Convergence brings new benefits to the industrial controls world

Control convergence: Previously separate technologies, such as controllers, sensors, operator terminals, motion controls, software, networking, and services, share resources and act in synergy. Technology convergence offers new opportunities spanning firms and economies.

By Jan Zhang April 1, 2014

The "convergence" buzzword can be used to describe one of the most important ongoing trends in the world of industrial control. It is not a particular type of new technology or recently found in this market; indeed, people have been talking about it for more than a decade. But why is this trend getting more attention now? How does it specifically affect the market for industrial controls?

The trend toward convergence began to take hold early in this century, in the discussion of the role of PC-based control in discrete automation, which was once the sole domain of programmable logic controllers (PLCs); and with the role of PLCs in process automation, which had been the sole domain of the distributed control system (DCS). The convergent technology of these products has blurred the boundaries of applications.

Though the debate over PLC versus PC-based control and over DCS versus PLC control still rumbles on, it reflects only part of the way industrial control is changing. With the merging of automation technologies, new products have been introduced to the controller markets over recent years, enriching "convergence" in one way or another. When talking about convergence, people with different backgrounds might have different viewpoints and understanding of the term.

Control layers

Convergence is taking place in all control layers, mainly from the following three perspectives: 

  1. Convergence of the physical world (industrial systems) and the digital world (cyberspace)
  2. Convergence of information technology, manufacturing and automation technology and software
  3. Convergence of industrial devices and industrial control hardware.

All these convergence trends have some direct or indirect impact on the industrial control market. Some have been taking place for years; some are on the way.

The diagram, from the IHS "Convergence Trends Affecting Industrial Controls – 2014 report," illustrates which kind of convergence trend will affect industrial control systems, when they are likely to be realized in the real world of manufacturing, and the impact on controllers.

During the past decade, technology convergence for industrial controllers generally has been limited to hardware convergence, the base layer in the evolution of the technology. The discussion is all about the advantages and disadvantages of each controller type, and how they are differentiated. The main drivers of this convergence are probably largely the controller vendors, seeking to gain more market share by enhancing the functionality and performance of the control hardware.

Technological convergence is the process by which existing technologies merge into new forms that merge different types of products and applications.

With the development of industrial software and industrial networking, the focus of technological convergence for industrial controllers has started to shift and will change in a more dynamic way. 

Mobile phone analogy

This is similar to the evolution of the mobile phone, which has much in common with industrial control. When the mobile phone was invented, its only purpose was to make phone (voice) calls. For a long period, the evolution of the mobile phone was largely the result of work by engineers and scientists to push the limits of physical and material science and was very hardware-focused; though the role of the mobile phone did not change. Only by taking one step further (especially through technological convergence with multi-level media and networking) can the mobile phone interact with a wider array of media types. As the technology advances, new models increasingly include additional features like the ability to interface with more devices or play other types of media, until now it’s not just a mobile phone, but a mobile device.

Industrial control hardware was used to accomplish some basic control tasks. Software and networking also are changing the pattern of the industrial control world.

Industrial software convergence

Although the sales revenues of industrial control systems still come mainly from control hardware, the development of software and its role in manufacturing has become increasingly important. The software portfolio will expand much more, from product design, planning, engineering, and execution to plant and enterprise management and product lifecycle management, covering the whole production lifecycle and enterprise value chain. Convergence of industrial control hardware and software is the fundamental step for software development.

The proportion of software in the cost of a control system will increase, as it becomes more important. Because software integrates automation technology with other elements of manufacturing [for example, PLC software with manufacturing execution systems (MES) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) software], it will improve the functionality of control systems, and move the manufacturing process from being driven by electronics to being driven by software and, finally, by data.

Industrial network convergence

If we consider the trends discussed in industrial automation, such as Industry 4.0, the Internet of things (IoT), industrial Internet, smart factories, big data, and so on, none of them would be realized or even exist without the support from industrial networks. Information and communication technology is the fundamental key to drive the industry revolution into a new era and, naturally, will have a profound impact on industrial controls.

Industrial networking opens the door for industrial controllers to play a more vital role in the whole process. The primary role of industrial controls always has been to control machinery and automated process lines. However, as they become more intelligent and the devices they control become "smart" (with perception, decision-making, and executive functionality), wherever the convergence of industrial controllers and networking takes place, controllers have the possibility to be transformed from "brick" to "brain." That happens horizontally, being the main point to integrate all intelligent devices, and vertically, by communicating production information to higher level management systems and by processing instructions and data that they have sent.

Returning to the original questions: Why is the technology convergence trend getting increasing attention now? And, what is its impact on the market for industrial controls?

Convergence weakens the independent existence of industrial controllers. The product type and performance parameters that used to be the selling point of a certain industrial controller model will gradually be less important to customers. Customers will be more excited about the solutions that the whole control platform or system can provide, the problems it can solve, and how it can increase productivity and efficiency. Whether the controller is a PLC, a PLC with PC-based technology, or a DCS will be of little concern. Software, information, and communication technology will have a larger share in the evolution of industrial controls. 

Opportunities from convergence

This turning point represents a great opportunity for original controller vendors as well as other automation vendors seeking growth. With convergence, lines are blurred as companies diversify from their original markets. The industrial controls world is no longer a game played among vendors of PLCs, industrial PCs (IPCs), programmable automation controllers (PACs), motion controllers, embedded controls, and DCSs, but a multidimensional arena in which competition and cooperation often occur simultaneously. Previously separate technologies, such as controllers, sensors, operator terminals, motion controls, software, networking, and services, now share resources and act in synergy. Control technology convergence offers new opportunities spanning firms and economies.

– Jan Zhang is the IHS associate director in the Shanghai, China, office. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering,


Key concepts

  • Convergence benefits the world of industrial controls
  • Convergence includes hardware, software, networking
  • Convergence allows focus on resolving the challenge, instead of battles among vendors

Consider this

Convergence versus divergence: If automation vendors spent more time in the last 20 years focusing on customer needs, and less time carving up proprietary market niches, would end-user processes be more efficient today?

Author Bio: As a research director at market analyst firm Interact Analysis, Jan Zhang leads on all the company’s robotics research.