Future automation technology trends

The goal of automation is to build flexible production systems that can cope with the sequences of operations that result from very diverse tasks – from making cars to making pretzels, piping water through networks or generating power. Automation products currently do this very well, but the future is beckoning.

Future automation products will focus on the best ways to deal with dynamic requirements springing from a tightly integrated and more complex working environment. The first outliers of this new industrial revolution are already with us, driven by technical breakthroughs like Big Data, and the Internet of Things, Services and People.

The interconnected world these systems are promising to deliver have set in motion big changes in the automation sector, and ABB is striving to make the best possible use of well-proven innovations for its automation customers, including the power generation sector.

Strategic technology trends are defined as having potentially significant impact on organizations in the short term, three to five years. Today, those trends fall into two broad camps – internetization and Big Data generation.


This category of strategic technology involves moving beyond proprietary communication systems and software to create the information technology
that connects the components of the processes inside the plant. The basis of this new internet-based technology is found in the intranet of old DCS technology, which collectivized internal processes to improve operational performance and efficiency.

Once, IT was considered to be software design, and suppliers provided certain software in a certain way. Today, it means Amazon, it means Google, it is the new IT defacto which implies the cloud, lots of data and users altogether, moving beyond the boundaries of machines and sites, and the technology that enables this is the basis of Google and Amazon.

This encompasses mobile computing, for example, as well as the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud/client architecture, risk-based security and self-protection systems and web-scale IT (the industrial Internet).

Smart phones and wearable devices are part of a broader computing offering that includes connected screens in the workplace and in public spaces. The Internet of Things will only get bigger, driven by the expanding capabilities of user-oriented computing. Embedding this technology more deeply in our daily lives will create touchpoints for users everywhere, creating the foundation of digital business.

Mobile computing and cloud computing will continue to converge and lead to the growth of centrally coordinated applications that can be delivered to any device. Apps that effectively combine intelligence and storage with client devices will benefit from lowering bandwidth costs. Coordination and management will be based on the cloud. Enterprise applications will use multiple screens, and exploit wearables and other devices to deliver an enhanced and more effective user experience.

The Internet of Things is about web based communication and data, meaning users can put parts of a process where you like, it doesn’t have to be there physically in a given location. Internet connections today are developing rapidly and in unexpected ways, which demands close attention to security, and careful thought about how to use and pull maximum value from this technology.

This will necessitate more innovative forms of risk-based security assessment and protection. Since 100 percent secure solutions are not feasible with open architecture, more mainstream and sophisticated methods of risk assessment and mitigation from a process and tool perspective will be implemented.

Security-aware application design, dynamic and static application security testing, and runtime application self protection, combined with active context-awareness and adaptive access controls will all be absolutely necessary. This is what the web-scale IT requires, and what technology stalwarts like Amazon, Google and Facebook are already doing. Evolution toward webscale IT as commercial hardware platforms will embrace these new models, and cloud-optimized and software-defined methods will become mainstream.

The speed of this transition to the Internet of Things will depend on the willingness of the market to embrace them, but as of now automation suppliers like ABB are fully ready to move in this direction.

For example, Symphony Plus technology basically creates connections between the components of a process and translates this into information technology for use inside the plant. This was the boundary of control technology as of five or 10 years ago.

The Internet of Things is simply the same things applied on a much wider scale, which is of course to collect information from a lot of devices, each of them becoming more and more intelligent and developed with more features and functionality, pushing the boundaries and expanding the conversation of control automation systems.

Yet they are still keeping the conversation centralized, and cooperating together in the way of pre-IoT distributed control systems, but on a much wider scale and not necessarily physically present in the plant, but perhaps at some point via servers in the cloud.

This type of functionality would enable power trading, for example, and is very useful in terms of anticipating fuel and power costs, which works very well for renewable generation especially.

IoT functionality could also provide key market intelligence that can be significantly useful for renewable operations. For example, in a year there are many days in which the sale price of a megawatt of power is basically negative, and generating plants lose money each time they sell power. There is value in being able to forecast, in connecting to information about weather, for example, so operators can use this data to anticipate what the price of their product might be.

Automation partners like ABB need to show how automation innovations will bring about more effective results, rather than just unveiling a new technology that does something different. For example, traditional power generation operators in thermal and nuclear sectors are carefully looking for ways to make their operations more efficient and effective, such as finding new ways to deal with inventories.

At the same time, customers who embrace new technologies and innovations don’t necessarily translate this enthusiasm into requirements for their automation system. They expect automation suppliers to anticipate them, and assume you are using the latest and best technology available in order to make their investment work optimally.

As far as the Internet of Things is concerned, enabling the technology is just the first step. The critical issues of data and information protection and plant security mean making this technology work in the real world for a power plant is something that will need to happen very carefully.

Big Data

The second strategic technology trend lies in the generation of Big Data, which involves software-defi ned infrastructure and applications (the ecosystem), context-rich systems, advanced, pervasive and invisible analytics, smart machines and 3D printing.

Software-defined infrastructure and applications have created, for example, a Symphony Plus ecosystem that is ututterly comfortable with flexibility, and able to cope with small wind or hydro generation, or at the other end of the scale with gigawatt-sized generating units. Similar agile development methods enable organizations to deliver the fl exibility needed to make digital business work. The rapidly changing demands of digital business require computing to move away from static to dynamic models.

Vast pools of structured and unstructured data from both inside and outside the organization will be continuously generated, making advanced analytic capability essential. It is wise to remember what the point of this collection is – to fine-tune and improve operations, which means big questions and big answers are more important than Big Data. In addition, the ubiquity of embedded intelligence combined with pervasive analytics will encourage the development of systems that are alert and responsive to their surroundings.

The combination of analytics and an understanding of context will usher in smart machines. Advanced algorithms will lead to systems that learn for themselves, and act based upon their learning, leading to autonomous vehicles, advanced robots, virtual personal assistants and smart advisors.

Finally, the cost of 3D printing will decrease over the next three years, leading to a rapid growth in the market for these low-cost machines, and industrial use will continue to expand rapidly. 3D printing is a viable and cost-effective way of reducing costs through improved designs, streamlined prototyping and shortrun manufacturing.

We are already using Big Data every day. Anyone who is computer literate knows how to buy an app, and people are becoming more and more aware of the information around them, how to access it, search through it and share it. Big Data will similarly provide answers, and analytics a way forward. Big Data can help deploy a system and provide the step-by-step, contextdriven decisions. For example, one area that is really supported by this technology is software restoration.

People today download and restore software systems in a few minutes, and not many remember how painfully difficult it once was to install software on a computer. Technology has appeared that enables you to upgrade components in the field without stopping the plant, and can provide continuous, automatic upgrades without the operator even realizing it.

Symphony Plus technology is at this point in terms of technical capability now, which means operators can have an infrastructure that is local or remote. In either case, technology is headed towards the capacity to add new information and expand the ecosystem of a specific application to include new features and functionality, without disturbing what is already installed.


Automation suppliers like ABB must be able to show customers how innovations will improve efficiency and operations and save resources. It is much more effective than simply talking about the latest multiprocessor technology, for example, because it demonstrates how innovations touch the business and improve it.

Showing a customer how it is possible to commission a machine remotely because all conductivity is based on the Internet demonstrates innovation’s value by underscoring its flexibility – the capacity to circumvent remote locations, political conditions, disturbances, etc.

This is the direction control automation is moving towards - extraordinary flexibility, ease of operation and state of-the-art cyber security.

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In Control 02 | 2015

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