We've seen what happened when IT technology went open platform. Now, says Mauro DelleMonache, Vice President of Industrial Automation at Schneider Electric, it's time for manufacturing to throw off the shackles.
This past year has exposed a clear divide between businesses that embraced the digital age before the pandemic and were able to weather the storm of Covid-19 and those that had not – and struggled.
Going digital brings with it agility, resiliency, efficiency, and sustainability – all critical to modern industry. But we need to be bolder to improve productivity.
Even before the pandemic, industrial productivity was moving in the wrong direction, lingering at just 0.7 per cent growth. We're also seeing a shift to manufacturing moving onshore. Many factors are driving this — moving away from overseas dependence on key products, tight global supply chains, continued instability in global markets and tariffs and boycotts.
But are we prepared to be productive and world class in modernising the manufacturing sector? We are facing a major barrier — industry is dominated by closed proprietary systems not designed for flexibility.
Industrial businesses are faced with making operational technology decisions that lock them into a specific vendor and face unnecessary engineering expenses in the pursuit of innovation and integration.
Automation suppliers purport to offer "open" technology when, in reality, many are yet to offer vendor-agnostic systems, where software from one vendor can run on hardware from another. It's costly and clunky.
This is a challenge faced by industry across the world. It's in everyone's interest – from vendors, original equipment manufacturers, machine builders, system integrators and end users – to create the alternative: true open, universal automation.
This will only be achieved by innovating and collaborating together.
While automation has done a good job of getting us to where we are today, we need a radical shift to make real the promise of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We have an under-utilised industry sector; for tomorrow, we need to revolutionise our technology model with adaptable and open systems.
The industrial sector is ripe for disruption. We no longer accept closed IT systems and we have all seen the benefits of the IT world's open operating platforms.
Now it is industry's turn. Adopting a common standard for interoperability, IEC61499, is the way forward. With it, we can make the most of AI, big data, and machine learning. Industry operators can build flexibility and adaptability into their systems and enable the merging of operational technology and information technology systems.
With operational technology, each piece of hardware can only be run with the manufacturer's software written specifically for it. Universal automation decouples the hardware from the software.
Engineers and programmers can deploy many pieces of hardware and control them all with the one IT system, driving efficiency and flexibility into their operations.
Universal automation is the world of "plug and produce" automation software components. Think of it as the dawn of an industrial automation app store. The standard can be used to create a standardised automation layer across vendors, similar to the way that the Linux open source operating system helped standardised operating systems across computers.
Adoption of a common standard across vendors ensures different hardware and software systems which can leverage advanced technologies by natively communicating with each other.
There are bottom line and sustainability benefits too. For example, with energy a major cost, an operator could use universal automation to optimise its use much more effectively than can be accomplished today.
Imagine an operator has solar power and a battery. The system could be programmed to automatically decide how to best use the stored energy – sell back to the grid or drive more production.
That same operator can more transparently collaborate with customers and suppliers and adjust a greater range of variables to meet market demands, minimising waste, reducing inventory and extracting greater productivity from their operations.
Manufacturers, the food and beverages sector, pharmaceuticals, materials handling and logistics. have a lot to gain. Faced with narrow margins and dynamic supply and demand challenges, incorporating universal automation would have an immediate impact – whether it be improving bottom line or targeting net zero emission targets.
A different future is within reach. Digital transformation journeys in manufacturing begin with open platforms. With the ability to unlock manufacturers' digital potential, we can share in a better reality for our industries of the future, our country and our planet.
To find out more, visit Schneider Electric.