The Current Industrial Automation Paradigm is Flawed and Here’s What to Do About It!

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During today’s times of profound change, some manufacturing organizations are falling into the trap of trying to maintain existing processes, and preserving long obsolete assets hoping to ride out what they perceive to be a temporary “storm”.  On the process side, they try to engineer evolutionary transformation making incremental changes, and focus on continuous improvements of existing operations which apply well-established methods and technologies as opposed to profound process and business model changes.  On the asset side, they continue to hold onto 30- to 40-year-old industrial automation systems, and generate significant costs preserving bulky, aging machines while attempting to maintain traditional gross margins.

In times of great change, such approaches can be a costly strategic business mistake potentially leading to significant loss of business and potentially the demise of an industrial manufacturer.

The reasons for this behavior are easy to understand. The growth and competitiveness strategy of many of these organizations relies on a traditional world view that assumes investment in manufacturing platforms that are heavily hardware dependent and by processes that are often defined by the limits of the physical platforms.

However, in this age of digitization, organizations no longer have to be held in check by the limitations of this traditional approach. The reality on the shop floor is that, in addition to smart machine functionality and operator know-how, software and interoperability of best of breed software solutions are what helps to establish true marketplace differentiation. The open nature of much of this new software now allows for a reexamination of how fundamental manufacturing floor processes are implemented. New software tools that work together are often what enables the agility, innovation, and consistent quality needed to compete.

The significance of this paradigm shift, from highly constrained processes limited by hardware to more open and process agility-enabling software, is only just beginning to impact the decision-making process of manufacturing stakeholders who are looking to uncover new sources of process efficiencies. Many recognize that a history of investment in closed, propriety hardware and software platforms runs counter to the goal of increased productivity. The fact that many hardware architectures and platforms are still more closed or proprietary than open presents a growing list of constraints, restrictions, and artificial limits that are hurting manufacturers’ ability to innovate and compete. Without a more open approach to industrial automation, similar to what has happened with open source code in the world of IT, manufacturers have to live with the fact that most of their systems will continue to operate at only 60-70 % of their true capacity. 

Understanding the Ramifications of Today’s Industrial Automation Limits

There are multiple reasons why maintaining the current industrial automation paradigm presents a significant disadvantage to manufacturers:

  • Lack of flexibility – When automation systems are proprietary, automation applications written for one system will not run on another. This imbedded technology makes it difficult to share data across applications and too costly for industrial organizations to launch significant upgrades with multivendor systems, so any changes are slow and the ability to integrate revolutionary approaches is severely constrained.
  • Limited innovation – Lack of vendor conformance to open programming standards creates tremendous inefficiencies and architectural challenges that lead to isolated “islands” of control across the plant floor. Integrating these islands into an entire plant architecture requires a great deal of application engineering, extra hardware, and more software to build a coordinated plant automation and control system. The added layers of interfaces contribute to lower reliability, increased production downtime and maintenance, and potentially higher costs. When working within the constraints of such environments, the ability to innovate is limited.
  • Non-digital architecture – Most of today’s automation systems are based on principles developed in the 1970’s and 80’s. Such technology is not designed to take advantage of the recent and rapid changes in information technology (IT). It is precisely these IT advantages (rapid data capture, data sharing and analysis) that are required to realize the promise of Industry 4.0. 
  • Increased total cost of ownership – Since upstream design tools and downstream operations tools cannot be closely coupled without a huge investment in time and expense, the creation of an efficient digital thread covering the full process/machine lifecycle becomes cost prohibitive.

Besides reducing manufacturing costs, removing the constraint of closed, proprietary systems will enable end users to benefit through steady product improvement, optimum asset utilization, integrated factory and information technology, more production flexibility, easier scalability, more integrated control, and the ability to perform self-diagnostics and predictive maintenance. OEMs will benefit from much needed additional agility and flexibility which will help them to shorten design and engineering phases, simplify commissioning through the use of standards, virtual commissioning, and plug and produce concepts, and increase machine availability through connectivity and digital services to improve productivity.

The IEC 61499 Standard Enables Interoperable Systems

Fortunately, it is today both possible and prudent to implement an open, standards-based architecture capable of creating step-change improvements in operations and faster time-to-market delivery of highly customized products to consumers. The solution lies in an existing standard, IEC 61499, which allows manufacturers to profitably incorporate Industry 4.0 modernizations into their operations.

The IEC 61499 standard helps to address key constraints that many organizations currently face. From a flexibility perspective, for example, the standard enables application-centric design by separating the application model from the system model. This allows devices to interoperate following standardized communications and data models across networks, without the need for programming. In addition, thanks to the standard, the issue of application code portability will no longer hinder investment in innovation and productivity-enhancing software.

The standard also lends itself to both distributed and centralized digital architectures, and provides application, system and device/resource models that enable applications to be designed independently of the underlying automation hardware. Also, implementation of the standard helps to lower TCO by allowing simplicity of deployment, plug and play connectivity, the smooth coupling or decoupling of hardware and software, and a seamless and easy upgrade path.

Such abilities fundamentally alter—for the benefit of end users, systems integrators and machine builders—the automation business as we know it today. To learn more about how the IEC 61499 standard can assist in your migration to open industrial automation platforms, download the new Schneider Electric white paper “IEC 61499: The Industrial Automation Standard for Portability that Enables Industry 4.0”.

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