Is Convergence the Future for Industrial Automation?

In many ways, people today are converging.  Across the globe, farmers and peasants are converging on cities.  Inventions like the telephone, radio, TV, and the Internet are bringing us into a single social village.  Companies merge, associations form, grassroot organizations spring up, and people reach out to long-lost childhood friends and perfect strangers over the social airwaves of Facebook, Linkedin, and Twitter.

The powerful force of convergence is being felt in business and industry, and according to The Convergence eBook: The Future of Industrial Automation, in process control and automation.  This ebook outlines the reasons for convergence, and some of the technologies that will help support it.  From our vantage point, one of these is real-time cloud computing.

The Convergence eBook points out several trends that are facilitating this movement towards convergence:

  • Globalization has pushed companies beyond regional and national boundaries to create satellite offices and plants, building demand for fast and flexible communication between people and machines.  As the assets and resources diverge, the data communication must converge.
  • Corporate mandates for greater efficiency and sustainability mean that the status quo isn’t good enough any more.  Management is beginning to take a greater interest in the data pulsing through the veins of the industrial automation systems in their company, and looking for ways to feed that valuable information to the whole body of the company.
  • Moore’s Law describes how computing resources are continually getting smaller and more powerful, which translates into less and less expensive.  Low-cost sensors and other devices are making more and more data available, and this data converges on SCADA and MES (manufacturing execution system) platforms.
  • Concept, Main gear in mechanism on white isolated background. 3dAutomation technology is converging to the point where it is possible to host a single software development environment and runtime application on one control computer to provide multiple functionality over a single network.

All of these examples of convergence depend on real-time data communication.  In most cases the physical location of the devices, facilities, offices, or factories is spread apart.  What mediates the convergence is the data flow.  The more accessible, reliable, and quick the data flow, the tighter the integration and convergence.

Until recently the opportunity for convergence for real-time data was available mainly within a single factory or SCADA system.  What cloud computing offers is an opportunity to raise the level of convergence among multiple plants, between factory and main office, or even integrating offshore facilities.