January 2010

Channel Chat

Brief history of Industrial Instrumentation

By Jim Pinto

This new "Channel Chat" series will cover a wide variety of industrial instrumentation and automation topics. We will start with this brief history of automation, and then branch out into innovation, standards, manufacturing, systems integration, sales channels, and different kinds of success in this business. Wherever my nose points, and your feedback leads …

Trace the roots of all significant business segments, and you will find key people and innovations. This has always been a hotbed of new products-improved sensors, displays, recorders, control elements, valves, actuators, and other widgets and gismos. But the markets are relatively small, specialized, and fragmented, and it is rare that any significant volume results directly from individual products.

Many industrial companies were based on innovative developments for niche applications. Customers were usually local end users who provided the opportunity to test new ideas, usually targeting specific unmet needs. The successful startups expanded their products and markets beyond initially narrow applications and geographies, depending on the real value of the innovation, and also whether or not the founder was able to grow the company beyond the initial entrepreneurial stages.

Since automation is such a fragmented business, all the larger companies are mostly a conglomeration of products and services; each product segment generates only modest volume, but lumped together they form sizeable businesses.

Major segments

Perhaps the exception to the small-company innovation rule was the distributed control system (DCS), a well-managed mix of several innovations developed in the 1970s by a team of engineers within Honeywell. This achieved $100 million in sales in process control markets within just a couple of years. The segment has since expanded to several billions of dollars, and it has morphed into a variety of different shapes, sizes, and form-factors for process, discrete, and batch systems.

The other major product segment to achieve significance, also in the 1970s, was the programmable logic controller (PLC). This breakthrough innovation was the brainchild of inventor Dick Morley, who worked for a small development company, Bedford Associates, and was associated with Modicon (now part of Schneider). Also involved was Odo Struger of Allen-Bradley, now Rockwell Automation, which became the PLC leader in the U.S. through good marketing and development of strong distribution channels.

The first PLCs were developed for specific applications-reprogrammable test installations in the automobile manufacturing business, replacing hard-wired relay-logic, which was hard to modify. Over the past four decades, PLCs have spread throughout the industry, and the PLC market segment has grown to several billions of dollars worldwide.

Initially, PLC applications remained focused around discrete automation markets, while DCS expanded primarily in process control systems. Then PLCs expanded into control of remote I/O systems with I/O clusters that could be easily connected as industrial networks. Soon personal computers became the easiest way to connect DCS, PLCs, and remote I/O into the rapidly expanding hierarchy of industrial networks, giving rise to a variety of "fieldbus" developments.

Another major industrial automation segment is termed "Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition" (SCADA). This loose conglomeration of products and innovations from several different sources remained fragmented between several markets and applications till networked PCs and Windows-based human-machine interface (HMI) software arrived in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Several innovative startups grew rapidly, providing HMI software with connections to remote PLCs and industrial I/O. Wonderware (started by engineer Dennis Morin) was paced by Intellution (founded by ex-Foxboro engineer Steve Rubin). There were several other startups in the same timeframe, but few achieved significance.

The large process controls suppliers inevitably acquired the leaders. Wonderware was acquired by Invensys, which owned Foxboro; Emerson acquired Intellution as a key part of its DCS strategy, which developed into Delta V. Intellution it now part of GE Enterprise Solutions. There are still several independent software companies, branching out to serve other industrial market needs, such as MES, security, and wireless.

Sensors and actuators

Industrial instrumentation includes inputs (sensors) and outputs (actuators) and all the "stuff" in between. Rosemount started with specialty temperature sensors (RTDs) and then grew with the development of its capacitive differential pressure transducers, rapidly overtaking the traditional leaders-Foxboro and Honeywell. The company was eventually acquired by Emerson, which also acquired other innovative sensor companies, such as Brooks (flow), Beckman (pH), and the like.

At the actuator end of the automation business, Fisher Controls was started in Iowa, making innovative valves and actuators. This company was also acquired by Emerson, which now had sensors and actuators. Interestingly, Rosemount and Fisher tried to grow by branching out into DCS, but their offerings were relatively insignificant till Emerson put them together with PCs and software to generate leadership with the combination that is now Emerson Process Systems.

Future growth

Extrapolating automation history forward is an interesting challenge. In the past, growth inflection points have developed from innovative products (DCS, PLC, sensors, actuators, and software). Today, growth is coming primarily from global expansion and services.

A new surge of growth will come through new technology-perhaps wireless, or nanotech sensors, or software for complex adaptive systems. The innovators and visionaries who recognize the possibilities will become the new leaders of tomorrow.


Jim Pinto is an industry analyst and founder of Action Instruments. You can e-mail him at jim@jimpinto.com or view his writings at www.JimPinto.com. Read the Table of Contents of his book, Pinto's Points, at www.jimpinto.com/writings/points.html.