New technologies
will boost industry out of recession

By : Jim Pinto,
San Diego, CA.

The industrial automation business seems somewhat stale, waiting for mythical market resurgence. To be successful in the future, we must use the current lull to get back to basics: developing new technology, new manufacturing methods, and new market approaches for a new business environment.

The industrial automation business seems somewhat stale, waiting for mythical market resurgence. The blame arguably resides with a broader market decline. But the prolonged recession in a new century indicates irreversible change in a competitive, global environment.

To be successful in the future, we must use the current lull to get back to basics: developing new technology, new manufacturing methods, and new market approaches for a new business environment.

These are some of the technology catalysts that have caused business surges in industrial automation in the past:

  • Development of the programmable logic controller (PLC) to replace hard-wired relays
  • Use of minicomputers in distributed control systems (DCSs) to replace centralized control rooms with mainframe computers
  • Replacement of PLCs and DCSs with PCs and software, providing significant cost improvements, flexibility, and an effective path to a networked environment
What is the next catalyst for growth? When technology is proprietary, it has value and generates wealth. When that knowledge spreads widely, products become commodities, available from several sources with marginally different features and benefits. Incremental proprietary features that translate into marginal gains do not command much beyond commodity pricing. At this point, the lowest-cost producer usually lowers prices and wins market share, causing a general business decline.

It is easy to copy the features and functions of a PLC and DCS. When that happens, the cost reduces to quality manufacturing of commodity products with the lowest overhead. Likewise, you can simply and quickly copy software-if not directly, then at least through availability of functional equivalents that anyone can develop quickly and cheaply in countries like India that have rapidly become centers of the software universe.

Inflection point

New growth and success will result only for leaders who work with technology that is revolutionary enough to cause significant change. That is the inflection point. That is where significant growth and wealth generates for leaders who utilize knowledge and creativity to make genuine advances.

Silicon technology and the PC revolution it generated drove significant growth in the past decade. Technology futurist George Gilder insists these technologies have now become commodities-they no longer shape the future.

Intel cannot continue to leverage its power through producing ever-larger chips with ever-smaller geometries in multibillion-dollar factories. Software, which will inevitably circumvent the bloated code of Microsoft, will become a part of every product and appliance we use.

Of course, the microchip and the computer will still retain their tremendous importance, in ways similar to steel mills and power plants in the past. They simply become part of the platforms that give birth to new technologies that transform the business landscape.

Automation inflection points

For industrial automation, several new inflection points will arrive in the next decade. Let me suggest my favorite possibilities:

MEMS: Microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) utilize semiconductor fabrication techniques to produce miniature turbines, motors, gears, moving mirrors, and sensors. MEMS will be the sensors, actuators, and displays for the digital devices of the near future, with size and cost that bring practical utilization in a tremendous number of old and new applications.

NEMS: Atomic-scale nanoelectromechanical systems, or NEMS, are the next step beyond MEMS. Production with old-style metal bending, grinding, and cutting will become obsolete as nanotechnology enables the building of products at the atomic level. The promise of more precisely machined moving parts means less wear. Under the build-to-order model, materials and products will consist of flawless internal structures that make them stronger and lighter. Electronics will get smaller and hence faster. As things continue to shrink, quantum effects that reign at the atomic scale will lead to computing performance beyond today's wildest dreams.

Wireless links: In the past, industrial controls were all “hard wired.” This was because wireless connections were slow and expensive; also, there was mistrust of remotely operated systems that hackers could tamper with. Today, wireless links are fast and economical, and they yield big advantages. Soon bandwidth will be plentiful enough to connect everything to everything. Further, encryption technology has advanced to the level where everyone should trust wireless links enough to overcome the objections. The old “islands of automation” will disappear, and the Internet will be pervasive.

At the local level, the old mechanisms of “plugging in” will soon be obsolete as “Bluetooth” connections proliferate. Instrument technicians will troubleshoot and calibrate the system with wireless personal digital assistants (PDAs). When a PDA has insufficient individual capability, it will link automatically to higher levels in the hierarchy to download "advice."

Complex adaptive system (CAS): The central control hierarchies of the past will give way to new self-organizing, peer-to-peer networks, where intelligence resides directly in the sensors and actuators, eliminating large, complex, and ineffective centralized control systems. By these standards, today's PLC and PC-based controls and software will seem ineffective, expensive, and even archaic. CAS provides a level of effectiveness and robustness that is unprecedented, and old deterministic control architectures will disappear.

The present economic downturn is the time to get the jump on everyone else by reviewing how your company can move into leadership through working at the inflection points.

Advice: Be first, run fast.

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Copyright 2000 : Jim Pinto, San Diego, CA, USA