Factories of the future fuel debate

6 February 2012 There are five main trends shaping the factory of the future – cyber security, mobile and wireless technology, enterprise ecosystem, cloud computing and sustainability, according to a Frost & Sullivan report on the automation & control systems…

6 February 2012

There are five main trends shaping the factory of the future – cyber security, mobile and wireless technology, enterprise ecosystem, cloud computing and sustainability, according to a Frost & Sullivan report on the automation & control systems (ACS) market.

For instance, according to Frost & Sullivan senior research analyst Karthik Sundaram, operating personnel in future factories will not be confined to work stations inside control rooms.

“The advent of tablets and mobile platforms will enable them to track production lines, perform maintenance operations and monitor process issues from their tablets – all while on the move,” he said.

The adoption of secure cloud computing technology will enable factories to access relevant strategic data from the Internet to execute real-time decisions and enhance operational efficiency.

“In essence, future factories will have secure wireless networks supporting a highly automated production process, seamlessly interlinked with enterprise software working through the clouds,” said Sundaram. This, he added, will support collaborative manufacturing approaches that enhance both operational performance and sustainability.

The Frost & Sullivan expert also predicts a continued blurring of the line between PLC (programmable logic controllers) and DCS (distributed control system) technologies.

“Vendors have currently emerged with hybrid products that combine PLC and DCS functionality as a means to counter high competition and gain end-user recognition,” said Sundaram, noting that the emergence of such products has clouded end-user perception of these technologies.

However, Stuart Greenwood of Eaton’s electrical sector argues that PLC/DCS convergence has already happened: “It could be claimed, that as soon as remote I/O modules became available, the process of convergence between PLC’s and DCS’s was underway. With this in mind, it’s hard to see convergence of PLC’s and DCS’s as a new trend since it’s already been with us for at least a couple of decades.

According to Greenwood, this convergence is now continuing to spread and most modern automation systems of any size now incorporate intelligent devices – such as variable-speed drives with built-in intelligence, and electronic operator interface panels – in the field.

“With all of these devices linked to the central controller via network or fieldbus connections, it does indeed become difficult and even, perhaps, almost meaningless to distinguish between the PLC and the remainder of the automation system,” the Eaton expert commented.

Greenwood, however, noted that there is one big area of exception to this: within the control panel itself. He commented: “It is astonishing to realise that, although conventional hard wiring of field devices has virtually disappeared in all but the smallest of installations, traditional hard wiring is still very much the norm inside most control panels.”