Accelerating Adoption of Emerging Technologies
Published by : Industrial Automation
A V Rajabahadur explains how industrial automation suppliers can accelerate the adoption of emerging technologies.
Manufacturing companies expect industrial automation system suppliers to stay current with the technological developments and offer state-of-the-art solutions. They believe that the automation systems built around the use of Industrial Internet technology that include Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), Edge Computing, Cloud Computing, Big Data and Analytics, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Autonomous Robots, and such others will improve the performance of industrial automation systems. The Industrial Internet has the potential to enhance automation systems’ capabilities associated with connectivity, data gathering and processing, visualisation, and much more. While Industrial Internet offers endless possibilities, configurable- and integration-ready automation systems, built with Industrial Internet capabilities are not yet available from traditional automation suppliers.
True, Industrial Internet embedded automation systems offer endless possibilities. But it is necessary to identify upfront the new functionalities and/or performance improvements that such systems facilitate. Either the suppliers have to discover functionalities that enrich the users’ experience or the automation-system users have to specify their expectations that mandate them to demand the inclusion of Industrial Internet in automation architecture. A good example of the end user taking the lead in this regard is the ExxonMobil case. ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company’s (EMRE) has entered into an agreement with Lockheed Martin to design for their plants an automation system architecture, which while ensuring modularity, interoperability, expandability, reuse, portability, and scalability, will also provide intrinsic cybersecurity protection that is adaptable to emerging threats. ExxonMobil has specified its system requirements and the ultimate supplier has to meet them.
The basic competencies required for architecting industrial automation systems to meet the customer needs are automation fundamentals covering various types of sensors and transmitters, basic and advanced control principles, signals and communication protocols, control system architectures, knowledge regarding the controlled processes and its safety, and such others. However, information technology is the foundation on which the Industrial-Internet based control systems rest and hence those having the comprehensive skills both in automation and information technologies are better equipped to leverage it. Additionally, it is the information technology companies that are making the bulk of the investments relating to the Industrial Internet and contributing to the developments taking place in Edge Computing, Cloud Computing, Big Data and Analytics, Artificial Intelligence, and such others. Therefore, it should be obvious that both industrial automation companies and information technology companies have to collaborate for incorporating IIoT in the industrial automation architecture. Such collaborative efforts are in evidence; ABB has developed in conjunction with Microsoft its Ability Platform that enables customers to integrate data, apply big data & 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 centres. Emerson is working with Microsoft to help industrial firms realise 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 leverage various developments taking place in different disciplines of science and technology. They moved over 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 their value to end users; for that to happen within a short span of time, apart from collaboration with information technology companies, they must make their devices, such as sensors, transmitters, and human machine interfaces, Industrial Internet compatible so that third parties can develop the applications or build interface devices.
In the past, automation suppliers had the luxury of taking their own 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 what functionalities and features the automation systems will have and built them accordingly. Now customers want their specific requirements to be fulfilled. Since they are already used to the rapid pace, at which new information technology products/gadgets are entering the market and getting 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 for them. They, perforce, are required to make design changes that are incremental and not entirely transformational; that is the way they operated in the past and would like to operate in the future. The way forward for them to meet the customer needs, without discarding their existing architecture being totally replaced, is to open their architecture so that others can develop new applications and add-ons
For example, automation suppliers can allow, on one hand, connectivity to the devices, such as tablets, smartphones, and other portable devices, and on the other, help collaborative partners to develop applications. Displays on mobile devices potentially improve data accessibility and their use at dramatically reduced costs. Process experts and maintenance personnel, who may not be available at site all the time, can be brought into the decision making loop with the help of mobile devices. With the help of an app on mobile devices, one can access and visualise specific information with a single-touch and share the same with others while simultaneously having voice communication. In many process plants auxiliary equipment, such as air compressor, ash handling plant, etc., 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 the required information from auxiliary equipment or plants from remote.
Even before automation suppliers could ready to leverage the IIoT capabilities in a meaningful way, industrial 5G, blockchain and such other adjacent technologies are knocking at their doors. Automation suppliers have their work cut out. In addition, the issue of building cyber security into their automation system architecture is work in progress. Their traditional way of undertaking to design almost everything for their own drawing board may have to change. Additionally, 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.
In order to quickly gain foothold into the future, automation suppliers must adopt system engineering methodologies and work with system engineering partners with niche and complementary competencies. While a ‘system’ is the combination of elements that function together to produce the capability required to meet a need, ‘systems engineering’ is a methodical, multi-disciplinary approach for the design, realisation, and operations of a system, according to National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Systems engineering technique is an interdisciplinary field of engineering and management that focuses on how to design, integrate, and manage complex systems over their life cycles. Systems engineering approach focuses on analysing and eliciting customer needs and required functionality early in the development cycle, documenting requirements, and then proceeding with further work. That way automation suppliers will empower themselves to focus on their core strengths and develop new sensors and better transmitters with edge computing capabilities, and such others.
Rajabahadur V Arcot, an Independent Industry Analyst/Columnist and Business Consultant, is Life Member of ISA and Member of ISA Smart Manufacturing & IIoT Division, an ISA accredited mentor and trainer. He writes industry and technology trend articles, market research reports, case studies, white papers, and automation & manufacturing IT insights.
The article first appeared in InTech – https://www.isa.org/intech-home/2020/september-october/departments/how-industrial-automation-suppliers-can-accelerate