Assessing the Current Industrial Automation Paradigm


Industrial companies are still trying to preserve old processes and keep long outdated assets in an attempt to ride out what they believe to be a transitory “storm”. On the process side, they aim to create evolutionary transformation by gradual changes, focusing on ongoing enhancements of current operations using well established methodologies and technology rather than radical changes in process and business models. They continue to cling onto 30- to 40-year-old industrial automation systems, incurring considerable expenses in the process of conserving large, outdated machinery while striving to preserve conventional gross margins.

Such methods can be an expensive strategic business error in times of considerable change, resulting in major economic loss and perhaps the extinction of an industrial firm.

The reasons for this behaviour are easy to understand. Many of these companies’ development and competitiveness strategies are based on a conventional worldview that expects investment in manufacturing platforms that are largely hardware reliant, as well as processes that are frequently determined by the physical platform’s limitations.

However, in this age of digitisation, organisations no longer have to be held in check by the limitations of this traditional approach. The reality on the shop floor is that, in addition to smart machine functionality and operator know-how, software and interoperability of best of breed software solutions are what helps to establish true marketplace differentiation. The open nature of much of this new software now allows for a re-examination of how fundamental manufacturing floor processes are implemented. New software tools that work together are often what enables the agility, innovation, and consistent quality needed to compete.

The significance of this paradigm shift, from highly constrained processes limited by hardware to more open and process agility-enabling software, is only just beginning to impact the decision-making process of manufacturing stakeholders who are looking to uncover new sources of process efficiencies. Many recognise that a history of investment in closed, propriety hardware and software platforms runs counter to the goal of increased productivity. The fact that many hardware architectures and platforms are still more closed or proprietary than open presents a growing list of constraints, restrictions, and artificial limits that are hurting manufacturers’ ability to innovate and compete. Without a more open approach to industrial automation, similar to what has happened with open-source code in the world of IT, manufacturers have to live with the fact that most of their systems will continue to operate at only 60-70 % of their true capacity. 


Industrial Automation Limits

There are multiple reasons why maintaining the current industrial automation paradigm presents a significant disadvantage to manufacturers:

  • Lack of flexibility – When automation systems are proprietary, automation applications written for one system will not run on another. This imbedded technology makes it difficult to share data across applications and too costly for industrial organisations to launch significant upgrades with multivendor systems, so any changes are slow and the ability to integrate revolutionary approaches is severely constrained.

  • Limited innovation – Lack of vendor conformance to open programming standards creates tremendous inefficiencies and architectural challenges that lead to isolated “islands” of control across the plant floor. Integrating these islands into an entire plant architecture requires a great deal of application engineering, extra hardware, and more software to build a coordinated plant automation and control system. The added layers of interfaces contribute to lower reliability, increased production downtime and maintenance, and potentially higher costs. When working within the constraints of such environments, the ability to innovate is limited.

  • Non-digital architecture – Most of today’s automation systems are based on principles developed in the 1970’s and 80’s. Such technology is not designed to take advantage of the recent and rapid changes in information technology (IT). It is precisely these IT advantages (rapid data capture, data sharing and analysis) that are required to realise the promise of Industry 4.0. 

  • Increased total cost of ownership – Since upstream design tools and downstream operations tools cannot be closely coupled without a huge investment in time and expense, the creation of an efficient digital thread covering the full process and machine lifecycle becomes cost prohibitive.

Besides reducing manufacturing costs, removing the constraint of closed, proprietary systems will enable end users to benefit through steady product improvement, optimum asset utilisation, integrated factory and information technology, more production flexibility, easier scalability, more integrated control, and the ability to perform self-diagnostics and predictive maintenance. OEMs will benefit from much needed additional agility and flexibility which will help them to shorten design and engineering phases, simplify commissioning through the use of standards, virtual commissioning, and plug and produce concepts, and increase machine availability through connectivity and digital services to improve productivity.


Enter the IEC 61499 Standard

Fortunately, it is today both possible and prudent to implement an open, standards-based architecture capable of creating step-change improvements in operations and faster time-to-market delivery of highly customised products to consumers. The solution lies in an existing standard, IEC 61499, which allows manufacturers to profitably incorporate Industry 4.0 modernisations into their operations.

The IEC 61499 standard helps to address key constraints that many organisations currently face. From a flexibility perspective, for example, the standard enables application-centric design by separating the application model from the system model. This allows devices to interoperate following standardised communications and data models across networks, without the need for programming. In addition, thanks to the standard, the issue of application code portability will no longer hinder investment in innovation and productivity-enhancing software.

The standard also supports both distributed and centralised digital architectures, including application, system, and device and resource models that allow applications to be built independently of the automation hardware. The standard’s implementation also helps to reduce TCO by providing easy deployment, plug-and-play connectivity, fluid coupling or decoupling of hardware and software, and a smooth and easy upgrade path.

Such capabilities radically transform the automation industry as we know it today, to the benefit of end users, systems integrators, and machine makers.