Many existing industrial automation trends gathered strength and reached Top 10 status in 2017, and some new ones emerged and now merit inclusion on the list. All industry participants should be aware of these trends as they will affect many aspects of industrial automation going forward.
1. Multi-Touch Technology
Like many trends, multi-touch started in the commercial world and migrated to industrial automation. The driving force for this trend is user demand for the speed, power and flexibility of multi-touch in their plant floor operator interface applications. After exposure to the advantages of multi-touch through smartphones and tablets, users will no longer accept the older, inferior single-touch technology. Suppliers are responding by incorporating multi-touch technology into their products. Newer versions of Windows have built-in multi-touch support, as do most modern touchscreens. Application also has native multi-touch support, making it easy for users to design their applications to take full advantage of its capabilities
2. Industrial Automation 4.0 Mobile Apps
Smartphone and tablet users love their apps as it’s much faster to obtain information by touching a single button than by starting up a web browser, typing in a URL and navigating to the correct page. Developers have responded by making thousands of apps available for everything from finding the nearest happy hour to checking the latest sports score. In the world of industrial automation, apps are finding a home as the latest and greatest way to quickly access plant operating information from smartphones and tablets. Simply press an on-screen button, and a customized view of a manufacturing facility quickly appears on the screen, ready for instant access.
3. Built-in HTML5 Support
Although apps are great for users, they take much longer to develop than browser-based access. Most plants have a number of PC-based human machine interface (HMI) platforms, and most of these run off-the-shelf HMI software. Leading HMI software packages offer built-in HTML5 support, as does most every mobile device operating system. This mutual support for the HTML5 standard allows users to develop remote access screens conforming to the HTML5 standard, and then deploy these screens to almost any remote device. This saves time and simplifies browser-based remote access.
Rare is the industrial automation professional who doesn’t own a smartphone, a tablet or both. Ownership and constant use brings familiarity, and the desire to use these personal devices for business purposes is increasingly supported by employers. For the end user, bringing your own device (BYOD) to work offers convenience, ease of use and build in remote access. For employers, BYOD is much cheaper than supplying a separate mobile device to each employee. There are some security concerns, but methods exist in ensuring BYOD practices will continue to grow and prosper.
5. Online Research and Purchasing
Back in the day, industrial automation products were purchased from distributors who came to plants bearing donuts, product brochures and pricing information. As many surveys shows, users now prefer to find products through the Internet, relying on search engines and other tools. In many cases, these same users are choosing to continue their online experience from research to purchase, mimicking the path many follow to buy products ranging from plane tickets to purses.
6. Online Learning
Just as growing numbers of people want to use the Internet to research and buy products, so it is with learning. The old paradigm of employment for life with a company that would provide lifelong training has gone by the wayside. In its place is the requirement for automation professionals to be responsible for their own professional development, and many are turning to the Internet as a source for this training. Vendors are responding by providing online content in the form of videos, e-books and other training materials, allowing users to select topics of interest and proceed with learning at times and places of their choosing.
7. Grid Computing & Virtualization
As the PC has become more powerful, its resources have become more underutilized in many commercial and industrial applications. Virtualization provides a means to efficiently utilize these resources by allowing multiple instances of operating systems to run on a single PC. One typical industrial automation application consolidates multiple server-level functions such as I/O, database and SCADA onto fewer PCs. This not only saves money as fewer PCs need to be purchased and maintained, it can also increase reliability by allowing near instantaneous switching from a failed to an operating PC.
8. Industrial Wireless
This trend doesn’t have to do with wireless access by remote devices, but rather with wireless transmission of data from sensors to control systems. In a typical application, a sensor is installed in a remote location, maybe a tank farm, and transmits information via radio to a control system which may be located far away. In these and other similar applications, wireless communication is much cheaper to install and maintain as there are no wires to run and repair. Users are responding by increasing demand from near zero just a few years ago to over $500 million annually today, with double-digit growth rates projected for the foreseeable future.
9. Robot Revolution
Unlike many industrial automation trends, this one isn’t borrowed from the commercial world, but is instead migrating in the other direction, from industrial to commercial. Industrial robots used to be dumb devices designed to perform the same simple operation over and over, like picking a particular part from one specific location and placing it to the same spot. Nowadays, robots driven by software and vision systems can be programmed to perform a variety of tasks, which fits with today’s demand for flexible industrial manufacturing.
10. Rise of DC Power
DC power is coming to the forefront, supplanting AC power in many instances. With high voltage transmission lines, DC provides advantages over AC in terms of efficiency and lower construction costs. At the user level, more end devices such as VFDs, computer hardware and other components use DC and have to provide conversion from AC internally. This is driving in-plant distribution systems to DC, as with server farms where most power consumption is DC.
In 2017, upcoming trends in cloud will reveal whether the cloud, NFV and SDN can be effective business-level options for enterprise customers that need operations and management automation.
For telecom trends, 2017 will reveal the direction of operator services for years to come. Three revolutionary models for service-building – the cloud, software-defined networking and network functions virtualization – have emerged and been tested enough in labs to validate them at the functional level.
The success of NFV and carrier cloud would go a long way toward establishing software-defined networking (SDN) in Enterprise space, as well as value in a many greenfield data center is fairly easy to establish, so SDN/NFV investment in data centers would create large opportunities for enterprise and SME customers to go more affordable and maintenance free. Today, companies spend more on software than on servers, and if that changes in a big way through the use of distributed hosting, SDN gets a big boost. The benefit is that NFV and the cloud would increase SDN spending.
Operators have possible missions for SDN in the WAN, including support for tunnel and optical routing. The most compelling probably require SDN to create application communities in the data center that can then be extended to the user in virtual private network (VPN) and VLAN-type services. SDN in the WAN success with network operators, extending NFV and cloud services, would generate a significant deployment and create massive changes in operator investment at Layer 2 and Layer 3.
A mixture of SDN and NFV concepts will start to appear from 2017 onwards to challenge traditional switching and routing for most business services, and if strong trends continue, many companies will jump on the bandwagon for such subscription utility based services. A VPN or VLAN that is built on switch and router technology today could be created by using SDN tunnels between routers hosted as virtual CPE. This approach is not new and its adoption is getting more and more pervasive, and some big enterprises are already trying out the approach, with local to regional to global rollouts in time to come.
Even here, we have a dependency on management and operations modernization. Any service based on virtual components creates a disconnect between managing how the service appears and the resources that actually create it. Virtual VPNs could be presented to users looking like traditional VPNs in a management sense, but network operators themselves have to see what’s really inside a service to maintain the service level agreement. Modernization of OSS, BSS and network management systems could resolve this and sustain efficient management, as well as lower TCO.
Overall, 2017 is a year when operations management could become more than just billing and customer care. If OSS and BSS vendors can link SDN and NFV silos and build service agility and operations efficiency above both SDN and NFV, the opportunities to make a business case for these critical new network technologies will migrate to OSS and BSS systems and vendors. If OSS and BSS vendors fail, then it will be up to those few NFV vendors that can make the broad business case to drive both SDN and NFV forward.