Most automation companies have been growing in sales and profits for the past couple of years. The problem is that I seldom hear someone take a stance as an industry leader.

Gihl said in the interview that the industry needs some new juice. I agree. The new juice is going to come from further standards development and communications. Standards are good for an industry—for suppliers and consumers of technology alike. The computer industry only took off when IBM created a de facto standard, often backed up with “official” standards, for the hardware of a personal computer. By opening the hardware to allow addition of “standard” boards, innovation caught on like a Montana fire in July. Scores of companies sprang up and technology grew exponentially. Once the PC reached a mature phase, networking hit. Once again, companies sprang up to find ways to exploit the various Ethernet standards of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE 802.x). All these standards and more are now coalescing around the home entertainment market. This is the next big thing in computing.

Networking has spawned innovation and growth in the automation industry. From the “fieldbus wars” of the early 1990s evolved several now somewhat mature networking technologies—DeviceNet, Foundation Fieldbus and Profibus. Several companies decided early on to hitch their carts to the fast-growing Ethernet horses, and now the three industrial network groups are quickly evolving Ethernet extensions. Integrators are telling me that these implementations are a great advance in communications. But that barely scratches the surface. Gihl talked about uses of this connectivity to bring companies into much closer alignment with their customers and suppliers. This is a true revolution that many are working toward today.

Markup for success

The requirements of this new need lie beyond the network to the information passing through the wires or over the air. The Web technology known as eXtensible Markup Language (XML) has spawned a tremendous amount of software innovation, because it is relatively simple, very adaptable and is software- and hardware-independent. The foundation for XML use in automation has been laid. The OPC foundation is releasing OPC-UA that offers a great improvement over what is already a very useful communications protocol. The German enterprise software company SAP has announced that its latest platform will allow XML hooks into its database. All major automation software suppliers are following suit with XML implementations. The WBF organization developed BatchML and B2MML.

One XML-based technology that I think you should watch out for is RSS. Really Simple Syndication is now used by bloggers and Web-based news aggregators (a way to comb the Internet and have news you want delivered to your browser). This is essentially a publish/subscribe technology based on widely accepted Web standards. It holds great potential for furthering communication.

Speaking of communication, I love feedback and will answer all of you. Send thoughts on what you think the “next big thing” will be, or let me know about interesting applications you’ve done that wisely exploit the technologies of automation.

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