New growth in old markets

By : Jim Pinto,
San Diego, CA.

Industrial automation business is in a general decline - many products have become commodities. Growth and success will result for leaders who recognize the advantages that new technology brings, and for those who have the ability to provide new products and advances for old and new markets.

The original version of this article was published by:
Check out, December 2001

Industrial automation trends

In the past, factory automation and process control related to plant and machinery that was big, bulky, static and represented several years, if not decades, of investment. Industrial automation hardware ranged from programmable controllers (PLCs) to large distributed control systems (DCS) with a sprinkling of PCs for interface. Today, the tools of discrete automation and distributed controls are merging, with PLCs becoming front-end I/O controllers and networked PCs taking over the DCS environment.

Software growth arenas of the past were SCADA, data acquisition and HMI - simply emulating the functions of a DCS at a reduced price. Today, those functions are integrated inexpensively in most equipment, and growth is in the arena of manufacturing execution systems (MES) software and integration of factory and business-wide functions and logistics. Tomorrow’s software will operate multi-processor systems to coordinate peer-to-peer I/O and controls.

New technology is moving too fast, and the rate of change of performance is increasing too rapidly, to play by the old ground rules. New equipment will be small, cheap, reliable, flexible, expandable and disposable. Operation will be intuitive and training quick and effective.

In a global environment there will be smaller, distributed factories built near the source of raw materials and dismantled when the source is depleted. Operator knowledge, training and assistance will be distributed over the Internet. Coordination of worldwide production and process plants will be through real-time information networks.

The Future is here

Formerly, industrial controls were all hard-wired because wireless connections were slow and expensive, and there was some mistrust of remotely operated systems that could be tampered with. Today, wireless links are fast and economical; soon bandwidth will be plentiful, to connect everything to everything. Also, advanced encryption technology makes wireless links trusted and advantageous.

At the local calibration-and-troubleshooting level, the old mechanisms of plugging in will soon obsolesce as Bluetooth connections proliferate. Instrument technicians will use wireless personal digital assistants (PDAs). When there is insufficient capability, the PDAs will link via the Internet to higher levels to download "advice".

Micro Electro Mechanical Systems (MEMS) will bring the analog and digital worlds closer together than ever before-through revolutionary improvements utilizing semiconductor fabrication techniques to produce miniature sensors, motors, gears, and actuators. A key benefit of MEMS is not only small size, but also very low power, allowing more miniature, battery-operated sensors with wireless connections to be scattered throughout the factory and in the field.

Central control hierarchies will yield to new self-organizing P2P networks, where intelligence resides directly in the I/O - the sensors and actuators. By these new standards, today’s PLC and PC-based controls and software will seem ineffective, expensive, and even archaic. Old, deterministic control architectures will disappear, giving way to CAS (complex adaptive systems). CAS provides easy expandability to very large systems plus reliability through redundancy at the I/O level, with unprecedented robustness and systems effectiveness.

Growth & Success

The industrial instrumentation & controls business is at an inflection point. Old knowledge is widely disseminated and many products have become commodities, causing a general business decline.

Growth and success will result for the leaders who recognize the revolutionary advantages that new technology brings, and for those who have the ability to provide new products and advances for old and new markets.

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