The faster pace of industrial business and the removal of technological constraints is inspiring some new thinking
The talk among some manufacturing industry stakeholders is that more and more hardware will begin to phase out only to be replaced by applications that do the same work in the cloud. As devices become more intelligent, software plays a bigger role. Why not move everything to the cloud? This speculation begs the question as to relevancy of hardware control devices such as PLCs in the new world of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).
If observers take a step back and assess some of the changes that are taking place, they will see that the physical layer of manufacturing is not disappearing. Instead, the physical layer is transforming into different shapes, sizes, iterations, and versions depending on the business model. Although many tasks can be converted into bits and bytes, code and instructions, without some physical layer, work can’t get done.
Dr. Peter Martin,Vice President and Fellow, Schneider Electric :”If you look at traditional distributed control systems, they are based on servers and computing processes…it has nothing to do with the way the customer conducts his business.”
IIoT: A driver that shifts the emphasis to data-gathering hardware
What is new in the industrial domain is not so much the phasing out of hardware, but the scale of hardware devices that are being connected to the internet. Leading analysts such as McKinsey & Company are predicting that IoT-enabled business will grow to $10 trillion annually by 2025.
Lower smart device costs, greater standardization, more scale and a cloud back end are driving the growth of these smart devices. Along with these devices comes the corresponding large volumes of data that are being created.
So the answer to the “Are PLC’s obsolete?” question is “No”. However, the question raises the important point of how industries are addressing the challenge of an installed base of infrastructure that is now struggling to keep up with the higher speed of business.
The technology to speed of business misalignment
The speed of industrial businesses is accelerating at a rate that has never been seen in history. Take the example of electricity pricing schemes. Around 10 years ago, companies bought electricity at a fixed price for the period of a year. Today, the price of electricity changes every 15 minutes. Raw materials such as copper and natural gas are affected by these technology-aided and supply and demand-driven real-time pricing changes.
Traditional ERP systems that were designed to consolidate this type of information once a month, are now having to react to changes hundreds of times per month. The result of this technology to business misalignment is a significant lack of control over profitability. In essence, control systems that were originally put into place for logic control, and then later for process control, now need to be modified in order to execute profitability control.
Industrial automation suppliers have based their technologies, such as PLCs, on architectures that were developed 40 years ago. These solutions were designed around technology constraints and were not based on how manufacturers conducted their business. As a result, important business drivers, such as profitability were not as efficient as they could have been. New technologies have now removed the technological constraints. Many of the older architectures, for instance, were limited in their use of communications networks. Those which did leverage communications supported closed and proprietary systems. Modern architectures accommodate open Ethernet with Ethernet IP and Modbus TCP/IP protocols that coexist within the same network. Today’s architectures are transparent and allow industrial devices from multiple manufacturers to exchange and provide information without the need for bridges or protocol converters.
Dr. Peter Martin, Vice President and Fellow, Schneider Electric “We are now approaching the point where the technology does not constrain what the design of the system is.”