A Bigger Picture of Automation

When you’re immersed in the world of industrial automation for a long time, you may start to think that PLCs, relays and valves are automation. That’s really not the case. Automation applies to doing anything automatically. Those little timers you plug your lights into when you go on vacation are automation. Automatically billing your customer as soon as product is scanned when it goes on the truck is automation.

To me, we’ve solved a lot of the excruciatingly difficult technical challenges, like motion control, because they can be boiled down to academic pursuits and packaged into a black box. The pain is in the integration. The tyranny of dry contact I/O and 4-20 mA analog signals is because they’re universal standards that nobody’s figured out how to patent yet (or the patents have lapsed). These universal standards make integration of components from various manufacturers possible, and it’s the backbone that supports the industrial automation industry.

The leap from the mechanical and electrical to the digital world should have made integration easier and more flexible. To some extent it has, but we now have these proprietary walls built between our solutions. I once wouldn’t hesitate to connect a valve from company A to a relay from company B, and those companies knew it, and the competition kept prices down and drove innovation forward every year. Now I have to make design decisions about which vendor’s hardware plays better with others before I can buy the first item on my bill of materials. What kind of valve bank do I buy? It depends on whether or not I need a ProfiBus or a DeviceNET communication module on it.

There’s no doubt that the digital alternatives are cheaper than hard wired solutions, and we have made progress on standard bus systems thanks to organizations like the ODVA, but what we really lack is a common open file format for storing our automation programs. As long as we’re stuck with the legacy traditional PLCs, then automation itself is stuck in the mud. But there are open automation systems right around the corner. Systems that aren’t going to be focused on industrial automation, and they’re going to tackle the integration problem in a way that proprietary systems just can’t do for us.

I’m building one of these next-generation systems right now. It’s an automation platform. It’s open. It’s free. It’s not a PLC.

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