Process Automation Competition Heats Up--Again

After at least a half-dozen pre-announcements, GE Fanuc Automation (www.gefanuc.com) known primarily as a discrete manufacturing automation vendor—on June 27 officially announced the launch of its Proficy Process automation system aimed at the process industries. Billed as a “breakthrough,” the system combines and integrates the disparate components that GE Fanuc has been offering to the process manufacturing market.

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Craig Thorsland, product marketing manager at the Charlottesville, Va.-based vendor, tells Automation World that there are essentially three things new with this product. First, this system bundles the hardware and software products that GE Fanuc has been selling as component parts. This means that customers can insert one CD-ROM into a computer and configure the entire system. The second thing is a series of partnerships that enhance the offering. Finally, the main go-to-market mechanism will be the company’s system integrator channel.

Count ’em—three

This announcement follows Milwaukee-based rival Rockwell Automation Inc.’s (www.rockwellautomation.com) major public relations push since its Automation Fair users conference last October with its enhanced process automation solution. Fellow discrete manufacturing competitor Siemens Energy & Automation Inc. (www.sea.siemens.com), Alpharetta, Ga., had already purchased Moore Products some years ago. Now there are three companies trying to leverage strengths in discrete manufacturing and/or software into an integrated automation approach discrete, motion and process.

GE Fanuc had been growing by acquisition. In 2001, the company acquired VMIC, Huntsville, Ala., as the basis of its programmable automation controller hardware with it reflective memory technology for redundancy. That was followed by the acquistion of software companies Intellution in 2002 and Mountain Systems in 2003.

Proficy Process combines the hardware and software offerings into an integrated product offering. In addition, GE Fanuc has partnered with Germany-based Softing AG for Foundation Fieldbus connectivity; Pepperl+Fuchs Inc., in Twinsburg, Ohio, for Profibus connectivity; Allied-Telesis Inc., of Bothell, Wash., for Ethernet switches (not for input/output but for controller-to-computer connectivity); GE Energy for multivariate control; and Cleveland-based ControlSoft Inc. for its InTune advanced loop tuning capability.

Thorsland points especially to the importance of the historian gained with the acquisition of Intellution that enables the information flow desired by managers who need the collapse of layers of information. Further, its main sales channel will be its system integrators.

Sell what?

The biggest challenge for GE Fanuc (much the same as for rival Rockwell Automation) is getting its own sales people up to speed on how to sell the solution, to whom to sell it and how to call in experts.

The systems were expected for delivery by around the end of July, according to Thorsland. “We have a couple of sales now, with thousands of components out in the field,” he adds. A safety system is in the works with no public timetable for release.

This initiative adds to the already fierce competition in the process automation market, where customers tend to pick a supplier to work with for a long time. These three suppliers join an already established group of suppliers in ABB, Emerson Process Management, Honeywell Process Solutions, Invensys Process Solutions and Yokogawa.

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