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How industrial automation suppliers can accelerate the adoption of emerging technologies

By Rajabahadur V. Arcot

Manufacturing companies expect industrial automation system suppliers to stay current with technological developments and offer state-of-the-art solutions. They believe that the automation systems built around industrial Internet technology—which include Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), edge computing, cloud computing, big data and analytics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and autonomous robots—will improve the performance of industrial automation systems. Although there are many possibilities with industrial Internet, configurable and integration-ready automation systems built with industrial Internet capabilities are not yet available from traditional automation suppliers.

It is necessary to identify upfront the new functionalities and performance improvements that such systems facilitate. Either the suppliers have to discover functionalities that enrich the user experience, or the automation-system users have to specify their expectations.

A good example of the end user taking the lead in this regard is the ExxonMobil case. ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company (EMRE) entered into an agreement with Lockheed Martin to design an automation system architecture for its plants, which—while ensuring modularity, interoperability, expandability, reuse, portability, and scalability—will provide intrinsic cybersecurity protection that is adaptable to emerging threats. ExxonMobil specified its system requirements, and the supplier had to meet them.

The basic competencies required for architecting industrial automation systems to meet customer needs are automation fundamentals covering various types of sensors and transmitters, basic and advanced control principles, signals and communication protocols, control system architectures, and knowledge regarding the controlled processes and its safety, among others. However, information technology is the foundation on which the industrial Internet–based control systems rest. Hence, those having the comprehensive skills in both automation and information technologies are better equipped to leverage it. Information technology (IT) companies are making the bulk of the investments related to the industrial Internet, edge computing, cloud computing, big data and analytics, and artificial intelligence. So, it should be obvious that industrial automation companies and IT companies have to collaborate to incorporate IIoT into the industrial automation architecture. Such collaborative efforts are in evidence:

  • In conjunction with Microsoft, ABB developed its Ability Platform, which enables customers to integrate data, apply big data and predictive analytics, and generate insights. IBM is ABB’s preferred partner for artificial intelligence solutions.
  • GE has announced that it will operate its software and services, including Predix Application Platform, on Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure public cloud data centers.
  • Emerson is working with Microsoft to help industrial firms realize the value of the Industrial Internet of Things.
  • Yokogawa has announced agreements that envision “process co-innovation” for integrating its IIoT architecture; it has entered into agreements to use Microsoft’s Azure IoT Suite, FogHorn’s fog computing software, Bayshore’s security technology, and Telit’s communication modules, sensor onboarding, and device management with respective companies.

In the past, industrial automation suppliers have shown their adaptability to using various developments taking place in different disciplines of science and technology. They moved from local, mounted gauges and meters to panel-based pneumatic indicators, recorders, and controllers. Then they introduced electronic instruments and controllers. The advent of microprocessors contributed to the introduction of distributed control systems, programmable logic controllers, and supervisory control and data acquisition systems.

The convergence of information and communication technologies saw automation suppliers develop Fieldbus protocols in place of electrical signal transmission. It is now time for them to incorporate industrial Internet into their automation system architecture to enhance its value to end users.

For that to happen within a short time, apart from collaborating with information technology companies, automation suppliers must make their devices (sensors, transmitters, and human-machine interfaces) compatible with the industrial Internet, so that third parties can develop the applications or build interface devices.

A call for speed and openness

In the past, automation suppliers had the luxury of taking their time to acquire the required competencies, introduce new systems with the existing system as a backup, and validate the reliability and superiority of new systems. They had the luxury of deciding on the functionalities and features of the automation systems and building them accordingly.

Now customers want their specific requirements to be fulfilled. Since they are already used to the rapid pace at which the new information technology products and gadgets are entering the market and becoming obsolete, they expect similar instant fulfilment from automation suppliers.

The other challenge for automation suppliers is that they have a large installed base that has significant economic value. The way forward for them to meet customer needs, without discarding their existing architecture, is to open their architecture so that others can develop new applications and add-ons. For example, automation suppliers can allow connectivity to smartphones and other portable devices and help collaborative partners to develop applications.

Process experts and maintenance personnel who may not be available on site all the time can be brought into the decision-making loop with the help of mobile devices. With an app on a mobile device, one can access and visualize specific information with a touch and share it while simultaneously communicating by voice. In many process plants, auxiliary equipment, such as an air compressor or ash handling plant, often comes packaged with its own automation system and asset management software. However, it is necessary to access that information from the central control room. By incorporating industrial Internet connectivity, it is possible to access required information remotely.

The issue of building cybersecurity into automation system architectures is a work in progress. Automation suppliers’ traditional way of undertaking to design almost everything for their own drawing board may have to change. The commonly used system integration/application engineering approach to meet end user requirements serves the purpose only when all the building blocks are available and solutions are well known and already deployed. Incorporating industrial Internet and other adjacent technologies requires missing blocks links to be identified and developed quickly.

To quickly gain a foothold into the future, automation suppliers must adopt system engineering methodologies and work with system engineering partners with niche and complementary competencies.

A systems engineering approach focuses on analyzing and eliciting customer needs and required functionality early in the development cycle, documenting requirements, and then proceeding with further work. With such an approach, automation suppliers can build configurable and integration-ready automation systems that include industrial Internet capabilities, and manufacturers can get the performance-enhancing automation systems they need.

This article is part of September/October 2020 InTech—the ISA 75th Anniversary Special Edition