Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Top 5 in 2012: The top technologies that will impact your plant floor in the coming year

January 24, 2012
By Mary Del

Manufacturing AUTOMATION asked a handful of industry experts to name the top five technologies and trends that Canadian manufacturers should watch out for in 2012 and beyond. Security was a top choice by our experts this year, followed by the connected factory, mobile computing, cloud computing, wireless technologies and energy management. Read on to learn more.


Nuris Ismail is a senior research associate in the manufacturing group at Aberdeen Group.

1. Convergence of plant floor and enterprise networks: Faced with internal pressures to cut down cost and external demands to be more responsive to customer needs, manufacturers are looking towards adopting the latest networking capabilities. Aberdeen Group’s 2011 research, “Industrial Networking: Building the Business Case for Industrial Ethernet,” revealed that many manufacturers are migrating to industrial Ethernet technology and utilizing industrial Ethernet protocols to connect their plant assets, manufacturing systems and business systems to integrate manufacturing data from the plant floor to the front office. As a result, these manufacturers are out-pacing the market with regard to improved network, operational and corporate performance.


2. Wireless: Traditionally, many manufacturers opted to use a wired infrastructure due to the security and reliability advantages these solutions provided over wireless solutions. However, over the years, wireless networking has advanced, as standards development, improved technology and security have removed major barriers to wireless adoption. Aberdeen’s report, “Uncovering the Benefits of Industrial Wireless in Manufacturing Operations,” revealed that 64 percent of manufacturers have some form of wireless in their manufacturing facility, and we expect this adoption rate to increase in 2012.

3. Industrial security: 2010 changed the shape of industrial security with the arrival of Stuxnet, the first malware targeted specifically at industrial environments. In 2011, the market saw a big push in the manufacturing community to ensure the security and reliability of industrial networks and components. Aberdeen’s security research uncovered that leading manufacturers are implementing a defence-in-depth strategy with multiple levels of security. A multi-layer approach ensures that if there is a security breach, the whole industrial network won’t be exposed to threats and vulnerabilities. By properly applying and installing these mechanisms and techniques, manufacturers will have the ability to be aware of modifications that may create new vulnerabilities and have the ability to mitigate any risks in a timely fashion.

4. Energy management: The high price of energy has changed the game in the energy-intensive process industries. It is now more important than ever to understand a plant’s energy needs and cut out wasteful energy consumption wherever possible. Aberdeen’s “Energy Intelligence” research revealed that industry leaders are twice as likely as their competitors to collect energy information from their plant automation systems and sub-meters. With the recent inclusion of energy data over EtherNet/IP, it is significantly easier for manufacturers to deliver energy data from the plant floor to business systems. In doing so, it enables these leaders to gain greater visibility into energy consumption at the equipment and facility level, and improves their ability to optimize energy utilization and production processes. As energy prices continue to fluctuate, more manufacturers will be looking for energy management solutions to gain better visibility into energy consumption in their manufacturing operations.

5. Integrated safety systems: Aberdeen’s “Integrated Safety Systems” research revealed that many manufacturers have taken advantage of the latest technology and recent changes to global safety standards to integrate their safety system with their plant automation system. In doing so, they have been able to ensure the same level of safety without sacrificing productivity. In addition, these manufacturers are also using open protocols to improve the level of integration and interoperability between standard and safety control systems. This seamless communication provides manufacturers with better visibility into the reasons for and frequency of events, and their ability to more effectively manage the massive amounts of complex safety data. As more manufacturers realize the benefits of an integrated safety system architecture, the adoption of this technology will increase.



Sherman Y.T. Lang is an industrial technology advisor for the National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program in London, Ont. 

1. Printable electronics: Printable electronics technologies have the potential to drive down the costs of devices such as RFIDs to compete with barcode printing. The less-than-a-penny-a-piece RFID tag could disrupt many current business models in manufacturing, where low-cost object and asset tracking are only the beginning of the potential impact of these new technologies. In addition to reducing costs of sensors and computing that can be integrated into products or work in process, new classes of devices will emerge due to the potential to bond together dissimilar materials. Imagine an RFID tag with integrated sensors that can detect cumulative shock and moisture during manufacturing and then visually self-identify with a warning on an integrated e-ink display. Now imagine that sensor as a disposable label that you just printed.

2. Machine vision: The ability of machine vision systems to identify and track objects in 3D is growing rapidly with advances in sensors and computing power. While vision systems are widely used for inspection, quality control and sorting, newer 3D vision systems can better distinguish between objects and from less constrained viewpoints. The 3D vision toolkit is expanding to track gestures, body motion, gaze and do facial recognition. Expect entrepreneurs to start thinking up better machine interfaces with these capabilities, better training and worker safety systems.

3. Cloud computing: Cloud storage and cloud processing can offer productivity tools that were previously unaffordable or impractical for SMEs. The economies of scale possible, as well as simplification in managing IT systems with cloud computing in manufacturing, is leading to the migration of enterprise management, supply chain management, ERP, MRP, CRM and other business functions into the cloud. As service providers tackle issues such as customization, effectiveness, reliability and security, MES is the next target in manufacturing that helps to further improve productivity of the shop floor.

4. Mobile technologies: Specialized mobile devices improve the productivity of the supply chain and sales operations. Using mobile phones and tablets, companies can further enhance worker productivity by providing additional productivity tools. Consumer grade smart phones and tablets can now be outfitted with the apps and additional hardware to enhance capability and customize to specific industry and company needs. With built-in GPS and the ability to add RFID, NFC and mag stripe capabilities, smart phones are positioned to become general purpose tools in the supply chain, and management of assets, maintenance and production.

5. Artificial intelligence (AI): The combination of voice recognition, search technology and AI has given rise to the intelligent assistant in smart phones. A similar intelligent assistant for the machines and systems we interact with on the shop floor could improve a multitude of tasks, such as control/programming of robotic/automation systems and troubleshooting of quality issues. On the shop floor, we may additionally combine touch, gesture/motion with voice interfaces to direct AI assistants that have access to search engines, databases and cloud computing services.



Matthew Littlefield is president and principal analyst of LNS Research, covering manufacturing operations management, quality management software, asset performance management and industrial automation. His blog can be found at

1. Global track and trace: Recent industry trends and legislation have made global track and trace a mandatory capability for doing business in industries as far ranging as food and beverage, life sciences, automotive, aerospace and defence, and electronics. Although many companies have basic track and trace capabilities through ERP and EDI systems, when a real crisis hits, flaws in these systems become apparent and they often involve shop floor systems and the data “lost in paper-based systems.” As companies in these industries start taking traceability requirements more seriously over the coming year, more investment will be made at the data collection and data management layers to enable track and trace initiatives.

2. Integrated plant engineering and operations: Over the past 10 years, the process industries have seen a major shift in how new facilities are built, commissioned and operated. These facilities are now larger, more complex, in more remote locations, and more likely to be constructed by outsourced EPC firms than ever before. To address these trends, owner-operators in the oil and gas, chemicals and other process industries are likely to start using automated software solutions for the construction of facilities and then use these engineering models to improve the process of commissioning and plant operation.

3. Cloud-based control: Over the past five to eight years, we have seen the emergence of cloud-based ERP, business intelligence and quality management software. Over the next five to 10 years, we will see cloud-based software move down the technology stack towards the shop floor. The first cloud-based software systems will start in the MOM (manufacturing operations management) space, but will evolve over time to include automated data collection and even real-time control.

4. Control system security: Since Stuxnet was first discovered in 2010, there has been neither a slowdown in the interest around cyber security for the industrial sector, nor a slowdown in the number of identified vulnerabilities across a wide range of vendor control systems. To date, every major automation vendor has made investments to provide improved services and consulting to their customers around cyber security and, in many cases, this is one of the fastest growing areas of their business. Although most companies don’t want to be in the headlines around cyber security, and much of the activity in this space is being conducted under a veil of secrecy, there is no doubt this is one of the hottest trends in the market.

5. Automated energy and carbon management: Over the past few years, both Profinet and Ethernet/IP have made inclusions in the standards to include energy management as a part of control. Trends in the industry around improving corporate sustainability and ensuring energy and carbon reduction goals are hit are here to stay, so it only makes sense that companies will begin to automate energy management best practices at the control layer. These best practices are likely to include optimizing machine performance and production decisions based on both the cost of energy and the demand for products.



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. Industrial Ethernet and the connected factory: In the factory and process control environment, virtually everything is being connected to everything else via central networks and the Internet. Automation systems based on standard computer/network architectures are spreading into all corners of the factory and plant floor. Today, most industrial networks are adopting IP protocols because of the many benefits available simply by being connected to the Internet and the enterprise. EtherCAT and Modbus TCP/IP are examples of enhanced, industrial Ethernet protocols that promote transparency from sensors to enterprise systems.

2. Distributed computing: The pervasive Internet will start to spread in factories and industrial plants. Industrial I/O products will become increasingly more autonomous in functionality, with vastly more robust operation in systems that include literally millions of I/O points. As the future unfolds, “thin” hardware and software will permeate the industrial landscape. The technology of thin-clients and thin-manager will encroach on conventional architectures. Software that orchestrates how, when and where these devices operate will be the key to managing the complex systems of the future.

3. Industrial wireless: Wireless continues to generate new growth in industrial automation applications, beyond just wire replacement. Major suppliers are reporting revenues in the tens of millions of dollars. The success is stimulating confidence and wider usage in larger projects for more end users. New markets and applications are generating revenues and market acceptance. Industrial wireless standards are settling down into reality. Low power, low data rate, and long battery life network protocols like Zigbee have not met growth expectations, but the obvious benefits are starting to generate growth of new applications.

4. Mobile applications: Most automation companies are now offering new features and functions using iPad, iPhone and Droid apps. More diagnostics and service functions are now accessible via mobile phones, with cheap two-way audio and video visibility to aid trouble-shooting and service procedures. New functions are emerging with increasingly vertical application-specific designs using pervasive consumer technology.

5. Control systems security: The closed and proprietary nature of traditional automation networks seemed relatively immune from security threats. The July 2010 discovery of Stuxnet, which spies on and reprograms industrial controls and hides its changes, brought with it the realization that critical computer infrastructures are vulnerable to malicious code. This is a major concern for everyone in industrial automation, and most major automation suppliers are developing security technology solutions at all levels of hardware and software.



Muthuraman Ramasamy (Ram) is a Frost & Sullivan industry analyst in the Industrial Automation and Process Controls practice.

1. Simulation-based training: The declining skilled workforce is driving enterprises to adopt state-of-the-art technologies to reduce transition time and improve business operations. As the young workforce continues to join critical process industries, operational safety is a paramount issue, followed by the need to maintain a productive operation. Simulation technologies are a precise fit to address these challenges, due to their ability to train the workforce before they set foot on the shop floor. Virtual commissioning solutions go hand-in-hand with simulation training solutions because they can gather inputs from simulation-based training and create process sequences that are best suited to the workforce. This set of solutions is expected to drive productivity, safety and operational profitability.

2. Digital operations: In highly complex process industries, an inherent challenge is the lack of collaboration between distributed assets and the need for centralized decision-making capability. For this to happen, solution providers will have to make a paradigm shift from “compete” to “collaborative competitiveness.” Diverse technologies need to converge on a unified backbone or architecture to ensure a highly reliant, scalable, secure and effective operational suite. The adoption of digital operations allows enterprises to solve two key challenges: driving operational performance seamlessly and overcoming the challenge of a declining skilled workforce. Many enterprises have already adopted this integrated technology approach and have executed centralized monitoring, control and decision making to experience improved business performance and profitability.

3. Mobile workforce management and real-time decision support: In an age of distributed assets and an increased mobile workforce, there is a need for a set of solutions that can leverage and drive the productivity of these assets. Mobile workforce management has been seeing high levels of adoption to drive asset efficiency, management and control, as well as overall business profitability. A centralized real-time decision making capability that is based on collating enterprise-wide data will change the way businesses run.

4. Predictive analytics: This is a strategic tool that enables predictions of the future based on real-time data, with a reasonable level of accuracy. This advanced level of intelligence can be used in decision making to ensure a secure future. Within manufacturing, predictive analytics can be applied to various application areas like maintenance, pricing, sales forecasting and quality.

5. Cyber security: The Internet’s ubiquity allows for devices to be connected, monitored and controlled seamlessly. However, every connected asset is a point of vulnerability for its end users. Security strategies need to be in place to protect intrusions and theft of sensitive data. An integrated part of the operational excellence strategy should be cyber security. The onset of advanced technologies, such as virtualization and cloud computing, is further driving home the need for an effective cyber security solution. Intrusion prevention best practice models will be expected to see high levels of adoption amidst critical infrastructure providers in order to improve reliability and performance, and reduce operational downtime.


This article originally appeared in the January/February 2012 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.


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