Sourcing Tomorrow's Automation Innovations

Ethernet technologies, virtualization, advanced graphics and mobility top technologists' picks for automation innovations to watch. Innovations in business process and training also make the cut.

For many Americans, the terms "technology" and "innovation" have little or nothing to do with industrial automation. Popular opinion in the United States holds that the world of manufacturing and production amounts to a set of industries that are largely conservative, unadventurous and technologically moribund. If you want high-tech action, head for Silicon Valley or Wall Street.

Sujeet Chand, chief technology officer (CTO) of Milwaukee-based automation industry major Rockwell Automation Inc., contests that opinion. "We should position manufacturing as technology-intensive activities based on current technologies such as Ethernet." Adds Rockwell Chairman and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Keith Nosbusch, "Manufacturing is essential to the prosperity of a country. The rest of the world gets it. We need to rekindle the passion here in the United States."

To be sure, manufacturing automation has not seen developments on the scale of Twitter or Facebook, which have altered the technological face of the consumer landscape over the past few years. But the state of the manufacturing industry is certainly much changed from only a few years ago. In fact, Peter Terwiesch, CTO at automation supplier ABB Ltd., in Zurich, Switzerland, terms the changes "dramatic." He says, "The effects of the global recession, the shortage of capital for new projects, and other economic factors significantly increased the pressure on manufacturers to do more with less, maximize their use of raw materials and get the most value out of their automation investments."

Innovations relating to energy management and power, according to Terwiesch, include developments in drives, motors, power management and power distribution applications. Today's systems can monitor and manage energy use, provide accurate forecasts for energy demand, track energy cost variations, and then schedule energy intensive processes to run during times when the energy cost is the lowest, he points out.

A trio of technology leaders from Rockwell Automation point to software, networking and manufacturing intelligence as key drivers that have contributed to the current state of automation. Chand identifies the technology drivers as standard, unmodified Ethernet and manufacturing intelligence analytics. Frank Kulaszewicz, vice president and general manager, Control and Visualization, at Rockwell, says, "The most significant innovations in automation during the past three to five years have been plant-wide control through the convergence of process, motion and safety in one control environment, and the elimination of subnets through TCP/IP (transmission control protocol/Internet protocol)." Ralph Carter, Rockwell's vice president of the Information Software and Process Business, cites service-oriented architecture, virtualization and wireless technology.

Carter adds, "These innovations or technologies contribute to the enablement of composite applications that provide manufacturing the opportunity to move from home-grown, disparate systems to standardized, industry-focused, packaged applications. These modular and scalable applications, when combined with library-based content, offer personalization options that promote faster adoption, time-to-value and overall lower total cost of ownership."

Mobility tops list

Jason Urso, CTO at Honeywell Process Solutions, the Phoenix-based automation company, identifies four interrelated themes of innovation over the past few years. First is mobility of devices and sensors. "For example," he says, "industrial handheld computers in tablet form offer greater productivity for workers by providing real-time data from control systems along with workflow directions."

His second theme is wireless technology as an enabler. Third, says Urso, "there is a continued challenge for operators and personnel who are already overloaded with data to convert data to useful knowledge. New visualization techniques are helping operators sift through the data." The fourth theme, tying them together, is the integration of various control layers—closing the gaps from distributed control systems to advanced control to safety to fire and gas systems.

Many stories and predictions about wireless and mobility technologies saturated the media in 2007 and 2008. Then things got a little quiet. Apparently that was a gestation period. These technologies were cited also by Raja Macha, senior vice president of Research and Development at Plano, Texas-based automation supplier Invensys Operations Management. Other technologies he cites includes semiconductor advancements and associated software that have enabled special optimization engines in control layers, advanced 3D graphical engineering tools, optimization algorithms for decision support systems and 3D visualization techniques—especially for operator training.

Invensys Vice President Peter Martin adds, "Traditionally, industrial companies were able to control the profitability of their operations merely by controlling their efficiency. That was accomplished via process control, logic control, advanced control and optimization—all focused on plant efficiency. But in recent years, the critical variables that drive industrial business decisions have moved from being highly stable over extended periods of time to being highly volatile over short periods of time," Martin observes.

"As the business of industry moved toward real-time variability, even though the efficiency of the plants is still under control, management is losing control of the business of the plant, causing major frustrations," he contends. "Technology like our InFusion Enterprise Control System is an innovative approach for applying control theory to the business variables of industrial operations," Martin says. "This approach calls for developing real-time operational KPIs (key performance indicators) and business measures, and then using them to drive either manual or closed-loop control."

A small group of technologists from various Yokogawa offices gathered to offer some different insights into current technology innovation. Maurice Wilkins, vice president, Strategic Technology Marketing Center in Dallas, Bruce Jensen, manager of technical marketing in Houston, and Penny Chen, principal systems architect in Palo Alto, Calif., point to another aspect of wireless—sensor networks. Yokogawa, the Japan-based automation major, has cast its lot with the International Society of Automation's ISA100.11a standard, and adds that this technology and standard will continue to allow sensors to be put into places that could not be reached previously—improving safety and reliability. This will also lead to the growth of new types of sensors.

Another innovation has been tunable diode laser technology for combustion control that will continue to change the way that combustion applications are controlled, improving safety, reducing emissions, increasing uptime and reducing maintenance costs, according to Yokogawa sources. A third area is procedural automation as a way to capture the knowledge of the retiring baby boomers in the continuous process industries, and it also is a way to ensure safe operations and to train new people joining the workforce.

Rich Carpenter, CTO for Software at GE Intelligent Platforms, another automation vendor, based in Charlottesville, Va., cites Web technologies that have been accepted and implemented that extend the reach of automation systems. "Context around data, for example, with ISA95, is just starting to take root," he adds. "This will have broad impact—even with the smart grid and other areas outside manufacturing. Even device level components are moving to intelligent protocols."

It's in the cloud

So-called "cloud computing" has become a source of both innovation and debate in information technology (IT) circles. The concept of hosting your data—and even your applications—on remote servers sounds either cost-effective or dangerous, depending upon your point of view. Evan Lin, CTO for supplier Advantech Corp.'s Industrial Automation Group, Cincinnati, points to the concept as one of the most significant innovations in automation currently. He adds, "Cloud computing, along with wireless sensor networks, will help to achieve the goal of IoT (Internet of Things)—a self-configuring wireless network of sensors whose purpose would be to interconnect all things. Such a system could greatly reduce the chances of a company running out of stock or wasting products, as all involved parties would know exactly which products are required and consumed.  Mislaid items and physical theft would be affected by the fact that the location of an item would be known at all times."

Ethernet has quickly become ubiquitous in manufacturing. Corey McAtee, technical marketing manager at Beckhoff Automation LLC, another supplier, in Burnsville, Minn., sees what he calls the insurgence of real-time communication as significant. "This enables putting more work in the device."

Dave Lagerstrom, president and CEO of sensor manufacturer Turck Inc., in Plymouth, Minn., says, "The major change of the last couple of years is the decentralization of processing power. Remote programmability is coming into everything. The big innovation in sensors has involved integrating Ethernet communication."

Mark Engman, CEO/CTO of Opto 22, a Temecula, Calif.-based automation vendor, dives a little deeper into that Ethernet discussion. "The most important innovation in automation over the last three to five years has been the acceptance of IP (Internet Protocol) as an industrial communication standard. Without IP, there would be much less interoperability between automation devices and systems. A little more than 10 years ago, fieldbus standards locked you into a specific physical medium and a specific protocol. Fieldbus protocols were typically developed with a particular physical medium, topology and interface in mind—serial, parallel or often a completely proprietary platform. Without IP's powerful communications capabilities, the development of control devices would have been much slower. Similarly, industrial wireless performance and networking capabilities would be much more limited."

Tony Lennon, industry manager, industrial automation at software supplier MathWorks, in Natick, Mass., takes the discussion from the component level to the design level. "The emergence of a number of high-speed, deterministic networks coupled with increasingly powerful controllers that are good for more than one dedicated application adds a new level of complexity to control design.  We need to think beyond programming to designing systems. We're looking at simulating systems before going to design—and making it easier to go from one stage to the other," he adds.

Gary Marchuck, director of business development at automation supplier AutomationDirect, in Cumming, Ga., agrees that leveraging commercial technology innovations for industrial automation applications has been huge. He adds a couple of his own beyond the consensus favorite of Ethernet. "We have seen that commercial computing technologies—such as USB (universal serial bus), Microsoft Windows CE, and Ethernet—are having a great impact on our industry, and have opened up the lines of communications on a factory floor. This has enabled advanced features such as built-in Web server, remote access and control, and local data storage at lower cost, and made it much easier to implement."

One commercial technical innovation not yet discussed lies in the field of semiconductors. Todd Dobberstein, group manager of industrial embedded at automation supplier National Instruments Corp., in Austin, Texas, cites field programmable gate arrays, or FPGAs. "FPGA technology has continued to be used more and more within the consumer electronics space because of the performance and re-configurability compared to custom application specific integrated circuits (ASICs). FPGA design is traditionally only for hardware designers, so normally, control engineers haven't been able to utilize this technology. Within the last three to five years though, there have been some instrumental high-level tools developed like LabView FPGA, C to Gates tools, and more, that allow control engineers to start utilizing this technology within machines to take on advanced control and processing tasks that would have traditionally been impossible or very expensive within automation machines," he explains.

What's coming

Innovations that have gotten us to where we are now—and that are still being developed and implemented—have included faster and more reliable Ethernet networking, more powerful microcontrollers enabling complex and distributed control, and increasingly advanced software for design and visualization.

Future advances that technologists are now focusing on include: empowering operators and other manufacturing professionals; virtualization; developing smarter and more accurate sensing and instrumentation; and adopting virtual reality software and other advances for training the next generation workforce.

Says Opto 22's Engman about the next wave of innovation for manufacturing, "It's all about mobility. Everyone in today's developed world has become accustomed to having the ability to communicate, get information and exchange data from wherever they are. This is simply the way people are now working, playing and interacting with others, both personally and professionally. This expectation will soon extend into the world of manufacturing and automation. Automation professionals, for example, will want to access real-time plant data on the go, so they can monitor processes, energy usage and machine performance from anywhere. And it won't be limited to viewing data. You can expect nearly all of the functionality that automation engineers currently have with their PCs (personal computers)—designing automation applications, configuring I/O (input/output) points, interacting with their HMI (human-machine interface) screens, receiving and acknowledging alarms—to be brought to mobile platforms."

The concept of cloud computing has been introduced, but look for it to help fuel this new mobility trend. Rockwell's Carter says, "Tablets with multi-touch and cloud computing could be the innovations that could have the most potential impact on manufacturing. We believe Apple's iPhone and iPad, along with Google's Android, will be on the plant floor. This will be a paradigm shift in manufacturing. We'll see applications of these technologies be able to solve new problems, and combinations of these technologies will create unique value differentiators to the operations and business."

Another reason for implementing applications on the cloud is pointed out by Urso from Honeywell. "The lack of skilled labor, especially in remote locations, is a challenge. So the trend is to centralize operations away from those. It's already happening in mining, where they have put together remote operations centers."

Macha from Invensys adds, "Adoption of cloud technologies within automation will help companies standardize and apply common processes and best practices across multiple plants. This will also help integrate business and operating systems. Intelligence solutions built on top of common information infrastructure within the cloud will also help reduce time to deployment and maintenance costs."

NI's Dobberstein introduces the concept of tying instrumentation to the cloud. "Within the industrial control space, companies have the opportunity to look at the cloud as a potential way to collect some valuable information from machines/factories and use that data internally to improve their machines, along with creating an additional revenue stream with that information they collect. It turns out that in many cases, performing predictive maintenance and better instrumenting equipment with sensors helps predict when a large failure will occur, and can save companies thousands, and in some cases, millions, of dollars."

Innovation beyond tech

Chet Namboodri, global director of manufacturing industry solutions and marketing at networking solution provider Cisco Systems Inc., in San Jose, Calif., suggests thinking beyond technology in terms of innovations. He says, "It's less in machine-to-machine bits and bytes and more about interfaces, analytics and people. The use of software and analytics will be used not only for optimizing machines, but also for optimizing the plant and even the supply chain. We'll be providing information with context and in a way to promote collaboration, with even video context around what's happening. Think about being able to ‘beam in' an expert."

Virtualization is a technology that allows multiple applications or even operating systems to run on a single piece of computing hardware. Terwiesch of ABB notes, "We will also continue to see more widespread use of virtualization of automation networks—which will require a fraction of physical hardware needed to run a process. This will result in a smaller system footprint, reduced energy costs and greatly reduced or simplified lifecycle support, as the lifecycle of the computer hardware can be increasingly segregated from the lifecycles of the operating system and the automation software."

Concurs Chand, "Virtualization can eliminate server creep, consolidate servers and allow moving to private clouds." While Kulaszewicz adds, "Virtualization of the control architecture will enable engineers to focus on integrating their knowledge into the production process, rather than focusing on memory capacity, bandwidth and other system constraints." Honeywell's Urso adds, "Virtualization will get to the heart of tackling open systems by reducing the number of PCs and PC churn."

Measurement and sensing attract a lot of attention from technology developers. Terwiesch predicts, "We will see dramatic advances in the precision and accuracy of measurement technology, with sensor/actuator applications developed for one specific industry being deployed across all manufacturing industries. For example, we've developed an extremely accurate optical caliper that can measure material within 1/50th the thickness of a human hair, while the roll of material is moving by at more than 60 miles per hour. Originally used for thickness control for pulp-and-paper customers, this solution marries that industry- specific knowledge with the latest in power LED (light-emitting diode), advanced optics and spectrometric detection technologies."

Chand adds, "Customers are focusing on more advanced control to optimize their processes, so you have a greater need to measure. We see new technologies and new needs in sensing." Wilkins from Yokogawa says, "It is also my personal belief that in the future, ‘intelligent' sensor networks will be able to ‘think' and make decisions on control issues—maybe overriding an erroneous control decision or making informed suggestions to the operator."

GE's Carpenter is thinking about the impact of all this technology providing a flood of information for operators and other manufacturing personnel. "We'll have to learn to manage by exception. People ignore alarms because of inundation. There are way too many studies on alarm reduction strategies. We believe they are good, but prefer advanced data analytics. Looking at the entire system rather than individual events clears some clutter."

Plant operations personnel are also top-of-mind for Invensys' Martin. "One of the biggest issues industrial companies face is the retirement of their most experienced and effective workers, leaving behind a huge experience gap. New technology like operator training simulation and virtual reality training systems, combined with classroom, on-the-job and job reinforcement training using real-time operational intelligence systems, will reduce the ‘time to experience.'

"But reducing the time to experience is only the first step," Martin continues. "Providers will quickly have to bring operators and engineers up to the experience level of the talent they are replacing, which will help them drive greater performance from the assets they control. We can accomplish this by providing real-time business performance guidance and decision support into the training systems. The result is that the experience gap can be closed much more efficiently than previously believed, and the overall profitability of the operations can be significantly improved."

Andre By, CTO of Automation Engineering Inc. a Wilmington, Mass., system integrator, takes a plant floor architecture approach. "Flexible automation will play an increasing role as companies seek to increase product performance and lower unit cost for new products," he says. "Manufacturing automation is increasingly a global initiative with product design and development on one side of the globe and production manufacturing on another. To best support this reality, flexible automation solutions will need to seamlessly transition from development to production, with the ability to quickly transfer the control sequence logic and fixturing used in development to production machines."

With all of this technology and innovative processes coming, the future of automation looks…busy.

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