Industrial Automation

What is Industrial Automation?

Historically industrial automation systems or solutions made use of system components supplied off the shelf from major automation companies. System Integrators or the automation vendors would piece these systems together using “industry hardened” devices. The purpose of industrial automation systems is to improve repeatability and accuracy where humans were less reliable or becoming more expensive in terms of cost to manufacture. The industrial revolution and the advent of low-cost computing power has fuelled the growth of the Industrial Automation revolution, however, there still remains confusion between the difference between controlling the home air conditioning unit with your smart phone app and stopping a train before it gets to the end of line. They are not the same thing, even though the smart phone app may look very cool and make life so much more pleasant than taking the train.

One of the significant advantages with mature automation systems is capturing operational information such as alarms, events, operator actions and just about any operational status you can think of. This information, commonly called “process data” can be used to operate the plant more efficiently or safely. It can be used for forensic purposes and is indeed used for exactly this in pharmaceutical, heavy industry and safety systems.

For a generation industrial automation has been a very closed industry. Open Source systems including hardware and software products have not been well accepted for heavy industry and critical infrastructure. Part of the reason for this is “the hardened principle” and the successful historical performance that this has appeared to deliver. Historical performance of industrial automation technology feeds into shaping the risk profile and the risk of loss of life or environmental damage and this is perhaps something simply too high a risk to take a chance with. Industrial Automation vendors all promote their quality assurance program which certainly improves the quality and reliability of how their products operate in real time. The one disadvantage of open source systems is that they do not have the history of (decades of operational performance with very limited down time) that the industrial automation vendors have bragging rights too. The other major argument for open source advocates is the version release management process and interlinking with other software systems and services which may be affected by library updates and so forth. When “kit” software and “kit” hardware is used to provide the same functionality as industrial automation solutions, perhaps the initial solution can be done at a fraction of the dollar cost, but the price could be much, much higher in the long run. Having the same functionality (turning on a switch automatically) can be done on the cheap with less than 100% reliability or alternatively it could be one with a high certainty of repeatability using hardened components coupled with end to end system design.

 

Which are the most common industrial automation companies?

In Australia and across the world, some of the largest vendors are: ABB, Emerson, General Electric, Honeywell, Mitsubishi, Omron, Rockwell, Schneider. Siemens, Yokogawa.

There are other industrial software companies which work with or complement the core products offered by the large automation vendors listed previously and usually their solutions are bespoke and add performance capability. Examples of this would be Process Historians by OSIsoft and Aspentech.

 

Which systems does Parasyn work with?

Every day Parasyn works with the most common platforms used in Australia. Because many of our staff have worked on other continents and worked on different systems, the capability across the engineering team is much broader than the most common systems used by one industry in one locale. This is a distinct advantage when doing systems design for end to end solutions. This principle is important because understanding how systems interact, their dependencies and expected behaviour is an important input and output for hardened industrial automation solutions. Building an industrial automation system is more than choosing from a shopping list and putting the Lego blocks together. Yes, Lego technic is pretty cool, maybe Pokémon is cooler now, but neither keeps the aircraft in the air and satellites in space.

 

How is IIOT changing Industrial Automation?

Industrial Automation vendors and their partners have been doing IOT for decades. With the improvements in internet speed, security and connectivity, many of the already hardened industrial automation solutions can now make use of publicly built infrastructure. For example, previously, utilities such as power, water, transport and government agencies would mostly provide their own private communications infrastructure to control the system availability and its reliability. However, this came at a very high cost. If these organisations could not implement their own communications networks, at the very least they would have implemented redundant systems and developed ways to manage their exposure to public or commercial communication system risks. With the domestic demand for internet bandwidth improving the services provided by data infrastructure providers and consumer influence increasing the accountability of public telecommunication services provider’s quality (by instant reviews), what was once private network connectivity is today a virtual private network using public infrastructure. This means big business and utilities are moving to public infrastructure, which is shared by more organisations and therefore more affordable and available.

In terms of the core Industrial Automation products changing, most controllers, smart devices and instruments have been IP ready for some time. In recent years there has been a push to make all devices cloud ready and allow device process data to be directly pushed to a data warehouse in the cloud, but the fundamental underlying principles of computer (or embedded controller) reliability and purpose-built operating systems (not open source) have not changed. This is where Industrial Automation will hold its ground for some time to come.

 

Why do the Industrial Automation vendors add IOT functionality to their existing products?

Without speaking for the large vendors, it seems obvious that the emerging markets are a new source of revenue for already established businesses. Adding new functionality to already functioning and reliable products is a walk in the park for these large organisations that have strong R&D and QA already in place. The only challenge for Industrial Automation vendors seems to be their price. The price for hardened components that were never designed to be throw away quality items, challenges their entrance into the fringe areas of non-critical emerging markets.

So, the tech is not really new at all, but the applications for and analytics around how we interface and dance with robots is. We are dazzled by the latest application that looks cool and we put up with having to reload the app if it stops working after the latest automatic OS update, but the jury is still out if IOT will ever meet the need for Industrial Automation solutions. In the short term, our advice is, design it well, consider the budget, consider the risk profile and then choose the components accepting that if you don’t buy hardened industrial automation, you must accept all that goes with that decision.

 

What are the benefits of IOT?

Without doubt, the IOT era is bringing cool apps, better analytics and user interfaces that don’t require a bachelor’s degree to operate. For the suppliers of solutions, it is fostering a consumer or user base that is more accepting of purpose build functionality. Once upon a time, Industrial Automation vendors would have to tailor their products just to get one of their major customers to accept their solution into production. In modern times, instead of one software application being adapted to do many things (and suffering complexity and performance related issues) today users better understand that a software application is best doing what it is designed for, and if it doesn’t do it well, they will use something else to provide solutions to other problems. This works hand in glove with start-ups building very thin slice applications to solve very specific business problems.

 

What are the challenges with IOT?

In discussing IOT, we are referring to the modern application; cloud hosted. When an individual loads an app to their desktop or smart device its by preference or choice. There is little effort or demand place on the user to learn how to use the new app, in fact, if its to difficult to learn how to use, often it is deleted just as quickly as it was loaded. In the business environment, the same principle does not apply. Support is important and user preference is not part of the equation, even though usability is key to adoption. The challenge for organisations adopting a “build an application” for each and every business problem will be long term maintainability and containing information overload. This is less of a problem today while we are still building our plethora of solutions and still working out what is and is not a problem. Thankfully many organisations consider these important aspects of support and maintainability very carefully by taking a change management approach to anything new that is introduced to the workplace.

Finally, the concept of “delete what doesn’t work” for your device seems to apply in the commercial and public organisational space too. Systems have enjoyed long life-cycles for 10-20 years for traditional computer-based systems. We are already seeing organisations remove first generation IOT solutions less than one year old because they don’t meet the business needs. With much less complexity in new era IOT systems it easier to evaluate if they are fit for purpose. Most importantly the cloud footprint is less intrusive to an organisation than having to implement on premise infrastructure. So, it appears, the whole experience of download, test and delete is also beginning to stick for big business. For organisations using the subscription model for IOT applications, this is a major step forward in reducing the cost and time of evaluating new applications, and it works in perfectly with the new generation of users.

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