The future of automation is not so distant
By William Aja
It sometimes feels like a common theme in the industry is to simply keep things going by implementing what was done before. If it works, why bother fixing it? New projects are continually built on existing standards, most of which are dog eared with problems. With financial or management pressures, there is a tendency to push on regardless of planned fixes and improvements. The start of every project begins the familiar process of counting I/O, selecting vendors, laying out programmable logic controller chassis, and distributing requests for quotes. In an extended blink of an eye, you are commissioning a system built on less-than-perfect standards, inheriting the same quirks as previous systems.
The same conversations repeat during bid review or kickoff meetings when someone points out inconsistencies or outdated standards. The typical response is “We meant to fix that, but we ran out of time,” or “That’s on the to-do list.” Is the brand-new plant really new, or does it have the functionality of a system from the ’90s, barely utilizing the latest technology?
As previous Channel Chat articles have pointed out, these are side effects of aggressively downsizing technical staff. Technology changes seem to be accelerating, and the past few years have brought technical advances that have breathed new life into automation groups and sparked great discussions around what the future holds. There is still a lot of work to be done.
We tend to attract very passionate engineers, and one of them summed up the situation perfectly, pointing out it can be frustrating to see bigger technological jumps and more advanced systems available in grocery stores than in the automation industry. Passengers have been tracked on every commercial airline for 30 years using barcoded boarding passes, yet many manufacturers do not track raw material additions to their multimillion dollar batches! People continually draw attention to the increasingly wider disparity between consumer and industrial technology. There are concerns about the leading edge becoming “bleeding edge,” but the benefits often outweigh the risks. As with safety systems, risks can be designed out or at least mitigated.
Virtualization is a great example. When it first became a buzzword, there was a great deal of pushback. Every application got its own box, and that was the law, no exceptions. Early adopters saw the benefits, and news spread like wildfire. As supervisory control and data acquisition, manufacturing execution systems, and historian capabilities increased, so did the need for processing power, and virtualization was the perfect answer.
Thin and zero clients soon followed, and the fear of something new was replaced with the realization of the power of virtualized infrastructures. Companies now manage sites globally from central locations and deploy engineering resources via remote connections without travel. The daunting and, frankly, scary tasks of patch deployment and operating system upgrades are now easier and centralized. Replacing broken or failed operator and engineering workstations is as simple as connecting power, video, and network cables.
Virtualization is now commonplace in most specification documents, and many are asking what is next. Some say industrial technology pales in comparison to consumer technology—but why is that? Is it because consumer technology is not robust enough and thoroughly tested for the industry, or is it a recursive cycle of accepting status quo or technology advancements that are less than innovative? Things like faster scan rates, increased memory, tougher security, and unified communication protocols are great, but they are evolutionary not revolutionary.
The next big thing is waiting to happen. The technology exists, and it is our job as automation professionals to help define what is next, push the industry, innovate, and stay on the leading edge of these advances while pushing automation vendors to reinvent their product portfolios.
Advancements like virtualized controllers and end-to-end mobility solutions are not only being asked for daily by the industry, but they are easily feasible with existing technology. So push boundaries, adopt new technologies, and never accept the status quo simply because it has always been done that way. The success of our industry depends on it.