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Innovation through collaboration

29 June 2022

The vision for an automated world is one that harnesses data, software and hardware to deliver efficiency, resiliency, and sustainability. For possibilities to be met, interoperability must at its foundations asserts John Conway

THE POTENTIAL of digital automation has far-reaching implications for society, from the automating of manual tasks within our homes, to revolutionising industrial systems, healthcare provision and even ensuring society attains Net Zero ambitions. However, for automation to achieve this promise, interoperability must be its foundation stone. Impactful automation at any scale requires digital technologies that are developed and deployed to work together, within a data-sharing ecosystem that adopts common standards. This is especially true within industry, where automation of industrial processes promises to increase productivity, sustainability and safety while reducing costs, errors and providing greater insight across all areas of production and supply chain.

While many are already embracing greater automation, they are too often coming up against issues of interoperability, finding vendor-locked manufacturing processes placing an obstacle in the way of their efforts to automate. The impact of closed, proprietary systems on efforts to realise insight and efficiency is withholding the benefits of IoT from users while also proving a disservice to vendors themselves. Removing these barriers will only widen the scope for innovation and collaboration at scale. Bringing vendors, users, researchers and experts together is the only way to ensure automation delivers on its potential.

To achieve the benefits that Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things promise, next-generation automation systems must address interoperability. That is where UniversalAutomation.Org comes into play.

UniversalAutomation.Org is an independent, not-for-profit association of users and vendors managing the implementation of an industrial automation shared source runtime, based on the IEC 61499 standard. This new level of shared technology provides the basis for an ecosystem of portable, interoperable, solutions and creates an entirely new category within industrial automation.

So, what will this look like in practice?

Out with hardware siloes. In with data-enabled, software-centric innovation

Industrial players must invest in software-centric and data-enabled innovation that enables actions based on the gathering and analysis of information that the traditional siloed industrial hardware alone is not able to offer. Only then, the promise of the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be fully realised. 

UniversalAutomation.Org supports an event-driven software component design methodology, built on IEC 61499 technology, that integrates automation systems with IT data analysis tools.

There is evidence that shows this technology saves costs and enables shorter time-to-market. Using software-driven tools such as digital twins, which can simulate outcomes without having to invest in hardware to validate a proof of concept, saving valuable time and money.

Open à la carte automation

Though open automation exists today, it does not go far enough. The existing locked-in industrial automation models no longer address the challenges of a more complex, volatile marketplace. Industry players need open, flexible, and efficient interoperable systems that are easy to integrate and that fluidly and easily adapt to change.

In such an environment, the concept of universal automation is gaining traction. Universal automation is an open and collaborative approach, introducing users to a world of ‘plug and produce”’ applications. It enables “à la carte automation” because software is decoupled from the underlying hardware. Cost and performance can then be optimised by assembling proven-in-use software components — without regard to brand.

As a result, an app store model for industry, consisting of asset-centric automation systems, can be leveraged to drive increased efficiency. This will enable best-of-breed proven-in-use software to drive new business opportunities for users. 

Reference & runtime to speed up implementation

In the IT domain, the use of reference implementations has enabled the rapid adoption of new technology. The future of Industrial Automation should follow this trend as well. As a shared source, this reference implementation can radically increase the adoption rate of new technology and decrease compliance testing between systems from different suppliers.

UniversalAutomation.Org shares the reference implementation of an IEC 61499-based runtime to enable other market players to quickly implement the technology while also ensuring interoperability and portability of automation solutions.

Future-proof automation through community

Implementing these changes and reaping the benefits of the next generation of industrial automation requires every company to develop a tight-knit ecosystem of partners. Industry 4.0 automation cannot be achieved by a single firm or vendor. Industry players must unite to share expertise, technology, and innovation, which is exactly UniversalAutomation.Org is designed to do.

Members of UniversalAutomation.Org come from the user community, the vendor, community, software developers, academics, start-ups, and industry leaders. What they have in common is a shared vision of universal automation systems where the application software is portable and seamlessly interoperates across vendor platforms. According to PwC analysis smart automation has the potential to contribute up to $15 trillion to global GDP by 2030 according to PwC analysis. Innovation through collaboration is the only way to ensure your organisation remains at the forefront of this revolution.

John Conway is president at UniversalAutomation.Org