Backstory: The role of software over the years

Tuesday January 26, 2016
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Jan. 26, 2016 - In 1995ish, I developed and moderated a software track for ISA Tech, the first and only one dedicated to the conference and not exhibits. Rich Ryan (who was with Rockwell Automation at the time) and I had a discussion on the future of automation software. He said that automation companies will become more I/O centric, and that instead of hardware pulling software like programming software, software will pull hardware.

Software in manufacturing has taken a steady rise throughout the 1990s and really hit its stride on the factory floor when Windows 95 hit the road. It moved DOS-based code over to Windows, made things more user-friendly, and created a user interface that was easy for most since the home computer was then somewhat affordable and ran Windows 95.

The top-end manufacturing software backends may run on Oracle or Unix, but the front-end for the most part has run and still runs on Microsoft Windows. Back in the day, most components of plant floor software were individual applications. In contrast, amalgamation of various components, as well as seamless integration of components, has made a great stride in automation and manufacturing software for many companies.

There were many third party software companies in the 80s and 90s, but now they have been swallowed up by the big fish. Just look at Wonderware HMI software. The fish were hungry, and it led to a manufacturing software platform that is single sourced, instead of piecemeal!

Since Y2K, the use of software in every manufacturing facility has risen to great heights. Mobility, device-independence, Internet, and operating system flexibility have added to the ability of software to aid in the pursuit of profits and efficiency.

The immediate and long-term benefit for any manufacturing facility is visibility — period. They have access to everything, and with the Internet of Things (IoT), we will see new software applications and platforms that will give us new insights into everything we do. Devices will be talking to us — indicating imminent failure, processes will tell us when they are going out of spec, and real-time data will be all the rage. Imagine a plant with a best before date thanks to software that hasn’t been created yet!

Commentary by Jeremy Pollard, who has been in the industrial automation industry for more than 30 years. He works as a systems integrator, educator, writer, and consultant.

This article was originally published in the January/February 2016 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.

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