Control Software / PLCs

How open systems are shaping the future

The OPA Forum could have the same effect OMAC did, for what it’s worth

By Jeremy Pollard, CET

Remember OMAC? The open modular automation controller was developed by the automotive industry back in the 1990s to try and short-circuit the captive-audience mentality that automation companies had over their customers.

Only Rockwell Automation products would work with Rockwell controllers, and only Siemens products with Siemens controllers. You get the picture.

We have changed, however. We now have interoperability standards such as Modbus TCP, Ethernet/IP and OPC. We can use various vendors’ I/O and valve blocks, as long as they support a standard protocol.

Download the report: How many IEC 61131-3 languages do I need?

IEC 61131-3 has made big inroads into the automation world since 3S-Smart Software Solutions licensed its CoDeSys product to many automation vendors so the cost of development for a hardware platform is drastically reduced. It creates a common user interface of sorts, and, while not exact, it provides a better transition from vendor to vendor than in the days of OMAC.

OMAC brought the IEC standard to our industry, and the support it garnered in Europe was undeniable. PLCopen was formed to support vendors and their venture into the IEC world with testing and compliance with tools that can complement a vendor’s offering. North America is getting there.

But, while a common software platform is available, there are still experts in the systems that the software supports.

Now Lockheed Martin and ExxonMobil have initiated a new push to overhaul the automation world of process. OMAC basically dealt with discrete controls—PLC and CNC.

The Open Process Automation (OPA) Forum wants a modular, interoperable and scalable solution for the process control systems and distributed control systems. It wants vendor-neutral solutions.

OMAC has been embraced by the packaging industry and has generated such standards as PackML. Where will OPA take that side of the industry?

Time will tell whether trying to level the automation professional’s playing field is good or bad for the industry. We need people to enter the field with new ideas and passion, along with ability. Automation is not going away, but the collective age of the automation gurus is advancing rapidly.

And we can’t forget the people who are currently in the profession: Will they stay, as we have?

For the worker bees in automated companies, a study from Ball State and Villanova universities suggests employees fear for their jobs due to automation risk. This gets translated into health issues of the rank and file. It costs money to the company and affects the common workplace. It equates to job insecurity.

With standardization, the automation guru may not be as revered as before. I submit that we are all gurus of some sort, due to experience, as long as we keep up with the technology that surrounds us.

With standardization, employee mobility is increased for those who know and understand what standardization brings to the table.

With standardization, employee mobility is increased for those who know and understand what standardization brings to the table. Projects can get developed and implemented faster and possibly at lower cost.

Does that make our automation industry more palatable to a graduate engineer? Only if we start treating our disciples with fair pay and family-oriented benefits and life/work balance. They are millennials, after all.

A report from PMMI called Vision 2025 canvassed 58 consumer packaged goods companies. These typically combine process and discrete manufacturing by creating the product—soup, for instance—and then packaging it, palletizing it and shipping it.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, according to the report. It identifies the slow-moving, same-old issues, which include the consumer, as well as new innovations, such as the Industrial Internet of Things and Industry 4.0.

But the report suggests that the manufacturing space has a negative image for new hires.

Where it all lands is a confusing landscape. Remember Gus, a not-so-new engineer who is still with the same company but now in a management position? He is in a state of limbo since the promotion of his new boss is puzzling to him. Due to this, he has no idea where his advancement path leads, and, when he asks, he doesn’t get any leadership answers.

Will he stay, or will he go now? The jury is out, but, without a clear-defined career path for a new hire and existing automation professionals, how would a newly graduated engineer choose to participate in this part of the industry? Automation puts people out of work. Automation professionals  need to decide for themselves whether they want to be a part of that. Answers vary.

Standards work. What ExxonMobil is trying to do will help the landscape, as long as our educational thread keeps up, which means that companies must invest in people and standards.

OMAC made a difference. OPA will, too. It’s the extent that is undefined right now. It’s a work in progress across many lines.

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