This Year’s Top Innovation Picks

Readers report on the state of innovation in automation technology from their view. They reveal the technologies that have proven most helpful in improving their jobs. And they offer a wish list of innovations that would they like to see in the coming year.

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'Tis the season for new beginnings. Now that the New Year has begun, it's time to pause to take stock of where you are and to reorient yourself toward your goals and objectives. For automation professionals, this annual reflection includes taking stock of technology. It entails assessing the usefulness of the latest innovations for your operations and weighing them against the resources necessary for installing them.

Talking to colleagues and counterparts at other companies would certainly help ... if only you had the time to gather together for a chat. Because you don't, and because talking about technology is our business, the editors of Automation World magazine decided to lend a helping hand. We surveyed you and your colleagues in a kind of worldwide chat in order to discover what technologies have been most helpful in the past and what sorts of innovation would be helpful now.

The most powerful innovations

The scope of the answers was quite wide, ranging from computers and networks to sensors and robots. As one would imagine, advances in networking, software integration and wireless were the most commonly cited innovations for improving productivity in the past. Because of the rise of the Internet and because of the ability to put control components onto one network, information has become easier to obtain and disseminate, explained one engineer at materials manufacturer Corning Inc., in Corning, N.Y.  Moreover, "we can run servo drives, safety devices, I/O (input/output) systems and instruments on the same communications platform," he adds.

To assist in this activity, respondents wanted more I/O options. In one case, the desire was for redundancy. "We engineer redundancy on most of our jobs, but built-in options would significantly reduce our costs and time," said Chad Bjorklund, a process controls specialist at UOP LLC, a Des Plaines, Ill.-based supplier of adsorbents, catalysts and other technology used for refining petroleum.

A result of the extensive networks that have sprung up is almost-instant communications throughout supply chains. "This has set the stage for simultaneously informing all elements, human and physical, throughout any global supply or value chain," observed Ronald L. Harris, PE and principal of MOeV International LLC, a value-engineering consulting firm. The better coordination enhances the efficiency of these chains.

Respondents expect networks to continue to have a major influence on automation.  A big reason, of course, is cost. The savings promised by wireless technology come from eliminating not only the expense of installing wires but also the cost of maintaining them. An example of the latter is on high-speed stamping presses, the kind used in automobile production. "Cables will hold up for only so long," noted Joseph Mitory, equipment engineering project manager at Chrysler Corp., in Auburn Hills, Mich. "You're constantly having to maintain and replace them. Getting rid of them with wireless control eliminates a lot of headaches."

Besides curing these costly headaches, wireless permits putting sensors on moving parts and collecting data where motion precluded doing so in the past. It, moreover, can streamline access to difficult-to-reach components for maintenance. "We use wireless Ethernet for connectivity to our PLCs (programmable logic controllers) for ongoing support," reported David DesPortes, a packaging systems engineer at the Baltimore liquids plant of Sun Products Corp., a manufacturer of laundry detergent and fabric conditioner. Not only does wireless permit troubleshooting from any location near the equipment, but it also prevents arc flash and shock.

These were not the only reasons that respondents expressed a desire for more development of wireless technology for predictive maintenance. Another is that equipment capable of monitoring its own health will only become more important as skilled labor becomes scarcer. "Machines will have to tell their operators what decisions to make and how to make them," said Scott Buker, maintenance manager at automotive parts maker Denso Manufacturing Tennessee Inc., in Maryville, Tenn.

Wanted: robots and sensors

Innovations in robotics and sensors also appeared on the wish lists of the readers who responded to our survey. The users attributed their interest in these technologies largely to continuing improvement in the price-performance ratio for personal computers (PCs), controllers and related devices. Faster computing speeds give robots and vision systems, for example, the ability to do more, and allowed suppliers to develop sophisticated tools that simplify programming.

In automotive applications, robots and vision can now work as a team quickly enough to inspect complex parts and to check parts coming off high-speed stamping presses. "Historically, vision systems were too slow and cumbersome," said Mitory at Chrysler. Now, the speed, as well as simpler programming software, allows vision to inspect parts and to assist in robotic handling.

For World Class Plastics, an automotive-parts manufacturer in Russells Point, Ohio, today's computing power has made it practical to integrate the two to perform complex inspections. In one recent job, the robot needed to pick up injection-molded parts, remove the gates, attach six parts to a stick and inspect them. One of two cameras checks the stick itself, and the other, the parts on it.

Complicating the task was the fact that parts come in any of seven colors. "I had to do some programming so that a black-and-white camera can see all seven colors without filters," said Nick Wisniewski, continuous improvement manager, and robotics and automation engineer. "The software is really making a difference. The ease of teaching and the number of tools make the process much more manageable."

He also likes the fact that a vision system now comes packaged as one unit called a vision sensor. "You can program it and not have to tweak it again," he said. "It acts like a typical sensor." For these reasons, he is currently adding vision to some older projects.

As good as the latest generation of the technology is, not everyone needs it. So, other respondents expressed a desire for innovations in other sensors. Brian Rocan, at Koch Fertilizer Canada ULC in Brandon, Manitoba, Canada, for example, said that he would like a way of detecting packing leaks on control valves as soon as they begin. He also would like to see some developments in ultrasonic flow metering for liquids and gases. "We have some very corrosive applications that test the mechanical integrity of our flowmeters," explained the instrumentation reliability engineer.

A few respondents called for the development of user interfaces that are smarter than conventional keypads and touch screens. Some are advocating voice recognition as a kind of data entry device for issuing commands to automatic machinery and other forms of automation. "Increasing processor power will mean that voice recognition, gesture recognition, self-configurability and smart interpretation of objectives should become more feasible," observed Dr. Colin Harrison, research fellow at the University of Strathclyde, in Glasgow, Scotland.

Standards please

The innovations desired most from suppliers appear to be those that promote better integration of components, both software and hardware. Tighter integration of software and the proliferation of the necessary standards have already boosted productivity over the past five to 10 years. For this reason, respondents mentioned a number of both de facto and formal industry standards, such as Ethernet, WirelessHart, the Internet protocol (IP), OPC (a communication standard), structured query language (SQL), and the International Electrotechnical Commission's IEC 61131-3 for PLC programming languages.

"OPC UA [Unified Architecture] has potential," predicted Bjorklund at UOP. "OPC was a good idea in theory as a modern common protocol to replace Modbus, but due to security restrictions, among other issues, execution was terrible." He added that, although OPC UA seems to have addressed the original problems, only time will tell whether it has caused any new ones.

Meanwhile, some respondents are looking forward to the industry-specific standards that are being based on other standards, especially on Ethernet and the Internet protocol. One, for example, pointed to the IEC 61850 standard, which was promulgated by the International Electrotechnical Commission to establish a common communications protocol for automating electrical substations. Because the standard uses an object-oriented data model and exploits Ethernet technology to get devices from various suppliers, the power industry expects it to lower costs for configuring and maintaining equipment.

"This standard has completely changed the substation automation paradigm," said Rodolfo Pellizzoni, senior engineer at the La Plata facility of Transba S.A-Transener S.A., an electricity-distribution company based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He thinks that the standard will have a greater effect than even new technology. "It will be adopted in new smart-grid devices, wide-area monitoring (WAM), and most future implementations of substation automation." He wishes, however, that automation suppliers would develop software to make this complex standard easier to implement.

Besides extolling the benefits of industry standards, respondents also expressed a desire for suppliers to find other ways around hardware and software incompatibilities. One suggestion was to convert to Web-based operator interfaces. Besides allowing access from any PC on the network, "it would allow disassociating the application from the hardware," said DesPortes at Sun Products.

Another idea was virtualization. One respondent who asked to remain anonymous believes that the concept will solve his maintenance problems for the three generations of servers that his company acquired over time through a series of automation projects. "Some are now past end-of-life support from the manufacturers," he explained. When hardware fails or when hardware upgrades prove incompatible with operating systems, he can move applications from physical servers to virtual ones.

The need to integrate legacy automation is widespread, but the problem presents itself in various ways. In automotive stamping plants, for example, one can easily find presses that have been working there for a half-century. As a result, these plants often have several generations of controllers, which makes integration into data collection systems cumbersome. Unlike the assembly plants, which use Ethernet and have standardized PLC file structures, stamping facilities often still rely on archaic networks that are not easily linked to Ethenet without developing some kind of custom gateway.

Mitory reports that Chrysler is working with an automation supplier to standardize and integrate stamping into the rest of the company's information network. The automaker is not unique. According to our survey, most manufacturers are looking for similar innovations. They want innovated technology that will integrate their operations more tightly and make them more productive and profitable.

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