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The Changing World of Automation

For a long time, exciting and revolutionary developments in automation technology seemed like a thing of the past.

Martin Buchwitz, Editor in Chief of SPS-Magazin in Germany
Martin Buchwitz, Editor in Chief of SPS-Magazin in Germany

If we look at the current ‘technological melange’, though, a very interesting future and distinct changes are on the horizon.

I was there myself for the last revolution of automation technology. In 1999 my employer at the time, Jetter AG, introduced the Ethernet-based Jetweb technology, a technology that was something like what is now being called “Industry 4.0”. Industry 4.0 includes the concept of the Internet of Things (IoT) and means that machines, parts and systems are connected to each other, and information can be exchanged easily.

Even back then, Jetter planned to distribute its software through a network, and all intelligent devices were supposed to be able to communicate freely with each other via publish-subscribe technology. As a matter of fact, a lot of what we refer to as Industry 4.0, M2M communication and “cyber physical” systems brings this concept to mind. In the meantime, though, the technological wheel has been turning much further.

The influence of IT technology has increased once again. Whereas the question of whether Ethernet as an IT technology was suited for automation technology was a matter of high dispute toward the end of the 1990s, nowadays information and communication technologies get adapted into automation spheres almost without reserve. In the near future, automation devices and systems will be even more massively influenced by IT technologies than is the case today. Automation technology is staring down unprecedented change—change that requires shaping.

Hardware and software
Our whole world is turning more “electric.” Be it in the car, at home or on the road, we surround ourselves with electronics naturally, and a lot of the time we aren’t even conscious of it anymore. Electronics are getting more and more embedded, and as such it stays increasingly hidden from our eyes.

A key aspect is the increasing interconnection of widely varying devices. Increasingly powerful networks and advancing miniaturization push this development further. Increasing interconnection brings with it a higher importance for IT security. This applies to automation technology especially, because here we have a direct correlation between safety (machine safety) and security.

A machine not offering IT security is automatically unsecure for people, too. For this reason automation manufacturers won’t be able to avoid equipping their intelligent devices with a minimum of IT security. Because hardware and software aren’t the only things embedded, IT security needs to be, too. Wherever possible, this has to be implemented on the basis of worldwide international standards. Electrical engineering is in for a great future.

Engineering initiatives
Currently there are many initiatives at work to make machine and plant engineering faster, easier, more efficient and less expensive. In the field of electrical automation, the Working Group PLC-Technology of the VDMA (Verband Deutscher Maschinen- und Anlagenbau - German Engineering Federation) is working on a solution for the interface problems of mechanical computer-aided design systems (MCAD), electrical CAD (ECAD) and automation software.

The goal is to produce a consistent data sheet similar to the one used in functional security. Manufacturers from MCAD, ECAD and drive engineering fields are working together with mechanical engineers to find a tangible solution. Also involved: representatives of AutomationML and Prostep Ivip, organizations which have been dealing with those topics for quite a while.

In spite of the subject’s great complexity, there is reason for great optimism: Within the scope of those efforts, digestible results will be available from the VDMA in the foreseeable future.

>> Martin Buchwitz, mbuchwitz@sps-magzin.de, is Editor in Chief of SPS-Magazin in Germany.

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