Industrial automation: Fitting the factory into the enterprise


Thursday, January 12, 2012: Industrial automation has come a long way from the days of mere mechanisation—when machines were controlled entirely by workers on the factory floor. Then came automation—when machines could work without human intervention, controlled by programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and other embedded systems, and integrated using software systems. Even that is changing today and we could call the emerging age as that of autonomy. Or, shall we call it industrial automation v2? First, v2 is no longer confined to the factory floor. It has pervaded the entire enterprise—everything, from product engineering and manufacturing to testing, logistics, marketing and even customer care, is being automated.

Second, the concept of machine operators is becoming archaic. Machines can work by themselves. Technically, these can be operated and controlled by anybody from anywhere. They can even be managed by other machines, through machine-to-machine communication and peer level synchronisation. They can be controlled by intelligent sensors and other measurement devices. Some intelligent systems can even take care of contingencies—they can automatically detect faults and anomalies, and fix them as they have been taught to. 

Of course, all this does not happen completely devoid of human participation. It is human programming that teaches machines how to function and to control themselves. Plus, engineers continue to monitor the systems and intervene in extraordinary situations. But even this has become easier, as engineers can watch and control the entire factory with the aid of user friendly dashboards on small handheld PCs or even their mobile phones. What’s more, machines become less intimidating when seen through simple software interfaces and it is easier to tell them what we want them to do. 

Third, the factory, per se, is becoming a very flexible and logical entity now, thanks to automation. It can be reprogrammed to work in different ways and even produce different things in varying quantities and at different speeds—and quite easily too. Hence, machines no longer need to keep functioning in the same way, all their life. This flexibility, which has been brought about by the ability to control the machines at a logical level through simple software interfaces, helps meet the ever changing needs of consumers in a fast and inexpensive way! 


In short, the factory is becoming a very integral part of the entire enterprise and its varied management information systems. This trend is being fuelled by multiple technologies at various levels—embedded systems, wireless technologies, artificial intelligence, industrial networking, advanced software engineering, mobile devices and networks, security, and more. These technologies are constantly evolving, contributing to growth in the industrial automation space too. Let’s take a quick look at five recent technological developments in this space. 

PC based platforms gain popularity 

A part of the industrial automation world is now moving from rack mounted PLCs to more generic PC based platforms… but not all of them! “With a PC based solution, you can integrate PLC control, motion control, your supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) requirements on a single high performance controller platform. With a PC based controller platform, your software and knowhow investments are protected in the long run due to the use of standard control components. PC based solutions also provide the flexibility of integrating the control solution with the enterprise resource planning and management information system (ERP/MIS) solutions,” explains Jitendrakumar Kataria, managing director, Beckhoff Automation.


The need to connect multiple devices seamlessly for control data exchange, increasing use of robots in manufacturing, and constantly widening scope of industrial automation has led to a great demand for PC based automation and industrial PCs. A PC based control platform provides a single canvas to integrate all the control functions, visualisation functions and database features required by a manufacturer. It ensures speedy configuration, scalability, flexibility, fewer interfaces and open standards.


Companies such as Beckhoff and Siemens offer a variety of PC based solutions such as industrial and embedded PCs, multi-core 64-bit PC based controller systems, automation software, Web based diagnostic solutions, and so on. Such tools are fast gaining popularity. We also see industrial versions of floating point processors, dynamic random access memory (DRAM), solid state storage devices such as CompactFlash, fast Ethernet chip sets and field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) in industrial control products.


However, not everybody is game to replace their PLCs with PC based options. They argue that the operating systems of PC based controls are not designed and dedicated to providing uninterrupted real time control. Further, they share their resources between applications and system activities. Some of these activities are under the user’s control while some are not. This affects the speed and repeatability of PC based systems at a level that cannot be controlled by the user. From this viewpoint, PLCs seem to be more robust and reliable than PCs.


James Truchard, president and CEO, National Instruments, explained in a recent report that the future of PLCs hinges on the incorporation of embedded technology. One example is the ability to use software to define hardware. Consider FPGAs (Field Programmable Gate Arrays). “FPGAs are electronic components commonly used by electronics manufacturers to create custom chips, allowing intelligence to be placed in new devices. These devices consist of three main components: configurable logic blocks that can perform a variety of functions, programmable interconnects that act as switches to connect the function blocks together, and input-output (I/O) blocks that pass data in and out of the chip. By defining the functionality of the configurable logic blocks and the way they connect to each other and to the I/O, electronics designers can create custom chips without the expense of producing a custom ASIC (application specific integrated circuit). FPGAs are comparable to having a computer that literally rewires its internal circuitry to run your specific application.” 

Mobile enabled manufacturing 

When everything is going mobile, why not manufacturing too? While there has been a lot of talk of ‘mobile manufacturing’ or mobile enabled manufacturing in the past few years, it was in 2009 that the concept actually picked up speed. Mobile manufacturing is all about industrial automation systems that can be accessed and controlled via a mobile network, using a PDA, laptop or mobile phone. 

As mentioned earlier, several manufacturers have also realised the importance of the grey collared mobile workforce, and have invested in enhancing their role in the organisation. Some have adopted manufacturer friendly applications from companies like SAP, Sybase, Microsoft, Capgemini, Wonderware and SAT Corporation, while others have developed their own mobile enabled applications or added mobile capabilities to their existing systems. Having realised the power of the grey collar worker, manufacturers are even eagerly waiting for the roll out of fourth generation (4G) networks to invest further power in their hands—anytime, anywhere video conferencing, live demos and factory checks, remote troubleshooting by technicians and more. 

Rosy as the picture seems, in truth, the large number of mobile devices and applications are not easy to manage. Each device is a gateway to the organisation and security can be easily compromised if a device is lost. Solution providers are coming up with enhanced security and management features to help manufacturers overcome this hurdle. One significant move in this direction is the subscription based managed mobility service being offered by the Verizon Sybase team. It provides an integrated framework of management and security services delivered via a Web portal. More such services are sure to come out as more manufacturers go mobile. 

Factories wirelessly networked 

Without a doubt, networking has been one of the best things to happen to industrial automation in the past decade. Without Ethernet and IP, interoperability would have still been a distant dream. Networking brought about what can be called the ‘design to product continuum’. It has enabled a lot of aspects of industrial automation, ranging from integration to diagnostics. 

Now networking has become even more powerful yet simple, thanks to wireless technologies, which make the communication setup within campuses quite easy and cost effective. Initial installation and maintenance of wireless networks is comparatively inexpensive because one does not need to lay wires or replace them in the long run. Plus, adding new devices to a wireless network is also easy. Quite obviously, one can reach even difficult-to-access areas through wireless. This is especially useful in the case of sensor networks. 

Perhaps one of the most important benefits of wireless networks is the reliability that is achieved by combining meshing with spread spectrum technology. While doubts about security continue to nag manufacturers, the truth is that if done right, encryption, frequency differentiation, and techniques like direct-sequence spread-spectrum (DSSS) can surely ensure tight security for industrial wireless networks. 

Several technologies such as ZigBee, ultra wideband (UWB), Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and WirelessHART are contending to rule the industrial automation space, while standards such as the ISA100 are attempting to streamline things. 

Smart devices can talk to each other 

Almost all industrial automation equipment has become smart today, acting as standalone units without any dependence on PCs. In a modern factory floor, a device can store a wealth of information such as when it was installed and by whom, the uptime and downtime, critical specifications, diagnostics, availability of spares, replacement alternatives, repair instructions, usage patterns and more. With a wee bit of intelligence, it can also update this information to reflect otherwise invisible machine activity. Some advanced systems may include decision making technologies such as operations research and artificial intelligence, which control workflow, material and information flow. 

Add to this the power of networking, and you have smart devices that can share information, instructions and decisions with other devices as well as organisation-wide information systems. The ability of today’s machines to communicate with each other is called machine to machine (M2M) communication, and is one of the main benefits of wireless technology on the plant floor. M2M communication makes the information stored and generated by a machine more useful. It makes the information about assets, costs, liabilities and activities more visible to managers and hence enhances the decision making process. The effect is an unprecedented level of productivity and efficiency. 

“Increased intelligence of industrial automation and ‘smart’ inspection devices have led to systems which are more compact and cost effective. This has also led to more flexible systems that can be reconfigured easily to quickly handle changing automation demands, reducing the total cost of ownership (TCO),” says Yashasvi Nathan, senior engineer, Marketing, Soliton Technologies. 

“The example of vision based inspection systems illustrates this. In conventional PC based vision inspection systems, the images from a camera would be fed to a processor. The image processing would be carried out on this separate processing platform (a PC, typically). This would lead to bulky inspection systems. With smart cameras, however, the processor and camera are integrated into a single, highly compact package. This is a completely standalone inspection unit that does not require any external processor to run the inspection algorithm. This system can be set up with minimal disturbance to the existing equipment. The standalone nature of this system makes it a very useful product. These smart cameras come with network connectivity, enabling decision makers to get information online for quick and appropriate decision making.” 

Smart devices, pervasive computing and M2M communications are all set to change the role and scope of industrial automation, representing a huge business opportunity for industrial automation equipment suppliers. Their job will no longer be to supply mere machines. In order to tap a larger market, they will have to start looking at each machine as part of a larger system, and bundle the equipment with so called smart services. 

Integration gives more choice to customers 

Networking, standards, convergence of communication technologies, powerful software platforms and open systems in industrial automation have made it possible to integrate different control disciplines into a single platform. 

The possibility of combining PLCs, robots, computer numeric controllers (CNCs), human machine interfaces (HMIs) and vision systems from different manufacturers onto a single platform allows users to exercise their judgement and choose just the right mix of control disciplines for every application. Plus, users have the flexibility of upgrading, replacing or scaling up just a few components at a time and not all. They can reorganise the devices to work in different ways. In many such ways, integration enables better asset management and flexibility as well. 

Advanced software engineering has been one of the main enablers of such integration. Web services, data access specifications, service oriented architecture, composite application frameworks, workflow engines and application integration have made information and control flow possible between industrial automation systems and other enterprise systems. At a very basic level, all these technologies enable disparate applications to share information and instructions with each other, by using a common standard/language that all of them can understand at the interface. 

This enables integration at various levels—machines can be strung together into a seamless workflow, the plant automation system can be fitted into the entire production cycle, the product (from design to manufacture) can be integrated into the business, and the business itself can be linked to other businesses such as the suppliers and OEMs! The result—a real time enterprise. 

A real time enterprise is one that is equipped to act on events as they happen. It is not a new concept, but a melange of several old concepts such as ‘just in time’ inventories, enterprise resource planning, supply chain management, customer relationship management and more. 

Today, industrial automation and its league of smart devices, mobile and wireless technologies, M2M communications, pervasive computing and powerful software engineering have removed this disconnect by making the factory an integral part of the entire enterprise. What’s more, beyond such integration, modern technologies have also made industrial automation systems accessible from anywhere through the use of mobiles and PCs, literally encapsulating the whole enterprise into the employees’ hands!

Electronics Bazaar, South Asia’s No.1 Electronics B2B magazine



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