Automation advances that are shaping the future

Embedded Intelligence columnist Jeremy Pollard shakes off the ghosts of automation's past to find some opinions about more recent automation advances that are shaping the future right now.

By Jeremy Pollard, Columnist

FOR MOST of 2005, I wrote about ghosts of automation’s past, the way we were and the way we worked 20-odd years ago, and those innovators behind the tools we have in today’s PLC hardware, programming software, HMI software and the like. I had a lot of support for my version of history, but there are other developments in discrete world that many believe are just as important.

So, what’s next? I decided to ask around, and found some opinions about more-recent automation advances that are shaping the future right now.

Dick Caro is called by some the de facto fieldbus guru. He says that without Foundation Fieldbus (FF), we would still be in the dark ages of input/output (I/O) connectivity. He says “the entire concept of distributed control” comes from FF. It was, to his thinking, the beginning of the divergence of single-source supply for connected I/O. He believes this led to the networking of micro-PLCs to create distributed processing that allows for simpler, reactive control schemes, rather than the complication of cell-type controllers.

I’m not sure I totally agree. Remote I/O allowed for distributed I/O, and the concept of distributing the intelligence was a breakthrough. Gregg Ekberg, of Highline Controls, agrees with me. In March 2000, Fortune magazine named him one of the year’s “Heroes of Manufacturing.”

"Automation will move toward the ant colonies concept—autonomous, multi-agent systems—which will focus on distributed control engineering. Because each ant is an agent, if one dies, the upset impact is zero."

Ekberg believes that, in a world of distributed intelligence, the I/O bus has been a huge development. It’s this initial move toward unshackling I/O from the controller that allowed modern-day packaging to become agile by employing servo-based motion control. The controllers are on the motor itself, and communicate with the machine and each other using a network.

Ekberg says the next big thing will be product and solution design that will support the notion of subsystem mobility. The ability to move parts of the process around—regardless of their function—will reduce project cost, make manufacturing even more agile, and allow North American manufacturing to become more innovative, and cost-competitive.

My old friend Ken Ball, along with Dick Morley, was one of the founders of what was called the “Club of Detroit.” They pondered the future of automation 25-30 years ago, when the ideas and technologies were far more difficult to anticipate than today.

Ken believes the ubiquitous microprocessor is the one true development that enabled what we have now. I think one could argue that substrate development, ASICs, FGAs, etc., played a part in our current crop of available technology. It’s clear he feels that the standards we enjoy today, such as Ethernet, and specifically TCP/IP, had a big role too. He reminded me our biz is being built on it today, and adds, “We’re moving toward embedded intelligence.”

Another impact will come from nano-technologies: small, powerful tools that will allow, for example, the human body to be a better network. DNA strands will talk to different parts of the body using its central nervous system as an information highway. The ultimate HMI.

I met Mike Blonder in the press room at the ISA Expo 2005 conference this past October. He’s with a marketing and technology firm, and admitted he’s too young to give an opinion on the past. However, his take on the future is that it will include conductive inks. I said, “pardon?”

Blonder explained conductive inks will alter product labeling because of the seemingly relentless move to RFID implementation. He says conductive inks can create actual circuitry, which means RFID tags can be made with a videojet pattern. As we’re coming to see, RFID has the possibility to affect all walks of a products life, from manufacturing to consumption. Sooner or later, we’ll see how this technology impacts machine builders.

Paul Avery is a research engineer with the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Tex. He’s working on the concept of ant colonies in automation. He believes, “The automation industry, in particular, will move in the direction of autonomous, multi-agent systems, which will place a primary focus on distributed control engineering capabilities.” Each ant is an agent. If one dies, the upset impact is zero.

How about you? We all have an opinion, and it is mainly determined by our station in life.

My nephew would say that the fishing rod and the Big O (I stumped my editor with that one) have been the best developments since the freezer. It’s all in how you look at it.

  About the Author
Jeremy Pollard, CET, has been writing about technology and software issues for many years. Publisher of The Software User ONLINE, he has been involved in control system programming and training for more than 20 years. Browse to or e-mail him at

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