Ever since the early days of Ford’s ground-breaking assembly lines, industrial automation has progressed at a steady pace. Until recently, this rate of growth was able to meet the sector’s needs.
But now, an unprecedented storm of social, environmental, and economic challenges has gathered, requiring industrial companies to turbocharge their development and adoption of automation.
We all know the challenges. Climate change and sustainability KPIs. Pressures to reduce costs. Fluctuating energy demand and raw material prices. Increased product variants and shorter product lifecycles. Tougher regulation. Continued workforce evolution and shortages. And, of course, constant strives for higher growth and profits.
Ultimately, the only way to meet all these demands, without compromising bottom lines, is the digitisation of factories, processes, plants, machines, and industrial operations.
Improving work through automation
Satisfying these diverse, and sometimes even conflicting, KPIs in real-time isn’t possible without the right business insights, drawn from data from all levels of operations. This will require the convergence of Operational Technology (OT) with Information Technology (IT), and transparency.
And most importantly, it’ll need an open automation system flexible enough to meet, rather than get in the way of, the evolving business objectives facing industries in 2023 and beyond.
Advanced industrial automation systems that support digitisation will help organisations meet these challenges and close the loop from ‘insight to action and business value’. After all, technology’s principal purpose is to optimise the performance of people and processes.
It must support and empower the existing workforce with the right insights to make work simpler, safer, sustainable, and productive. It should also help ensure agility, resilience, and efficiency during challenging periods such as today.
We know that industries of the future require open, software-centric industrial automation, which is flexible, resilient, and sustainable. But how do we get there? And can we get there with the current technology we have today?
Breaking down silos
Many current industrial automation systems are closed, proprietary, and hardware driven. While organisations are investing in digitisation to optimise their systems with advanced technologies like Machine Learning (ML), Artificial Intelligence (AI), and virtual reality to better collect, contextualise, and analyse data, all these components require linkage between IT and OT to reach their full potential.
While possible with today’s technology, it’s difficult with hardware-driven automation systems that are not easily integrated with other automation platforms from different vendors.
Rather than investing in automation based on technology created decades ago, we need to embrace a new era that harnesses the potential of the digital world. Automation systems, and the industry’s wider mindset, must evolve from our closed, proprietary hardware-driven roots to new ways of operating and thinking. Software and data must play starring roles to meet the complex requirements of modern, digitised operations. Fundamentally, automation must enable the industrial digital transformation, rather than constrain it.
The technologies required to achieve this are already available and in use, but they need to become ubiquitous. Modern systems should follow the principles of portability, interoperability, software centricity and, most importantly, be fully open. Then, we can all tap into the top available technology from IT and converge it with the best of the industrial automation world.
The necessity of universal automation
To begin, we need to harmonise automation data, which simplifies communication between tools, software and machines, set and follow global standards for data exchange, and cultivate a world that’s decoupled from any specific manufacturer’s hardware.
These steps will minimise development costs and efforts and make the creation and maintenance of reliable infrastructure much easier. This then encourages more industrial organisations to scale their use cases and join the universal automation revolution, accelerating the interoperability and openness of automation systems and transforming productivity worldwide.
The vision must be for software vendors, industrial end users, system integrators, OEMs, and academics to share an industrial automation execution engine, or a common automation software layer, across their solutions, regardless of brand. A similar shared source model is already widely used in the computing, smartphone, and e-commerce worlds – for instance, all the different apps in a smartphone’s app store combine to create an ecosystem of entertainment, information, and problem-solving tools. We too need to create a vendor-agnostic environment that helps to optimise both cost and performance.
This ‘universal automation’ approach will require widespread collaboration, particularly via the availability and use of plug-and-produce automation software components enabled by the IEC 61499 standard for interoperability and portability. A standardised automation layer across automation suppliers and operators provides massive opportunities for growth and modernisation, streamlining IT/OT convergence. After all, when we all work together as an ecosystem, everyone benefits.
Universal automation may sound like the future, but it can be realised today. Seemingly advanced supporting technologies look set to soon become commonplace across industry, such as digital twins, self-taught robots, and devices that can programme themselves. Industrial automation will soon be spearheaded by a ‘software-defined’ paradigm that makes it easy to respond fluidly to market changes as they occur, sometimes even before they occur.
Futuristic automated robots, cameras, and sensors have already been seamlessly integrated into many factory shop floors, while data tracks the plants’ operations to fuel compelling decisions that optimise the efficiency of everything within. AI-powered analytics can even already enable ultra-accurate forecasting and risk management, transforming resilience against the toughest social, environmental, and economic challenges.
And as these challenges evolve, organisations with the latest technologies will not only be able to overcome them but even take advantage of them – eclipsing slower-moving competitors to meet new customer needs and solidify their market position.
So, how can businesses unlock this head start? They should begin by closely monitoring the news of developments, researching potential automation vendors and partners, and launching a ‘future-of-work’ digital transformation that enables businesses to plug any gaps, from talent to technology, within the scope of critical future capabilities.
They may even like to join UniversalAutomation.org, an independent, not-for-profit association of users, vendors, and academics managing the shared-source implementation. Ultimately, those that achieve these steps first will be ready to lead the way and thrive from industrial automation’s power today, and incredible potential tomorrow.
To read similar articles, check out our Automation channel.
About the author
Fabrice Jadot, Senior Vice President, Next Generation Automation Solution Incubator at Schneider Electric
Fabrice first joined Schneider Electric in 1997 focusing on motor control within R&D as part of the variable speed drives activity, which became a joint venture with Toshiba in 2000 (Schneider Electric Toshiba). He then took different managerial positions within the joint venture to become the leader of R&D in 2007. He was back to Schneider Electric in 2010 as Officer & Technology Officer for the Motion & Drives Line of Business in charge of worldwide offer creation.
In 2012, he joined the corporate organisation of the company as the Strategy and Innovation Platforms VP dealing with cross-business technology platforms in the domain of digital services, supervisory control and embedded control. In 2014, Fabrice took the role of SVP Technology & Innovation and Chief Technology Officer for the Industry Business driving automation system architecture, cyber-security and automation digital transformation.
He is also member of the board of OPCF, the industrial interoperability standard. Since 2019, he has the lead of the Industrial Automation Incubator to create a new category of automation system through the delivery of the next generation automation software platform.