System automation has grown exponentially since the advent of the third industrial revolution introducing computing and networking technology into manufacturing plants.
As we begin to witness the fourth industrial revolution and see factories and their products becoming ever more integrated with the outside world, the complexities of designing automation solutions and their internal and external interfaces are rapidly rising.
The traditional role of automation vendors in providing vendor specific automation engineering tools will need to change as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) offers greater connectivity, functionality and access.
Vendors with open architectures that provide standard, open interfaces to their design tools will be best positioned to embrace this new emerging technology.
Modern automation design started with a transition from physical contacts and relays to simple PLC control with input and output (I/O) connections.
It has rapidly grown into a broader system that includes multiple controllers, networked I/O, integrated safety and motion, intuitive operator graphics and dashboards.
Even more sophisticated devices such as vision systems and robots are being connected to the automation system.
Additionally, factories now have sophisticated IT systems such as manufacturing operations management and quality systems to which automation systems will need to interface.
This type of Connected Enterprise will increase rapidly as smart connected devices, cloud-based applications and data repositories continue to be integrated into smart factories.
Historically the control architecture, logic design and user interfaces have been the domain of the control systems vendors' design tools.
This approach has brought real gains in design productivity with the ability to simplify development of complex control systems and to give easy access to the plant I/O and real-time information.
Control engineers find these tools reasonably intuitive and are able to build systems and manage devices from within these tools.
However, system designers and machine builders are looking for more new ways to improve their productivity and get new designs to market faster.
For this manufacturers are looking in two directions: virtual design of products and more sophisticated and connected manufacturing environments.
In this post we will concentrate on the latter and try to answer the question: how can a manufacturer increase productivity through technology, process and people?
Many advanced manufacturers have a complex, connected and hierarchical control environment.
This has usually been built on the ISA-95 (or similar Purdue) model that describes connectivity in a number of layers starting from devices on the shop floor, going up through control and manufacturing operations, to business systems and beyond.
Historically, Levels 1-3, equipment to manufacturing operations management (MOM) have been the responsibility of plant operations engineers while the higher levels were the home for information technology (IT) departments.
We usually refer to the plant technology as operations technology (OT).
Today's design and productivity tools provide easy access to all the OT layers of the control hierarchy and, some extent beyond; user interfaces, data and connectivity do extend outside the plant.
Standard Ethernet, large data stores for analytics and HTML 5 based user interfaces are all technologies common in the world of IT and becoming a necessity in the plant.
However, it is not just the plant that will benefit from open automation and widely available information.
Through the use of the IIoT, products and people who use them will continuously deliver and receive data from IIoT repositories.
This fundamental change in the use and availability of information needs to be planned into the whole automation stack so that necessary information is delivered to and handled by the appropriate systems in the IT/OT hierarchy.
The IIoT will bring many more layers of sophistication to our fourth industrial revolution and the control systems it produces.
The diagram shows some of the interactions between different parts of the system design world from configuring smart devices to building business processes that cover the entire enterprise and beyond.
We can imagine a time when all these design solutions use a single user interface (we hope that will be soon) and all have access to configuration data across the entire spectrum of applications (That might take a little longer).
There are real challenges for manufacturers and indeed vendors of all this software to make it a reality.
Clearly no one vendor is going to be able to provide a complete solution to this complex problem.
The need for partnerships is clear and those vendors that have open platforms with connectivity to industry leaders will be in the best position to succeed.
Since the market has hardly begun, there is a lot of cooperation to build out demonstrable examples of IIoT connectivity, platforms and applications.
We hope that the collaboration will continue thus giving multiple choices of solutions to manufacturers.
Seen from a control systems perspective, there is clearly a big opportunity to position automation design tools as a central part of IIoT development platforms.
Change will be required to get maximum benefit and we are happy to see that control systems companies are starting to take a wider view of their design software than was the case only a year or so ago. May it long continue.