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The Process Automation Revolution

Process Automation Revolution

ABB Corporate Research, Ladenburg, Germany

Looking 30 years back, Information Technology has deeply transformed everyday life. The Internet, computer networks and mobile devices have rapidly spread. For many teenagers the smartphone is now the most important single thing in their life. This was accompanied by impressive technology advances. Mass production of billions of devices every year means that powerful base technology is now available at very low cost.

When comparing the process automation of a 30-year-old plant with that of a newly built plant we notice that it is still relatively similar. Of course, the cost of automation has significantly decreased and the level of automation has significantly increased during that period. But overall, the principles of automation haven’t really changed.

Process automation has different key requirements such as safety, dependability and longevity which lead to slower adaptation of available network and computer technology. However, we think that in the near future process automation will accelerate the use of state of the art mainstream information technology and will therefore radically change.

Many of the constraints imposed by hardware, such as limited processing power on embedded systems, will be greatly relaxed or even vanish. On the software side technologies such as virtualisation will make automation software portable and easier to deploy. Real-time software systems can effectively become agnostic of any platform specifics, be it operating systems or industrial communication systems. This opens the domain for a plethora of technologies to choose from, increasing flexibility but also complexity.

Raspberry Pi, a single-board computer running Linux.

Raspberry Pi, a single-board computer running Linux. Image courtesy of Clive Darra on Flickr

Soon, most actuators and sensors will communicate via some form of Ethernet. This will break the still prevailing tight coupling of controllers and process signals. Although the industrial requirements for cabling and connectors differ from those in the office world, ongoing efforts will lead to industrial standards e.g. for Ethernet over two-core cables. The Ethernet communication stack can run on many different physical media like fibre, copper, WLAN, 4G or Bluetooth and can therefore be optimised for specific use cases.

Software technologies for virtualisation and rapid dynamic deployment will allow to run automation programs at many different alternative hosts: directly on the device, on a new class of industrial automation server or even in the cloud. Completely new schemes for redundancy will be developed. The cost for engineering will dramatically go down as most of the configuration will be done by plug & play.

The task of choosing the right technologies for an application might at first be more difficult as there is little experience concerning the tradeoffs in the automation domain. One example is the possibility to reduce the number of controllers in a plant as new and more potent controller hardware would require fewer controllers for the same work as before. However, the best balance between cost, complexity and availability has to be found for such a scenario where many variables are involved. Flexibility and scalability of the production is getting more important. Modular automation concepts will allow to quickly build new production plants and scale them up or down depending on demand. Modular automation concepts will standardise and encapsulate the base automation. The high-level automation will comfortably be orchestrated on an abstract level.

Punched Card Technology

Punched card operated loom at the National Museum of Scotland. Image courtesy of Gnomonic on Flickr

More capable hardware and higher bandwidth communication subsystems will also allow for fully integrated diagnostics systems in field devices. The availability of more detailed diagnostics data will open up new ways to manage automation systems concerning, e.g., redundancy and predictive maintenance. New capabilities such as better diagnostics and resilience are essential for markets like deep see drilling and other operations in difficult environments.

One of the consequences is that traditional business models will change. Many hardware components have become commodity just as real-time operating systems have in the past. So what will change? Value will more than before be created in software components. If not in the execution engines of controllers, then in the diagnostic capabilities of an automation system. When a supplier can offer superior reliability and lower maintenance cost through diagnostic services he will have the edge over the competition.

In some areas, however, we will see a race to the bottom similar to what happened in the IT industry. Formerly lucrative markets developed extreme pressure on prices for hardware, software, and services.

In the end the customer will benefit from this development. Basic functionality for the automation of a production will become cheaper. There will also be more choice in software and hardware. This will benefit the low, mid and high-end of the market. Above this, we will see higher-level capabilities, e.g., sophisticated diagnostics, mainly benefitting the mid and high-end of the market.

Dr Martin HollenderStephan Sehestedt

By Martin Hollender and Stephan Sehestedt

Dr Martin Hollender


Dr. Martin Hollender ([email protected]) is a researcher in the Operations Management group at ABB Corporate Research in Germany. He is editor of the book “Collaborative Process Automatio

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