Is Digitization and IoT a New Thing? Not if you come from Industrial Automation

This audio was created using Microsoft Azure Speech Services

Everywhere and every day we are overwhelmed by articles and talks about the IoT, connectivity, big data, the digital transformation and all the benefits we can derive from this innovative, new technology.

These are exciting times for sure, and maybe even more exciting if you are like me and have been working in industrial automation for many years.  Because what we are seeing today are things that we have been developing over many years now becoming embedded as part of mainstream, modern digital life.

Advertisement for the Modicon 584 PLC, 1985

Without overloading you with technicalities, I’m going to give a few examples of things industrial automation has been working on since the 1960s that are now part of today’s digital transformation.

1.The birth of smart edge devices

In 1968, along with a group of engineers, Richard Morley founded Bedford Associates and invented the first programmable logic controller, the 084. He then established Modicon the company, deriving its name from MOdular DIgital CONtrol. If you take a close look at today’s PLCs they are basically smart edge devices that first became reality as the 084.

Richard Morley (left), his associates, and the 084, the first PLC

2. Communication between devices?

MODBUS Protocol was a messaging structure developed by Modicon in 1979 and used to establish client-server communication between intelligent devices.

You aren’t seeing things! There is a communication port here in this 984 PLC

3.  IoT? IIoT?

In 1997 Schneider Electric created something called Transparent Factory™, an open automation framework based on Internet technologies designed to provide seamless communication between the plant floor and higher level business systems.

Watch this 1998 video about Transparent Factory. Can you see the similarities to today’s IIoT?

4. Big Data?
Have you ever heard of plant historians? It’s not easy to pin-point the exact date when they first came into use, but plant/ process historians have been managing lots of data for many years, long before the term Big Data was coined.

Early ad from Wonderware, one of the pioneers in supervision software and plant historians

5. Predictive control?
Model predictive control has been used in the resources industries since the 1980s.

6. Blockchain?
I need to confess this one challenged me, but as an automation person, some of the concepts seemed very familiar to voting processing in triple modular redundancy (TMR) systems. TMR was used to monitor and protect a process in which two out of the three processors had to agree that a system should continue to run or else it would be stopped.Conclusion
So what do you think?  Are you an automation geek like me from way back and can see the genesis of the IoT and digitization from technologies going back almost 50 years?  By the way, all these analogies are a personal point of view from someone passionate and working in automation for 20 years, so I might be biased.  But feel free to express your thoughts and bring other analogies as I’m sure I only scratched the surface.

And if you are from the automation world, never forget Dick Morley (December 1, 1932 – October 17, 2017) and all the contributions he made to create and shape the industry as we know it today.  Dick passed earlier this year and we all owe him a huge debt of gratitude for his vision and leadership.

Mr. Dick Morley, the father of the PLC (and contributor to the IIoT)

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  • Dear Fabio:
    Thank you for the historical perspective.
    In regards to your comment “Is Digitization and IoT a new thing? Not if you come from industrial automation”, I believe there are several factors that are new and may take the large industrial giants by surprise; here are just a few
    1. The cost of hardware is approaching zero (what used to cost several thousand dollars for a controller such as PLCs) can now be accomplished with a few dollars (raspberry pi, Arduino etc). Sensors are also reducing in cost by several factors and some may offer better technology.
    2. Cost of extracting and sending the data is approaching zero.
    3. the business models are changing in the industrial automation for large capex expenditure to small monthly credit card expenditures
    4. As the Information technologies and operational technologies converge, one still has to deal with the human factor and perception also plays a role. No matter how new a SCADA or HMI product is, it is still perceived by some IT professionals as several decades old (similar to your description). An IoT platform offers a breath of fresh air and does not have to deal with the infrastructure that incumbents in the industrial automation have to. These newer platform seem to be alot more alligned with UX experience for the millenials.
    5. Go To Market: The traditional GTM via indirect and industrial distributors has worked for decades for large industrial players for many reasons (they carried stock, distributors in close proximity to customers etc). None of those things are really relevant in the IIoT era. Why? the customer can get the best resource with the click of the button; Amazon solved the stock issue. therefore if I were a distributor, I would question my role as an industrial distributor and if I were a vendor I would think how to grow exponentially (tapping into the power of communities) and not linearly (growing one distributor at the time)

  • Quintero

    6 years ago

    Good to know the history about the technologies. Regarding Blockchain and IoT, is one of the latest projects which has been developed that makes the most of the unused CPU resources of internet-connected devices to secure Smart-Contract-powered DApps. It is done by registering public transactions through an egalitarian Proof-of-Work consensus mechanism based on CryptoNight, which uses the community of website users as the low-impact processing grid for applications.

    Thank you Fabio, it is good for people to know the history of such technologies, and probably have a picture on the future perspective.

  • Amazing.

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