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To succeed, broaden your horizons

A quick review of most automation and controls magazines makes it evident that the products and services advertised are mostly directed to the fragmented, yet fairly specialized, “industrial” automation markets.

Traditionally, there have been three specialized segments:

1. Discrete factory automation, focused on production lines, limit-switches and the like, mostly digital input/output;

2. Continuous process automation, dealing with fluid flows, tank levels, temperature controls, and analog measurement and control; and

3. Batch controls—a blend of discrete and continuous, with a mix of digital and analog measurements.Pharmaceutical batch processes ar an example.

Historically, programmable logic controllers (PLCs) were digital products, used primarily with digital inputs; extensions to handle analog measurements and controls were added to satisfy specific needs. Distributed control systems (DCS) were targeted mainly at continuous processes—usually relatively large systems operating in a central control room. Batch controls tended to be a blend of both types of controls. With the advent of personal computer-based measurement and control, all three segments began to merge, and differentiation arose primarily in packaging to suit specific applications.

For these segmented markets, packaging is “industrial” and intended for use in relatively harsh factory and process environments, with wider temperature limits. Though the technology and designs are very similar, product packaging brought a differentiated view of “industrial” versus “commercial” products. Also, commercial products are typically sold in much higher quantities, yielding lower pricing and profit margins. Further, the products and services are sold through entirely different sales and distribution channels.

The basic technologies of industrial instrumentation and controls include measurement, display, recording and control of a wide range of parameters, such as temperature, pressure, flow, speed and level. Products include a wide variety of sensors coupled to PLCs, data acquisition systems, distributed controls, software, embedded communications, networking and human-machine interfaces.

The tremendous range of knowledge and experience required for these applications can and should be applied to other markets that have similar requirements, but may not be considered traditional “industrial automation” applications. One such growth arena is energy management. This market has a significant need for utilization of automation and control technologies and methodologies, yet has hitherto been considered a totally different market segment, because it is “commercial.”

Based in Copley, Ohio, Novar Controls has developed a leading market position in the development and distribution of automated energy management products and services. Novar’s target markets include multi-site retail chains, quick service and casual dining restaurants, educational buildings, office complexes, hospitals, campuses and multi-building complexes. Its hardware and software technology compares with that of the leading industrial automation companies.

Commercial buildings generally do not operate economically, and building managers are usually left to themselves to resolve the problems. However, they are usually busy with the regular problems of satisfying customers, and energy is not managed for the best economic value. Good automated monitoring and control systems typically generate savings of 10 percent or more, while still retaining optimal comfort levels. Further, whole-building energy savings of 20 percent or more can be achieved through improved operation and maintenance practices.

The differentiation between “industrial” and “commercial” automation has caused many companies to segment their products, applications and sales channels, inhibiting expansion into adjacent markets that essentially utilize the same technologies and methodologies.

When growth is elusive in traditional industrial automation markets, it behooves good companies to look for expansion and growth in other similar markets.

In the changing business environments of a new century, the companies that are able to broaden their horizons will succeed.

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