The Shape of Things to Come for Automation System Suppliers, and What They Can Do to Succeed in The Future

An interview with Klaus Hübschle, CTO, M&M Software

The digital future of system suppliers will develop in two directions – on-site capabilities will increase, and connectivity will become more advanced to enable more capabilities in servers off-site.

Intelligence at the edge, or in the field, will grow as advancements in edge computing are made. This chiefly impacts the way processes are controlled using IoT, such as machine-learning based algorithms to control processes, and has a big influence on the way such engineering tools will look like in the future. For example, due to power requirements of edge computing, the performance of engineering tools and hardware would need to support these new requirements. The new capabilities would also change the way that control processes are engineered, to make room for these capabilities, and to provide an avenue to upgrade these systems in the future.

Connectivity improvements would enable more stable and faster communication between the production site. This opens up more possibilities for more activities to happen in the cloud that is not happening today. Latency in cellular networks prevent real-time computing to happen in the cloud at high data volume. Improvements in stability and speed would allow more data to be transmitted faster, which means that more devices can be connected and decisions can be taken in real-time. Networks such as 5G also empowers devices to be more than just a data generating terminal, but have enhanced computing abilities as well, since 5G can bring computer processing to devices that need it in an energy efficient way.

All together, this means that increasingly more controllers become IoT devices – they switch from simply controlling processes to enabling the user to implement their own business processes. Hence, system supplier business models would change to empower customers to innovate their business models. We already see a rise of platforms and tools that allow users to create new tools for their existing systems.

This poses a challenge to the whole industry to keep their role in a fully automated engineering environment. The automation industry needs to integrate themselves into the system of the digital factory. But the question is, will they be allowed to? Are there open standards for smaller solution providers to integrate themselves into the digitalized engineering environment?

At M&M, we believe there are four things companies can do to take advantage of these opportunities.

Firstly, platforms can be created to decouple engineering knowledge from technical development, so that engineering systems can be more flexible and can adapt to various technical systems. With the increasing speed of change and lack of a clear standard, it is imperative that engineering is done in a way that can be integrated with multiple generations of technology and hardware.

Secondly, system suppliers can strive for having open standards by participating in standard setting organizations such as the STT. This way, they can prevent the deadlock situation of each company creating their own standards and locking out others. Before a clear industry standard is set, system suppliers can develop ecosystem partnerships and provide integration interfaces to be more involved in the fully automated engineering environment.

Thirdly, when developing an automation solution for the user, it is imperative to have a strong customer focus from beginning to end. This can be achieved by having practical knowledge of the user’s operations, ideally via involvement in implementation, and the agility to adjust to changes in strategic direction as the market changes.

Lastly, to digitalize fully, product planning must be digital too. User workflows around the product can be visualized digitally to determine the best product architecture for the end user -  electrical, firmware, tools, sales and marketing processes.

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