OCTOBER 2010: PepsiAmericas, Pfizer, Conoco Phillips, Huntsman, Valero Energy, Sweener Refineries and a clique of other global companies have deployed a fleet of ‘grey collar’ employees who practically remote-control the companies’ business. Stephanie Neil (in DeepDive: Enterprise Mobility – Let’s Get to Work) describes the grey collar crew as the unison of the blue and the white collared, brought together by mobility. It comprises executives on the road, engineers in the field and operators on the factory floor. They collect data on a constant basis as they go about their daily work, and feed it into the system.

The real-time information they generate has the power to control everything from logistics and marketing right down to production. That does not mean every employee has to give instructions to the various systems in the company, although they could do so in extraordinary situations. On a regular day, they would simply have to update the system with information collected on-the-go. The information is promptly analysed and several dependent decisions are automatically taken and executed—how long should each machine work, how much of the produce should be packed, where should the inventory be, at what time should the delivery trucks go and more. The reports are also available to executives at various levels for further planning and decision-making. That is automation today, not merely a set of machines turning out products at a furious speed!

Some components of industrial automation

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1. Artificial neural networks
3. Human-machine interfaces
5. Programmable automation controllers(PACs)
7. Supervisory control and data acquisition systems
9. Simulation systems
11. Motors and drives
13. Industrial Ethernet and Fieldbus standards for robust communications
15. Platforms and middleware for software
17. Software tools like Web services, workflow engines, etc
2. Distributed control systems
4. Lab information management systems
6. Programmable logic controllers (PLCs)
8. Batch control systems
10. Instrumentation
12. Sensor networks
14. Wireless communication technologies
16. Enterprise software

From mechanisation to intelligence: many technologies at work

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 of all, v2 is no longer confined to the factory floor. It has pervaded the entire enterprise, right from product engineering and manufacturing to testing, logistics, marketing and even customer care. Everything is being automated.

Fig. 1: A seamless enterprise from the factory to the customer (Courtesy: Survey on Wireless Sensor Network Technologies for Industrial Automation: The Security and Quality of Service Perspectives, published in Future Internet 2010)
Fig. 1: A seamless enterprise from the factory to the customer (Courtesy: Survey on Wireless Sensor Network Technologies for Industrial Automation: The Security and Quality of Service Perspectives, published in Future Internet 2010)

Other notable trends…

Nano-scale automation. Nano-scale manufacturing is picking up. For changes at the nano-level, specialised equipment are needed to meet the assembly, measurement, monitoring and control needs of nano-level processes. The industry is trying to meet these needs with nano-scale wireless sensor networks, nano-scale impulse radars, motion controllers and even assembly units to assemble nano-sized components.

Focus on energy. Machines with Energy Star ratings are being preferred in the automation world. Alternative energy sources like solar power are also being used to power outdoor equipment like sensors.

• Systems approach. Catering to a client is no longer just selling machines to them, but setting up systems too. Machines need to be bundled with smart services, and the interfaces to connect them to a larger system when required. There is a huge demand for system integrators, to link up the components and implement a seamless automation system.

Visualisation and simulation. There is an increased focus on visualisation in industrial automation today. The ability to see the process graphically, the large amount of real-time information that is available today and the ability to zoom in on a particular data set or aspect of process condition in real time will improve the productivity of operators and plant managers. The ability to realistically simulate in real time what might happen if a particular action is taken will greatly improve process efficiency and safety.

Centralised devices. Graham Harris, president of Beckhoff Automation LLC, noted in an Automation World feature that: “I see not only new Ethernet- and PC-based technologies leading the charge toward innovation in manufacturing and automation, but also the fusion of more advanced engineered solutions into high-powered, centralised devices. One could think of this as bringing more multi-tasking to the automation controller. This is typically implemented with a single industrial PC equipped with a modern multi-core processor and covers not just PLC, automation, motion control and human-machine interface on one controller, but pushes beyond to include various forms of high-precision measurement, condition monitoring, vision and even robotics/kinematics.”

Second, the concept of machine operators is becoming kind of 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 the machines how to function and control themselves. Plus, engineers continue to monitor the systems and intervene in extraordinary situations. But even this has become easy, as engineers can watch and control the entire factory using 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 different quantities and different speeds—and quite easily too. Hence a bunch of machines need not 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!

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In short, the factory is becoming a very integral part of the entire enterprise and its varied management in-formation 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 further growth in the industrial automation space too.

Cookie-cutters to semiconductor fabs

Although pharmaceutical, life-sciences, automotive, semiconductor fabrication and other such industries where quality is crucial are the most eager adopters of automation, industrial automation is not confined to the large firms alone. Automation need not necessarily involve integrated, wireless-enabled, mobile-capable systems either.

Cookie-cutters, automated voice responses, simple process-control loops in small manufacturing firms, sensors that start or stop a hand blower are all examples of automation too! On another level, there are assembly lines that are completely automated, putting together micro-, even nano-scale components, controlling and managing themselves.

Both levels can be justly called as automation.

The primary motive of automation is to tap the predictability and dependability of machines – program a machine to do something and it will do it in exactly the same way even after the millionth iteration. Therefore the basic goals of automation are to achieve precision and uniformity, eliminate errors and improve quality, and enhance control over the entire process. Plus, automation also becomes indispensable for certain tasks which man really cannot handle—for example, even with a magnifying glass it would be difficult for you to put together a computer chip and make sure it is perfect. And a fabrication plant would have to churn out thousands of these chips within hours. Or, look at hazardous tasks such as handling chemical vats, which are not safe for humans. Such processes cannot really do without automation!

In general, it is found that the error rate of 1-1.5 per cent found in manual working can be brought down to 0.00001 per cent with automation. Automation also improves the efficiency of machines as processes are optimised. This reduces the cost of operation. As stakeholders begin to increasingly demand certain quality standards, automation has also become a key part of today’s manufacturing setup. It has penetrated the whole lifecycle of a product right from product engineering tasks like concept development, solid and surface modelling, engineering data porting, product design and reverse engineering, to product manufacture and quality control.

Fig. 2: M2M architecture (Courtesy: European Telecommunication Standards Institute)
Fig. 2: M2M architecture (Courtesy: European Telecommunication Standards Institute)

Let us take a quick look at five such recent technological developments in this space.

1. PC-based platforms gaining popularity
Dedicated embedded systems were doing well, no doubt. But too many technologies and too many standards were making life very difficult. As a result, 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 and your supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) requirements on a single high-performance controller platform. With a PC-based controller platform, your software and know-how 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.

So where are the robots?

If your idea of a robot is a walking, talking mechanical man, you will probably not find many on the factory floors! But if you take a practical view of what a robot really does, you will find them in many factories, especially in the automotive industry.

According to the International Standards Organisation, an industrial robot is an automatically controlled, reprogrammable, multipurpose manipulator programmable in three or more axes. So it is nothing but another ‘machine’! The mechanical hand that fits the engine into cars is a robot, really. Robots can be used for doing tasks like welding, painting, assembly, pick and place, packaging and palletising, product inspection, and testing speed, precision and reliability.

There are many kinds of robots used in industries, the main ones being articulated robots, gantry robots, selective compliant articulated robot arm (SCARA) robots and cylindrical robots.

“Gantry Robots, SCARA, articulated or parallel kinematics are highly dynamic handling devices with high repeatability, and require control systems that guarantee minimum delays for all sub-processes including physical signal sampling, processing in the motion controller and response at a physical output. Robotics also requires complex mathematical calculations based on the kinematic transformation required for the robot structure. It also calls for integration and coordination of the robotic controller with various other processes in the vicinity of robot. These requirements from robotics have challenged the industrial automation controller to provide single platforms which can fulfil these performance requirements,” says Kataria of Beckhoff.

Robotics is evolving quite fast. Robots are becoming more capable, both on the mechanical and intelligence fronts. Costs are also going down, if only slowly. As a result, robots are now beginning to play a greater role in industrial automation than before.

Fig. 3: A simple M2M network
Fig. 3: A simple M2M network

The need to connect multiple devices seamlessly for control data exchange, the increasing use of robots in manufacturing, and the constantly widening dimensions 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), solidstate storage devices such as CompactFlash, fast Ethernet chip sets and field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) in industrial control products.

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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.

As a way around this dilemma, some vendors and end-users began to develop powerful software with the flexibility and usability of PC-based control systems that could run on real-time operating systems for reliability. Research firm ARC Advisory Group called these programmable automation controllers or PACs, and the name stuck! A PAC kind of merges the advantages of PLCs and PCs. It offers performance, flexibility and multi-discipline control comparable to PCs, along with the added benefits of reliability, speed, real-time connectivity and integration that can greatly simplify production processes. PAC products such as GE Fanuc’s PACSystems are emerging as a key contender for both PLCs and PCs.

James Truchard, president and CEO of National Instruments, explains in a recent report that the future of PACs hinges on the incorporation of embedded technology. One example is the ability to use software to define hardware. Consider FPGAs. “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.”

2. mobile-enabled manufacturing is finally materialising
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 steam. Mobile manufacturing is basically a situation where your industrial automation systems can be accessed and controlled via a mobile network, using a PDA, laptop or mobile phone. Applications, services, infrastructure, standards and most importantly proof-of-concepts, are all emerging, making it a real concept and not a distant dream.

As mentioned earlier, several manufacturers have also realised the importance of the grey-collared mobile workforce, and 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 capability to their existing systems. Having realised the power of the grey collar, 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.

If this is v2, what will v3 be like?
Jitendra Kataria of Beckhoff says v3 will include use of:
1. Object Oriented Programming extension of IEC61131-3
2. Higher-level programming languages for programming PLC/motion control logic
3. Multi-core PC-based platforms which can do multiple tasks, viz, robotics, motion control and PLC, at the same time using different cores of the same PC-based system
Fig. 4: The factory is at last becoming a part of the larger enterprise IT infrastructure
Fig. 4: The factory is at last becoming a part of the larger enterprise IT infrastructure

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 over come 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 as more manufacturers go mobile.

3. Factories are becoming networked, and that too wirelessly
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 been still 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.

Fig. 5: Networking is bringing together all parts of the enterprise jigsaw (Courtesy: Supertech Instrumentation)
Fig. 5: Networking is bringing together all parts of the enterprise jigsaw (Courtesy: Supertech Instrumentation)

Wireless technologies 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 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 Zig-Bee, 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.

Efforts are constantly on to make wireless the de-facto choice for industrial automation and to improve interoperability between various technologies. In May 2009, for example, the DASH7 Alliance was formed to create wireless technology that extends the ISO 18000-7 standard for low-power wireless data transfer. The group aims to im-prove interoperability between radio frequen-cy identification (RFID) devices and applica-tions, which will, in turn, improve tracking of materials and cargo in the supply chain. Soon, DASH7 will align itself with complementary technologies like cellular, passive RFID, WiFi, and 2-D barcode.

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4. smart devices can talk to each other, and even make decisions
Almost all industrial automation equipment are becoming smart nowadays, 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, 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 work flow, material and information flow, etc.

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 to the decision-making process. The effect is an unprecedented level of productivity and efficiency.

“Increased intelligence of industrial automation and ‘smart’ inspection devices has led to systems which are more compact and cost-effective. This has also led to more flexible systems which 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.

“We can take an example of vision-based inspection systems to illustrate 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 which does not require any external processor for running 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.

5. 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.


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

The possibility of combining things like 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, the user has the flexibility of upgrading, replacing or scaling up just some of the components at a time and not all. He can reorganise the devices to work in different ways. In such and many other 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 under-stand at the interface.


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

This enables integration at various levels—machines can be strung together into a seamless workflow, the plant automation system can be fit into the entire product lifecycle, 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.

It is about getting information in and out quickly, monitoring the business as it happens, and making quick, effective, agile decisions. In the past, there existed a gap between the factory and other information systems that always stood in the way of implementing truly real-time enterprises.

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 en-tire enterprise. What’s more, beyond such integration, modern technologies have also made industrial automation systems accessible from anywhere using mobiles and PCs, literally encapsulating the whole enterprise into the employees’ hands!

The author is a technically-qualified freelance writer, editor and hands-on mom based in Bengaluru