Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Today plus: 10 More bits, more options

February 24, 2010
By Ian Verhappen

How will things get done 10 years from now?” This question has a two-pronged response: how will technology evolve, and how will it be maintained? It’s time to gaze into the crystal ball and forecast the future on both fronts.

Before we start, I need to paraphrase Bill Gates: “We tend to over predict what will be accomplished in the next two years and under predict what we will have done in 10 years.” With that in mind, how will industrial automation technology evolve over the next 10 years, and what will be cutting edge in 2020?

  • We will continue to have multiple protocols to serve the needs of niche industries.
  • Ethernet (wired and wireless) will be used more widely than today and PoE (Power over Ethernet) will also be common so devices can be connected via a single cable.
  • Wireless based on 802.15.4 will continue to gain traction with more devices connected, broader coverage and higher speed, but will still predominantly be used for monitoring-only applications.
  • Cyber security will be part of system design and will consider more than external attacks, becoming more robust and user friendly.
  • Operations will realize the benefits of life-cycle asset management and invest heavily in this area.
  • The IEC standard on 3D displays will be adopted and enable the development of the first 3D immersion control rooms, process simulators and engineering design software.

The above could be way off since the timelines are different for industrial settings than in the office or other short life-cycle environments. It is not too often someone will replace all their “perfectly adequate” field devices for new digital infrastructure, so a typical life cycle in industrial control is closer to 25 years versus fewer than five years for office computer systems. The above is a forecast of what may be possible, which does not equate to being widely used, just like we experienced with Fieldbus deployment more than five years after the technology was available. Wireless will gain traction around 2013 to 2015; by then, the press will be promoting the “next thing,” which will likely start being delivered around 2020.

The second, more important factor to consider is how all this technology will be designed, installed and maintained — by people. As we know, the first half of the coming decade will see the baby boomers retiring in large numbers, and the result could be a worker shortage. Fortunately, technology will provide part of the solution, and to some extent, the recession will help as well since many will either need to or want to continue to work because they either need to or simply “want to stay busy.” Most of my friends enjoy what they do and, therefore, semi-retire and consult two to four days per week on projects that interest them.


With fewer people around, and experience not as available as it may have been in the past, how will companies use technology to get the knowledge where it is needed when it is needed?

n Remote support: These semi-retirees can be based anywhere. Technology makes it easy to send the information to the expert, or allow the expert remote access to the system under investigation rather than have the expert travel for days to get to the facility with the problem. The economic benefit for the customer is that the expert can now be “cost” and time shared across multiple clients. The expert also has the potential to make more money as they can help multiple customers in one day rather than just one when they needed to physically be there.

n Smarter devices: These are able to not only report they have a defect but also the likely cause and what needs to be done to repair it. The fear is that people will rely on this information too much and forget how to do it by the time something happens. Therefore, just like operators have simulators to practice for abnormal situations, maintenance people will have similar tools to keep their skills fresh and sharp.

n Virtual environment: When a technician needs to go to the field, they will have the option of a heads-up display projected on their safety glasses of repair procedure and associated manuals to walk them through the repair.

n Software intelligence: Asset management systems and control systems will be tightly integrated, and the result will be maintenance optimization routines similar to what is done to optimize production across more than one unit operation today. This software will look for trends and patterns across multiple sensors and networks that indicate a potential problem for perhaps a device or piece of equipment not monitored directly long before it will affect operations so that it can be planned for the next convenient plant outage/service window.

The technology to accomplish the above can be done today, though what is missing is the economic incentive and, to some extent, standards to define interfaces between the various systems so that each installation is not customized.

In summary, the future will likely see better use of available experts who will be able to access the complete plant infrastructure through digital communications with fewer local staff to manage the day-to-day running of the facility.

Ian Verhappen, P.Eng., is an ISA Fellow, ISA Certified Automation Professional and a recognized authority on Foundation Fieldbus and industrial communications technologies. Feedback is always welcome via e-mail at

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