Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Software for the future: New technologies will be driven by new software, so be prepared

February 24, 2010
By Jeremy Pollard

Ten Years After: a rock group that performed at Woodstock, with Alvin Lee as an up-and-coming guitar player. Who’d have known, come 2009, that anyone would remember 40 years into the past? Well, we do.

So 10 years from now, where will we be and what technology will we be using in software?

One thing for sure is that you will not be in the job you are in today. The skills required to remain in the industry will be wide ranging, and you will probably need some level of certification.

I have pontificated before on certain technologies only to be shot down by a lack of enthusiasm of the masses to either accept technology or implement something different (because their distributor told them they should).

That is going to change.

Software is a global phenomenon. Solutions come from all over the globe, and some solutions are good — and some are better.

There are various stages of acknowledgement in our industry. By that I mean that once we determine a product is right for us, we tend to grab hold and never let go. Once we choose, that’s it!

Ten years from now, I don’t see this changing, except for the inevitable roadblocks that our captive vendors will have put up for us that we will have to work around unless we don’t care.

Google is going to have its way with us. All software will be “cloud based” in the commercial space, which will lead to “sort-of” cloud-based computing in our world. Machine control and local designs won’t change much, I don’t think, but the connection to the enterprise will be very different.

I feel that devices will have built-in widgets that will make creating software applications like HMIs a no-brainer. The alarms, set points and object-based data for any device will come from the device itself, and probably wirelessly. Control may still be hardwired, but the monitoring can very easily become wireless.

Control software creation will be done at a higher level than what it is now; by how much will depend on our captive vendors and our inability to get outside the box.

There will be many platforms that will allow us to use software to create software — but with methods and objects, not with individual placement of instructions.

Cell service will be pervasive, making access to all systems mobile. Security will be an issue, and we can hope that three-factor authentication systems will be in place to allow us to operate freely.

I suspect the incoming crop of nerds will be better prepared, and your boss will probably be younger than you. (Sorry for the generalization.) The “we have done it this way for x years” mentality will be so strained that companies will have no choice but to adjust.

Software and process simulation should be pervasive as well. We will be dealing with off-site projects that only allow us to generate solutions remotely.

Virtualization of processes won’t happen, but where these applications run will be in the virtual space in the enterprise. Local programming software won’t be required since your laptop will be connected to the control devices using a web browser and the programming editor and documentation will be resident on the device itself.
Now that will be cool!

Algorithmic control program creation is another potential tool, where a process control model is created using a scientific algorithm, not coded instructions. Think of it as a cross compiler.

From a software perspective, control and automation people are not software architects, and that has been shown time and time again. I’m sorry but most electricians cannot design, architect and implement a control strategy. Engineers have a tough enough time, and most are not successful. So the tedium of ‘build from scratch’ will be removed.
Check out IEC-61499 which documents a device level standard and creates a control paradigm without the need of master computer or PLC. Neat, eh?

Alarms and diagnostics will be programmed as such and will be pushed to the users. HMI screens on the factory floor won’t be a pervasive as they are now. Mobile access using a device such as an iPhone (but a new and improved model) will enable you to interact with the enterprise server directly.

While all of this is very cool, and will arise from the competitiveness that drives most technological advancements, we need the innovation to implement it. It will come. Windows 95 started a whole new wave of technology, and look how far we have come. We can now download a 3-D part model from AutoCAD to a milling machine and the product is done. We couldn’t do that 10 years ago.

New technologies will be driven by new software. You must be ready and prepared. The Rockwell PLC-5 has been around since 1983-ish. That’s 25 years. This paradigm will be a thing of the past. Life cycles are no longer 25 years — more like eight to 10. You have to be nimble, Jack!

So keep training and learning. You have it, and that will never change!

Jeremy Pollard is a 25-year veteran of the industrial automation industry. He has worked as a systems integrator, consultant and educator in the field. You can reach him at

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