Where are we going? The evolution and future of industrial automation

Monday October 17, 2016
Written by Jim Pinto
Oct. 17, 2016 - Manufacturing AUTOMATION started publication 30 years ago, through some 20 Moore’s Law technology cycles. With accelerating technology and continuing profusion of smarter sensors, instruments and systems, the industrial automation business continues to be stable and solid.

Industrial instrumentation and controls has always been a hotbed of new products — improved sensors, amplifiers, displays, recorders, control elements, valves, actuators and other gadgets and gismos. The markets for each category are relatively small, specialized and fragmented, and it’s rare that any significant volume results directly from individual products.

Today, automation growth occurs primarily in international markets where new factories and plants are being built. In a tough, global environment, organic growth will not come easily. As China and India advance, expect one or both countries to make major automation acquisitions to enter American and European markets.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Canada, Mexico and the U.S. came into force in January 1994, with strong benefits for all three countries. All of the largest industrial automation companies have strong sales and service operations throughout North America. Canada- and Mexico-based automation companies are mostly all systems integrators, specializing in turnkey solutions in the largest markets for automation products.

Beyond peripheral companies involved with sales, distribution and support, manufacturing automation can be separated into four primary product segments: software, sensors, instruments and actuators. There are many companies in each market sector, each serving specific niches in a broad array of diversified industrial markets. This article will cover the major product growth arenas.

Mobile devices
Wireless connectivity is now commonplace in businesses, and growth has spread into all manufacturing and process plants through Wi-Fi-connected tablets, smartphones and other mobile devices. “There’s an app for that!” can be said for many common and automation applications. A steady stream of new uses for mobile products is generating substantial growth, increased productivity, and improved operating efficiency in virtually all automation arenas.

In the manufacturing environment, there’s a big switch to app-based calculations and displays. Nobody wants to walk over to a central, stationary, large computer display when they could view and change settings on a handheld personal device. Already, a lot of manufacturing and process plants are using them widely. The debate over company-issued and BYOD (bring your own device) continues.

Generally speaking, tablets and smartphones typically don’t have outside access points except through secure Wi-Fi. However, their very portability introduces serious security issues: they may be lost, stolen or “borrowed,” allowing unauthorized access to sensitive data. The “freebie” is the camera, which can be used to view and recognize the user to authorize or disable the device.

Infotech and the Cloud
In many manufacturing businesses, use of Cloud-based processing and storage is minimizing the need for in-house IT; strong financial incentives are driving change — no need for investment in local computers, hardware, software and personnel. Traditional networks with multiple PCs and workstations are steadily disappearing in manufacturing. Major software applications, such as manufacturing execution systems (MES) and production planning systems (PPS), are primary targets for Cloud computing and storage.

For automation product and system suppliers, significant gains in efficiency, cost and capability can be achieved as products become more intelligent and connected through the Cloud.

Manufacturing plants are moving from being separate and isolated towards becoming completely connected enterprises. There are several major advantages driving these changes: data is no longer local and isolated and it represents the holistic productivity of complete manufacturing organizations.

Industrial Internet — Industry 4.0
The 1970s brought PLCs, DCS and SCADA, and this conventional automation technology has seen only incremental developments, centred mainly on size and price, with minimal real overall productivity performance improvements. Many are simply slipping back into commodity supply and replacement.

McKinsey Global Institute ranks the Internet of Things (IoT) as one of the “most disruptive technologies to 2025.” It suggests much of that growth will be at the expense of older technologies and new revolutionary shifts will force entire industries to slide into obsolescence. McKinsey warns that change is imperative — no business can afford to be among the last. In the manufacturing automation business, IoT is advancing steadily. There is clearly strong interest among large end-user customers, especially for cutting costs and improving productivity for worldwide markets.

Pinto prognostications
Let’s end this three-decade appraisal with a glimpse of what automation could look like in the next 10 to 15 years. With continued and rapid technology acceleration, any projections beyond that timeframe can only be conjecture.

Today, many manufacturing factories still have a vast capital investment in old style systems with the chaos of conventional wiring. The continued growth of industrial wireless will continue to reduce the clutter.

One of the key problems is that most automation majors cling to bulky, old products to maintain their high gross margins. The results of conventional product pricing are yielding only incremental revenues and profit growth. Those who can offer high-performance, low-cost industrial wireless will be rewarded with significant growth surges.

Some large companies will invest in high-volume production of standard products. But, there will also be millions of small- and medium-sized businesses that will benefit from new materials, cheaper robots and 3D printers to economically produce a wide-ranging variety of products in small numbers, offering competitive variety.

New generations of robots will be inexpensive and simpler to set up; they will work with humans rather than replace them. There will be proliferation of smarter software and an abundance of Cloud-based services which will continue to de-escalate costs and prices.

The continuing manufacturing drive will be to make more with less — pack more information and knowledge into less matter using less energy while making more effective products. Jobs will continue to move from manipulating matter to playing with information and ideas.

Several capabilities will be expected from future automation systems: improved efficiency and reduced manufacturing costs; steady product improvement in smaller batches; optimum asset utilization; integrated factory and information technology; production flexibility, making it easy to expand, with high redundancy, self-recovery and rapid reconfiguration; integrated control, safety, security and information systems; products and systems interoperability; self-diagnostics and predictive maintenance; and health, safety and environmental responsibility.

People and workplaces
Manufacturing will still need people, if not so many in the factory itself. Automated machines need people to design, program and service them. As manufacturing transforms into a high-tech workplace, the new generation of process and automation engineers and technicians will be completely different — they will have grown up with the Internet, smartphones and video games.

Old-fashioned ideas about the need for years of training, job tenure and rank will quickly become outmoded. The high demand and insufficient supply of skilled engineers and technicians will cause more and more of this type of work to be outsourced worldwide via the Internet — mostly to individuals or small design companies. Innovation will trump everything else.

Old-style factories will disappear. Future workplaces will be bright and stimulating places where people enjoy working and their jobs are challenging and rewarding — no more striving for high pay with long hours. Today, young people (the millennials) are astute enough to seek a balanced life. They would like to work, but unlike their parents, they won’t tolerate drudgery. Those are the productive and effective manufacturing automation engineers and technicians of tomorrow.

Jim Pinto is an international speaker, technology futurist, automation consultant and writer.

This article was originally published in the September 2016 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.

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