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  • By Allan Kern
  • Cover Story

Increasing numbers of manufacturers are investing in transforming manufacturing and applying Industry 4.0 and digitization to achieve top competitive positions in their industries.

This was evident at the 23rd Annual Automation Research Corporation (ARC) Industry Forum in February themed "Driving Digital Transformation in Industry and Cities." A significant number of users expressed plans and actions to transform manufacturing based on opportunities enabled by new technology to ensure they remain competitive. Larry Megan, PhD, director - Praxair Digital at Praxair, Inc., made an important point in his presentation that the focus is understanding your path to creating more value for customers, and a major challenge is to get from the hype to reality.

Users are also asking, "To achieve digitalization, should installed industrial automation be improved through evolution or revolution?"

Existing suppliers promote evolution, modernizing industrial automation through incremental add-ons, rather than through core control and automation hardware at the edge. This can be an incumbent supplier trap if your key suppliers are out of step with the application of technology. Incremental changes can make your manufacturing company less competitive.

Should the application of installed automation be continually improved or moved to newer automation technology? This discussion repeatedly happens in all areas of technology, and over the years there are different factors to consider, leading to various answers. Personally, many of us have made this value judgement when changing smartphones or computers to be more productive. Answering this question is not simple and should be based on a number of factors, including the knowledge and know-how of automation professionals. Automation professionals need to contribute to the management and investment discussion at their company to build winning plans.

Life-cycle cost analysis can help justify new automation investments, but selection of all the factors-including the competitive manufacturing environment-is vital for a reliable prediction. This is particularly important today with many new manufacturing and production competitors throughout the world that are leveraging new technology to take market share from traditional suppliers.

The competitive manufacturing landscape is changing, and new technology is enabling manufacturers to defend their competitive position or create new opportunities.

History many times repeats itself; consider Andrew Carnegie, who is known as a successful man of business, but he was also an innovator. In a desire to make steel more cheaply and more efficiently, he successfully adopted the Bessemer process at his Homestead Steel Works plant, resulting in greater efficiency and throughput, which contributed to major success.

"My interest is in the future because I am going to spend the rest of my life there."

-Charles Kettering, American inventor, engineer, businessman, and head of research at General Motors from 1920 to 1947

Tipping points

The influx technology, combined with competitors applying new methods and technologies, is driving us to a manufacturing industry tipping point. A tipping point is the critical point in an evolving situation that leads to a new and irreversible development. The shifts from stand-alone controllers to PID to DCS and relays to PLCs drove industry to tipping points.


I think in this environment a key question to explore is, if you apply superior application and project engineering to existing industrial automation, can you surpass your competitors that will be deploying newer and superior technology?

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About The Authors

Allan Kern, PE has 35 years of industrial process automation experience and has authored dozens of papers on more practical, reliable, and sustainable advanced process control solutions. Kern helps companies improve process efficiency, quality, and profits on site or with online consulting complementing in-house resources, helping bridge a skill shortage at many sites. He is the founder of APC Performance LLC and the inventor of patented Rate-Predictive Control (RPC®) and Model-less Multivariable Control (XMC®). For more information, visit