Drives & Controls July / August 2022

30 n ROBOTICS AND AUTOMATED MANUFACTURING July/August 2022 Universal automation: a revolution for industry? C hange is a part of life. The only constant we can expect is that change is inevitable. With change comes adaptability. We must stay agile to acclimatise to the landscape and navigate new challenges. Yet, currently in the industrial automation industry, workers are constrained by closed, proprietary automation systems and production equipment. Engineers waste valuable time and effort combatting this issue. Instead, they should be free to innovate, create value, drive efficiencies, enable sustainable growth, and drive greener initiatives. Technology can and should be used to enable smarter, faster, andmore sustainable manufacturing, ushering in a new era for industrial processes. The key to achieving this is universal automation – interoperable, software- centric automation systems that share a common IEC 61499 runtime. Change is inevitable. The past few years have made that abundantly clear. While nobody can predict the future, emerging technologies based on the principles of interoperability and universal automation allow us to react to volatile markets, and to deal quickly and efficiently with any changes in production environments. Moreover, they reduce waste by expanding the lifespan of hardware and improving circularity. According to both ARC Advisory Group and McKinsey, industry has yet to uncover key efficiencies worth an estimated $30–100bn per year. And this will only be possible if industry is transformed and embraces digital collaboration. Trapped Some may argue that breakthroughs in machine learning, augmented reality, the IIoT and real-time analytics have made promising advances inmanufacturing, meeting the demands of our current digital world. However, in reality, industry remains trapped by vendor lock-ins, which limit machine-to-machine collaboration and the ability to integrate best- of-breed technologies. These incompatibilities hinder industry from breakthrough innovations and cutting-edge products and systems, such as becoming pioneers of a net-zero future through low impact and carbon-neutral manufacturing. As the global economy strives towards a greener future, industry risks holding the planet back. Currently, industry is responsible for a staggering 32% of global carbon emissions. If the status quo is maintained, industry won’t be able to transition to sustainable models. Universal automation enables engineers to create and innovate, realising their full potential to re-shape industry andmove us forward to a sustainable Industry 4.0. We must ensure that ecology and technological advancement are compatible, nurturing innovation as industry becomes one of the cornerstones of a green recovery. This, andmuchmore, will be possible as universal automation breaks the mould. Collaboration is imperative. Only then can top engineering talent be revealed, bringing a new purpose to industry. Abolishing lock-ins Standardisation is the answer to innovation. The IEC 61499 standard already provides a basis for integration and collaboration. In the IT industry, standardisation and the separation of hardware and software lifecycles have proved essential as computers and smartphones run real-time software applications. Universal automationmakes this available for industrial processes andmachines for the first time. The ability to port applications easily from one brand to another will free up engineering time, giving automation professionals more scope to innovate. It will also help to make industrial operations more cost- and energy- efficient, extending hardware lifespans. Universal automation is already making major strides in the consumer packaged goods, pharmaceuticals and logistics sectors at companies such as gr3n and Master Systèmes. Because the software is no longer limited by the hardware, adapting to change has never been easier or more cost-effective. If something goes wrong, universal automation applications can be used to find the root of the issue four times faster, cutting downtime as well as materials being wasted in faulty products. If you are sceptical about universal automation, don’t be! The historical standardisation of screw threads revolutionised and democratised the landscape for manufacturing. It meant that machines could be made and repaired using standard screwdrivers, making this one of the first moves towards industrial standardisation. Imagine what we could achieve by standardising the platforms on which industrial automation software runs in our factories? n The model we currently use for industrial automation is too limiting, argues John Conway, president of, a non-profit group of more than 30 automation companies and organisations campaigning for a common software layer that will work across automation technologies of any brand. The traditional model for automation (left) locks users into vendors, limits interoperability, prevents portability, is hard to interface with IT systems, and is labour-intensive to engineer and operate. argues that its model (right) offers vendor independency, interoperability, easy IT interfacing, efficient engineering and operation, as well as boosting innovation.