Manufacturing AUTOMATION

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TOP 5 IN 2011: Industrial automation technologies to watch for in the new year

January 20, 2011
By Mary Del


Last year’s Canadian Manufacturing Study (October 2010 issue) revealed that in 2010, customer demand and product output were way up over the previous year – a sign that things are looking up. For manufacturers to continue on this road to recovery, they will need to increase productivity and efficiencies, invest in innovation and adopt new technologies. On that note, we asked industry experts to name the top five technologies and trends that will impact Canadian manufacturers in 2011 and beyond. Thank you to Jim Pinto, Sherman Lang, Matthew Littlefield, Arunkumar Janarthanan, Muthuraman Ramasamy and Udayan Pandya for sharing their thoughts and expertise.

Jim Pinto is an industry analyst and commentator, writer, entrepreneur, investor and futurist. Read his predictions, as well as excerpts from his book, Pinto’s Points, at

1. Control systems security:
The recent Stuxnet scare has heightened awareness of the possibilities of what can really happen when critical computer infrastructure is deliberately attacked. Before Stuxnet, security warnings seemed like fear mongering; but now, most automation and control installations are reviewing security procedures and looking for technology shields against malicious attacks. Major suppliers are developing security technology solutions at all levels of hardware and software. Intel recently acquired McAfee, a leading seller of antivirus and computer security software, with plans to create tight links between Intel’s chips and McAfee’s security technology. Automation systems security is now a critical issue, and providers of effective security protection solutions and services will generate growth over the next several years.

2. Industrial wireless: Wireless is starting to generate new growth in industrial automation applications, beyond just wire replacement. At least one major supplier reports significant revenues in the past year – in the tens of millions of dollars. This initial success will, hopefully, stimulate confidence and wider usage in larger projects for more end users. Industrial wireless was expected to grow much faster, and now the hope is that new markets and applications will generate revenues to accelerate market acceptance.

3. Cloud computing:
This new arena is burgeoning in business and office environments, and growth is starting to emerge in factories and process plants. All but the most critical components will be run "in the cloud;" it’s simply a matter of how local or distant the hardware and software resources need to be located. The switch to cloud computing is occurring because of the growing burden of technology obsolescence with capitalized hardware, plus continuing support for rapidly changing software. What will change is the mix of local, capitalized hardware and software versus "cloud" resources. There will be a lag in industrial automation because of security fears, as well as worries about data security and confidentiality. Of course, computers used for process control and real-time applications will always remain local.

4. Diagnostics:
Embedded operating information and diagnostics will be included in more new automation products and systems. Self-diagnostics will yield not only causes of current failures, but will also be predictive, preventive and advisory. As processing power and memory resources become cheaper, diagnostics intelligence will migrate into lower cost products, and will quickly become an expected standard feature.

5. Consumer technology adaptions:
In a down market with tight budgets, good companies will look for adaptations of core technology strengths for applications in new markets, beyond the same old tweaks and extensions. New features and functions will use iPad, iPhone and Droid apps. More diagnostics and service functions will be accessible via mobile phones, with cheap two-way audio and video visibility to aid trouble-shooting and service procedures. This is already being done by many maintenance engineers, and more companies will offer this kind of built-in functionality. New functions will utilize and complement consumer technologies, as well as advanced automation technologies (like robotics and vision), with increasingly vertical application-specific designs using commonly available consumer technology.

Sherman Y.T. Lang is an industrial technology advisor for the National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program in London, Ont. He is also a member of Manufacturing AUTOMATION’s editorial
advisory board.


1. Robots: Robots are always going to be a key component in flexible automation. Expect to see more carbon fibre robots as the prices fall and suppliers learn how to design robots using the latest composites. Robots that are inherently safe to work with humans are also on the horizon, as researchers design new drives, sensors and control algorithms to create service robots, exo-skeleton robots that you can wear, and robots that can work collaboratively with humans in an industrial environment.

2. Vision systems: Integrating vision systems with robots and other automation equipment provides greater flexibility, lower tooling costs and improved quality. It’s only a matter of time before new 3D motion tracking technology developed for game controllers gets adapted to let anyone teach a robot. Facial recognition can be included to make sure that only authorized persons can do the re-programming. Low cost 3D technology should also enable better training and troubleshooting.

3. Tracking systems: Wireless technology continues to be integrated into factory floors to reduce costs and increase flexibility. In addition to communications, wireless systems allow companies to track the flow of goods, tools, parts and even people through the factory floor. Low-cost optical and RFID systems can record the movement of objects or presence of inventory. Widely available WiFi, cellular and GPS-based systems can track over a larger range. New real-time locating systems based on ultra-wide band can track objects throughout the factory floor in real-time, while laser-based indoor GPS systems also add large-scale, real-time metrology.

4. Data mining: Highly successful web companies have a data warehouse that stores everything they know and every data transaction that they have handled, giving them a strategic advantage. The relentless advancements in storage and processing technology continue to lower the cost of storing and mining manufacturing data for quality control, real-time manufacturing planning and scheduling, shop floor optimization and layout, and maintenance.

5. Mobile technology: Indirectly, smartphones and tablets are impacting manufacturing by revolutionizing sales and marketing. Instant quotations and booking orders requires visibility into inventory, production planning and scheduling. Mobile technology can also improve the efficiency of knowledge workers on the factory floor by making information accessible at the location you need it, at the exact moment that you need it. Workers can actively participate in updating and sharing product and production issues and knowledge.

Matthew Littlefield is a senior research analyst for the Manufacturing Practice at Aberdeen Group.

1. Plant automation and corporate IT convergence: For almost five years now, we have been tracking the convergence between plant automation and corporate IT, and some of our new research shows that 2011 may finally be the year where real world adoption catches up to the marketing hype. Advances in and launches of new industrial Ethernet-enabled sensors, meters and process equipment have finally reached the level where a critical mass is present for wide adoption across industries. We have also seen advances in the versatility of industrial Ethernet now allowing for multi-discipline control over the different protocols. With many Fortune 100 manufacturers focused on enterprise-wide digitization strategies, 2011 may be the year where many of these companies begin to abandon their costly and proprietary automation implementations for ones built on industrial Ethernet protocols.

2. Integrated safety and process automation systems: With recent changes to safety regulations and standards, it is now possible for companies in the process industries to support both their safety instrumented systems and distributed control systems on a common network and architecture. Aberdeen research shows that companies that have taken this integrated approach reduce automation costs, reduce the risk of a safety incident occurring, and are actually more productive. It is still the minority of companies that have implemented such an architecture, but many companies are feeling more comfortable with such a strategy moving forward.

3. Mobility-enabled shop floor: Over the past several years, many automation vendors have invested in their mobility capabilities. ERP vendors, as well as pure play mobility vendors, also continue to make investments and focus on the manufacturing vertical. All of these market forces, along with the need for manufacturers to improve worker productivity and embed more knowledge within business processes, will very likely lead to a broader adoption of mobility across plant floor personnel in 2011.

4. Asset performance management: In today’s environment of slashed budgets and rationalized manufacturing assets, executives demand that asset productivity is optimized and maintenance strategies are delivering tangible benefits to the overall organization. To address these issues, many manufacturers are beginning to invest in data collection and analytical capabilities to harmonize historical asset data with real-time performance data; making more predictive maintenance and production decisions a reality. For many manufacturers, the educational process around these business processes and technologies, termed asset performance management, is just starting, and 2011 may be the year where we finally see broad-based adoption.

5. Operational intelligence: We have been tracking the emergence of enterprise manufacturing intelligence (EMI) for more than five years now, and for many companies it has still not lived up to its original promise of delivering actionable intelligence from the shop floor to executives. At the same time, many of these same manufacturers have also invested in operational business intelligence (BI) solutions. These operational BI solutions have done a good job of delivering actionable intelligence to executives; except for the fact that there is often a gap when it comes to manufacturing data. 2011 will likely be the year when solution providers and CIOs finally come together with a coherent strategy to rationalize and deliver the plethora of real-time and unstructured manufacturing data produced on the shop floor to the rest of the enterprise.

Arunkumar Janarthanan is a program manager in the Industrial Automation and Process Controls Practice with Frost and Sullivan. This contribution also includes input from Muthuraman Ramasamy, a senior analyst and team lead within Frost and Sullivan’s North American Industrial Process Control and Automation practice.

1. Digital manufacturing: Integration of virtual reality support features with shop floor automation and control (SFAC) in a simulated environment allows end users to understand bottlenecks and perform various scenario analyses, which aids in minimizing plant commissioning time. Apart from concepts like virtual commissioning, workplace ergonomics can be immensely improved by studying the assembly sequences virtually before the actual line is set up. This will aid in reducing costly restructures for correcting wrong placements. The ability to shrink process and production cycles through a unified platform approach of digital medium is enticing end users to adopt this technology as a mainstream process improvement.  

2. Convergence of manufacturing intelligence (MI) with business intelligence (BI): While the functional differences between MI and BI are diminishing, the aspect of front-end analysis by a BI solution continues to differentiate the two. MI focuses on providing actionable information within the shop floor space, while BI enables insights on customer preferences, sales volumes and other front-end data. The combination of these two powerful analytics is expected to drive much-needed market centricity in a top-down approach. BI provides the intelligence to the MI on preferential needs, and subsequent changes are communicated through manufacturing systems. This value chain of communication enables organizations to become more agile, nimble and to better manage uncertainty.

3. Cloud computing and virtualization: Cost competitiveness and the need to do more with less are driving the development of new business models. Cloud computing and virtualization enable companies to gain cost efficiencies by investing less in IT infrastructure. There is a general consensus within the manufacturing community that non-critical applications can be hosted through virtual or cloud mediums to experience better availability, security and reliability. Cloud computing allows end users to leverage high-speed hosted processors at a significantly lower cost than buying their own.

4. Integrated control and energy management: With an expanding need for enterprise integration, the industrial automation space has been witnessing overlapping layers of automation, from the plant-level up to the enterprise level. This trend, combined with vendor-specific automation solutions, creates barriers between plant engineering, safety, operations, information management, power management, production optimization and asset optimization. The focus towards enhanced operational excellence while ensuring efficient energy management necessitates integration of process control and power management. Increasing adoption of IEC 61850 standards has been enabling efficient interoperability, and we expect the trend to have a significant impact on the control systems market.

5. Integrated safety and security: The integration of plant floor automation systems with that of supervisory and enterprise systems through remote communications is driving the need for an effective cyber security infrastructure. As solution providers focus on incorporation of security enhancements and product augmentation strategies to ward off cyber security risks, we expect a trend towards the integration of security with safety.

BONUS: Mobile workforce management and real-time decision support: It is challenging to improve asset efficiency without an efficient way of monitoring and analysing the data collected from the plant assets. Mobile workforce and real-time decision support solutions enable end users to efficiently transmit isolated asset-level data to the control room.

Udayan Pandya is the business unit manager for Automation Systems at Siemens Canada.

1. RFID: The future of automation lies in non-contact, non-optical tracking across longer distances, with the ability to gather a diverse amount of data. We are at the point where raw materials can be tagged as they are being assembled, giving manufacturers the ability to track each part in an end product. This will benefit both the manufacturer and the end user with inventory management, and in situations concerning product recalls where specific units are defective and can be targeted for replacement.

2. Wireless safety: Writing safety software into a device and eliminating the need for excess parts will become more present in the next year, along with the continuing efforts to introduce wireless safety solutions. As it stands, PROFIsafe on PROFINET is the only network approved by the IEC for wireless safety, which reflects the skepticism in the market. Wireless safety with innovative solutions, however, will enable a paradigm shift.

3. PROFIenergy: PROFIenergy allows the switching off of unused sensors/actuators during production breaks in an open architecture format. This application provides a means to save a facility up to 60 percent on its energy costs. As the economy recovers, customers will be looking to invest in the capability to save their dollars for their business.

4. Integrated engineering framework: By combining industrial software with automation engineering, we can significantly reduce the time taken to get a new product to market. The key is to eliminate the time needed to update interfaces and the errors that can occur, which both cost the manufacturer hours of unneeded labour. However, the standardization of the engineering systems, controllers and HMIs into one consistent interface should be designed with improved usability and a highly efficient, short learning curve in mind.

5. Embedded controls: The concept of embedded controls has been present in the marketplace for some time. What is interesting is that solutions such as a dual PC/PLC device have not become prevalent over the two box alternative. One concern in particular is the fear that one system failing will affect the other. In most situations this is not the case. Conversely, the benefits of having a real-time operating system, no rotating media, and the ability to handle higher temperatures without a fan component cannot be ignored. I am confident that we will see a trend to more embedded technology in 2011.