PC Advances, Mergers, Hardware Evolution Among Leading Industry Trends

Roy Slavin, chairman, president and ceo, Wonderware Corp.The on-going consolidation of smaller suppliers in various market segments is likely to continue into 1998. Yet, the industry as a whole will remain robust. Varying regional economic conditions will require major national suppliers to continue to actively grow their global business mix.

By Barbara Axelson, CONTROL ENGINEERING April 1, 1998
Executive Perspectives of Control & Automation Leaders
  • Personal computers

  • Control software

  • Open Systems

  • Control architectures

Roy Slavin, chairman, president and ceo, Wonderware Corp.

The on-going consolidation of smaller suppliers in various market segments is likely to continue into 1998. Yet, the industry as a whole will remain robust. Varying regional economic conditions will require major national suppliers to continue to actively grow their global business mix.

Active X components will begin to come into the limelight starting in 1998. Open and extensible automation software integration platforms running on Microsoft Windows NT Servers, such as FactorySuite 2000, will open the door for a continuing, value-added role for vertical market niche suppliers—especially those niche specialists who recognize business opportunities that a large installed base of industrial users, such as Wonderware’s, will be able to provide.

Large-scale investments in DCOM (distributed component object model) object-based environments will become an important technological differentiator beginning in the year 2000. Yet, manufacturing customers will continue to prioritize their need to maintain value of existing capital investments using evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, automation software migration strategies.

Steve Rubin, president and ceo, Intellution Inc.

The hottest trend in automation software today is component object technology for manufacturing. Component object technology is based on the use of “objects” which are self-contained units of software that perform specific functions in response to plant messages and events.

Because they are self-contained, these objects can be reused and recombined across applications, with predictability and reusability that can save significant development and testing time, effort, and money. No longer constrained by supplier demands, users can more efficiently implement solutions tailored to their applications.

Randy Freeman, global marketing vice president, Rockwell Automation

Today’s internal engineering teams don’t usually have time or resources to focus solely on products. Their mission is to solve real business issues and it’s incumbent on suppliers like Rockwell Automation to offer suites of products optimized for solving application requirements.

Customers are forming long-term relationships with key suppliers because such relationships mean better up-front application engineering, faster startup, less training expense, lower inventory costs, higher levels of technical support once the system is installed, and a migration path. This requires major changes in culture for both supplier and customer, but more customers now attend shows to see their automation partner of choice.

Dr. James Truchard, president and ceo, National Instruments

The manufacturing world is seeing the fastest technological change in its history. Standard computer technologies, from Intel PCs to Windows NT to the Internet, are impacting the way manufacturing systems are built. There are many automation industry standards, such as OLE for Process Control (OPC) and DeviceNet, taking hold and pushing out proprietary technologies. Users are serious in their demands for open interoperable systems using general computer technologies and industry standards.

Manufacturing companies must have a strategy to manage changing technologies. On one hand, some PC technologies may not yet seem mature or robust enough for serious factory floor applications. On the other hand, today’s developing technology may be tomorrow’s key to beating competitors. Manufacturers must understand new technologies and gauge potential impact on their business. A company’s automation suppliers are key partners in managing new technologies. A supplier must help with understanding of both the fundamental aspects of the technology and its practical application.

David Adams, control and automation general manager, Cutler-Hammer/Eaton

Driven by manufacturing’s demand for productivity and profitability improvement, machine control will undergo a dramatic transformation over the next three to five years. The needs are clear—more uptake, control flexibility, reusability of control cells, quicker machine reconfigurations, and real-time information sharing enterprise-wide. Traditional control architecture isn’t prepared to meet these needs; open control technology is.

As smart control devices, advanced software and open communication networks revolutionize manufacturing control, they open the door to distributed, cooperative control and enterprise-wide communications.

Smart sensors and actuators now have the computing and communication capabilities PLCs (programmable logic controllers) had 10 years ago. Today’s PC has power once held by mainframes. Application software editors and open databases permit fast, easy programming, allowing more flexibility in modifying applications. Combined with information from intelligent devices, these tools enable improved production processes, maximizing machine uptake with better predictive maintenance and imposed troubleshooting. As object-based technology accelerates, industry will realize time savings associated with machine and network configuring, modification and control.

With open networks, control task execution will migrate from controllers into smart control devices, seamlessly providing the advantages of peer-to-peer communications.

Vince Tullo, PLC division vice president, GE Fanuc

Customers are requesting more integrated solutions designed around global, open architecture. Having long embraced open architecture, our company views PCs as another avenue of choice for customers. The availability of low-cost, high-performance PCs coupled with real-time PC operating systems, PC control software, fieldbus interfaces and Ethernet have made PC control a viable option for some customers in factory automation.

Steve Glaze, Smart Distributed System program director, Honeywell Micro Switch

Over the past three years, the industrial automation market has been transitioning from proprietary to open control systems. Acceptance of PC-based control and device-level networks has emerged as a viable alternative to conventional PLCs in many industrial automation applications.

The complement of PC-based control and device-level networks is providing users with what they want in control architectures—open connectivity, easy-to-use tools, and improved productivity in generating, upgrading, and maintaining applications. The ability to integrate factory floor control data and business information has become paramount in improving plant operations.

New hardware and software technologies are being driven by new standards (Windows NT operating systems, Intel architecture, and specific vendors’ device-level networks), which are expanding the scope of automation solutions beyond the capabilities of a single company. Open systems, by definition, require interaction of multiple suppliers’ products.

We are leveraging the value of open systems by combining PC-based control and device-level networks to deliver a broader scope of customer-specific automation solutions at lower cost in less time. Our focus is on providing Windows-based flow charting software and I/O networking configuration tools, so developers can generate or maintain applications quickly. These tools are developed to be usable and well understood by plant operations and maintenance.

Dave Smith, president and founder, ObjectAutomation

Software is taking on universal control. Software now defines the architecture and the value proposition for industrial automation solutions. Software rules!

Intelligence is inexorably marching, not slowly migrating, but marching down the wire, right out to the end device. This intelligence is embodied in software. And the end device—commodity hardware. The end device is a scalable unit of universal control. The network of these scalable devices, most likely connected over an Internet protocol (IP) with some PCs, is the extensible universal control system.

Considering the desire for a single universal control environment, with concurrent integrated MES (manufacturing execution system) capability, the traditional roles of hardware and software have reversed. Software now drives the solution set, and in light of growing deficit of qualified software developers, there is but one software solution—objects.

Larry Zgrabik, Automation Business Unit vice president and general manager, Siemens Energy & Automation

The most important concept that control and automation professionals need to be aware of is Totally Integrated Automation (TIA), Siemens’ new class of control technology that builds upon fully open subsystems and is completely hardware independent. Hardware and software meets the users’ design specs, rather than users being forced to design and specify the system to meet available products. TIA also tremendously simplifies engineering. There is one common database and one set of engineering tools for everything from PLCs to the human-machine interface and network software.

Eric Marks, MES/Enterprise Solutions strategic marketing manager, Schneider Automation

Three major trends characterize industrial automation today: 1) adoption of commercial technologies such as thin clients, browsers and Internet technology; 2) migration to open standards for automation such as TCP/IP and Ethernet, OLE for Process Control (OPC), and even Java-based products; and 3) influence of information technology on automation, which is based on convergence of computing platforms, networks, programming tools, data management philosophies and especially buying influence.

Adoption of commercial technologies will change the landscape for automation because it signals the trend to standard tools and products adapted for use in industrial automation. This shows market dismay with proprietary architectures of most automation suppliers. Preference for open standards such as TCP/IP and Ethernet will gain momentum as more manufacturing enterprise projects are driven from an information-centric perspective rather than functional silo approaches of the past. Controls and IT are collaborating on how they support one another as participants in an overall information architecture.

Information technology and automation are merging rapidly based on the convergences described above. More automation projects are being driven from IT; increasingly, controls departments will begin reporting to chief information officers of large global corporations. Automation investments are being evaluated as part of overall information architectures, forcing controls suppliers to learn the business drivers of IT, the language and requirements of IT, and how the automation world supports IT strategies of these customers.

Automation suppliers will deploy commercial technology, based on international open standards, to support manufacturing and information technology strategies of customers. Those who continue to rely on proprietary technology will eventually perish.