Universal Automation will usher in a new era of a-la-carte automation
Published on : Sunday 01-08-2021
Meenu Singhal, Vice President – Industry Business, Schneider Electric India.
Universal Automation is termed as a bold move in industrial automation. How does this go beyond Open Automation as understood today?
Universal automation is a step towards building next-generation industries to unleash a series of unbounded innovations and usher in a new era of a-la-carte automation. A definite bold move, it will forever change the way we automate operations. This cutting-edge technology envisages delivering customised solutions to industry users at a faster pace and reduced cost by plugging together best-of-breed apps.
Built on IEC 61499 standard, universal automation supports portability and interoperability of software applications. Think of it as an app store but for industry users. It empowers them to choose the best software in the market by creating a multi-vendor system, thereby increasing collaboration within the industry. This would make the industry, customers, vendors along with end-users, champions of tomorrow. IEC 61499 is a total game-changer. It is an extension of IEC 61311, adding the possibility to model and distribute automation applications independently of the underlying automation hardware, providing the user greater independence in the choice of vendors.
Adopting the IEC 61499 standard would lead to a convergence between the physicality of OT and the digital perspective of IT to make precise business and operating adjustments. Using a standard automation layer throughout the market would create an expansive portfolio of portable and innovative apps. The vision of Industry 4.0 can only be achieved through increased collaboration and faster adoption of new-age technology and it is time for the industry to embrace the change.
What are the main obstacles today in the way of embracing Universal Automation enabled by the IEC 61499 standard?
The world of universal automation is new and as such, it is natural for industry users to hold on to some preconceived notions. One of the main obstacles is the assumption that it would be hard to retrofit universal automation in existing systems, thereby affecting the overall productivity. However, the USP of this technology lies in its ability to integrate and adapt to new systems in reduced time and money. Further, the cost of setting up infrastructure for universal automation may also add to the problem. Therefore, it is crucial to take a broader look at it.
When compared to closed and proprietary systems, universal automation props up as a one-time investment. It addresses specific issues without big engineering efforts or modularisation. It is like sowing the seeds once and then reaping the fruits for a lifetime. On the other hand, upgrading a proprietary system is like starting from scratch. With universal automation, it is possible to find solutions to targeted problems in the shortest possible time. This would boost the overall RoI, create business value, and free up engineers to brainstorm about innovations.
While most vendors agree in principle with the concept, they appear to have different interpretations of implementation. What is the way forward?
The apprehensions among the vendors tends to be motivated by pre-conceived notions. For almost 50 years now, not much has changed in the way industrial automation systems are designed, implemented and operated. But with Industry 4.0 and digitisation being the torchbearers of the future, it is incumbent upon us to leap forward into an ecosystem led by innovation and driven by futuristic technologies.
Some vendors presume that building a system based on best-of-breed components from multiple vendors may increase risk. However, this assumption is far from reality. Universal automation enables end-users to profit from the domain expertise of multiple authorities with broad and deep competence in a given field. Building software applications based on a standard-based system not only increases reliability but also makes it more easily expandable and adaptable for future use. Adding to this, some vendors also fear that the migration of industry users to universal automation can create challenges for them from the RoI perspective.
Traditional vendors are yet to embrace open implementations with code and function portability. But this approach is only going to limit innovation at the cost of leaving behind the industrial sector in the race of digitisation. The only way forward is to match the pace of the rapidly changing world to create agile businesses by unleashing innovations through universal automation.
Some experts believe the way out of vendor reluctance is for users to be more emphatic. Is there such a demand from user industries?
The digital space is growing at an exponential pace and business cannot continue as usual. There is a growing consensus among user industries that they can no longer postpone much-needed operational advancements in automation and digitisation. To reap the benefits of the rapidly changing IT landscape, businesses need to break free from the proprietary locked-in model and adopt universal automation. It will significantly enhance the productivity and efficiency of plants, cut down costs thereby increasing return on OpEx and CapEx, and help in meeting sustainability goals by conserving energy and natural resources.
Another important factor is that the upcoming generation of the workforce has grown up in a digital world. They don’t want to be control engineers. Instead, they want to be data engineers, controlling the process and providing performance-based inputs to generate positive business outcomes. Also, with the newcomers in the market embracing digital technologies to create agile businesses, the established players are eager to maintain their spot in the pecking order. Business Wire predicts that the industrial automation market in India is set to see an incremental growth of $2.58 billion during 2020-2024. As such, the pandemic has acted as a catalyst in the adoption of automated services and technologies and enabled companies to fully realise the potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Universal Automation is also not exactly risk-free. So what are the safeguards and is there an overseeing mechanism in place?
The risks involved with universal automation are on par with any other digital technology. Therefore, it is not something to worry about as today we are in a better position to avert such risks than ever before. Universal automation supports a flexible and intrinsically cyber-secure digital automation platform. Cybersecurity cannot be taken for granted. We at Schneider Electric are committed to providing the best-of-class solutions with enhanced safety to our partners, regardless of business type or industry. Through EcoStruxture, our IoT-enabled, interoperable, and architecture platform, we strive to provide vendor-agnostic services to our customers that help in protecting critical infrastructure. We assess risk, implement cyber-specific solutions whilst providing onsite defence. With thousands of our Modicon and Triconex safety systems protecting critical industrial processes globally, building a robust cybersecurity system is at the core of what we do at Schneider Electric.
Is Schneider Electric fully prepared to embrace Universal Automation?
Schneider Electric believes in swiftly adopting the latest innovations to build resilience, sustainability, and efficiency. Universal Automation is at the forefront of our vision to be ready for the industry of tomorrow. Our EcoStruxure™ Automation Expert is the world’s first software-centric universal automation system that would drive customers to unlock the full potential of Industry 4.0.
Leveraging the strengths of the digital world, this solution would enable our customers to achieve step-change improvements using advanced technologies like predictive maintenance, digital twin, and others. Based on the 61499 standards, it aims to solve specific problems by providing an event-driven, decentralised, and open approach to automation engineering. Designed in a way to churn out maximum utility, it allows users to distribute applications to any system hardware architecture of choice with minimal to no additional programming effort.
Compared to its competitors, EcoStruxure Automation Expert, reduces the time taken to perform traditional automation tasks by 2-7 times. It brings down the entire cost of ownership by incorporating legacy systems with a wrap-reuse approach. Persisting and excelling in the digital world requires proactive innovation and seamless adoption of the latest technologies. As such, we believe that the adoption of universal automation will help businesses thrive and streamline their process in a better and controlled manner while also conserving energy and natural resources.