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Where is automation headed?

March 1, 2021
Five industry experts share their thoughts on the future of controls technology

Joey Cate was promoted to vice president, Logical Systems (LSI) in January. He’ll work closely with John Bailey, vice president, to provide management and oversight of all LSI North American operations.

For the past 15 years, Cate has been an instrumental part of the team and company growth at LSI, where he began his career in 2006 as an electrical engineer in the Memphis office. In 2008, it was off to the Golden, Colorado, office for three years, where he was a critical part of enabling the rapid growth of that office and played a vital role in the execution of some major transformational projects, including Project Everest, for Golden’s largest customer. After returning to Memphis in 2011, Cate has held roles with ever-increasing responsibility, including branch business manager, assistant branch manager and operations director, all while becoming a licensed professional engineer in 12 states.

“I’ve worked with Joey since he came to Colorado in 2008 to help me start our LSI Golden office, and he’s an exceptional talent and leader that instills loyalty in the hearts and minds of his team,” says LSI President Nick Riggio. “Our employees and customers appreciate his leadership. When the going gets tough, we never wonder where Joey is because he’s front and center, getting things done. He has earned this promotion by having an outstanding work ethic and consistently demonstrating technical, strategic and business acumen.”

Jean-Pierre (JP) Mulley joined OEE Datawatch, an automation system integration company in York, Pennsylvania, as a product expert to support and promote the company’s release of its equipment monitoring and control system, as well as the introduction of several other products.

“JP is a terrific asset to our team because he understands the vision of OEE Datawatch,” says Brian Rajotte, OEE Datawatch president and design engineer. “We both have a long professional history in manufacturing and automation, and we intimately understand the pain of manufacturers and system integrators who want to centralize automation but feel left out of the game because of cost. Together, we’re working to change that thinking and show manufacturers that they can automate without expensive engineering and schematics.”

Before onboarding with OEE, Mulley was an independent consultant, helping clients in manufacturing, IIOT, healthcare and government develop and improve their sales and marketing, product management and data analysis. Prior to consulting, Mulley worked for Minitab, where he served in sales, marketing, product management and professional services and as chief products officer—a position he held for seven years. As a result of his experiences, Mulley has an intimate understanding of the challenges and complexities involved in collecting data that enables meaningful analysis. Mulley earned an economics degree from Carnegie Mellon and holds a Six Sigma Black Belt from the American Society for Quality.

Eric Huston joined GTI Spindle Technology’s leadership team as a vice president and chief operating officer of the GTI Predictive Technology subsidiary to aid in the evolution of the Spindle and Predictive brands. He answered a variety of our questions about the future of the industrial space in light of his new responsibilities.

At GTI Spindle, Huston will drive the development and launch of subscription-based business solutions for machine tool spindle repair enabled through digital transformation. At GTI Predictive, Huston provides leadership and focus encompassing the whole value chain with emphasis on customer excellence, sales, marketing, business and product development.

“Eric’s track record of developing leading-edge solutions while remaining passionate about customer success is paramount to helping us achieve our strategic goals,” says Tom Hoenig, president.

“I am excited to join the leadership team of GTI Spindle Technology as we embark on the development of new go-to-market approaches for machine tool spindle repair business through implementation of servitization, digitalization and outcome-based business models," states Huston.

Earlier in his career, Huston gained extensive experience in industrial aftermarket services and digital transformation in both domestic and international markets. He has an affinity for the influence and contribution of precision maintenance, proactive reliability, energy efficiency and environmental management upon the profitable growth and sustainability of industrial facilities and fleets.

Prior to GTI, Huston held executive positions with increasing responsibility at Schaeffler, SKF and Honeywell (Measurex) after starting his career as a maintenance engineer with International Paper (Champion International).

Huston holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Maine. He is a member of several professional organizations, having served as vice chair of the Manufacturing Technical Group and as chair of the Plant Engineering and Maintenance Division for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). He is currently a member of the Best Practices and Benchmarking Committee for the Society of Reliability and Maintenance Professionals (SMRP).

Huston is a certified maintenance and reliability professional (CMRP), and a former certified energy manager (CEM) through the Association of Energy Engineers (AEE).

Joaquin Ocampo and Allen Tubbs are product managers, automation & electrification solutions, at Bosch Rexroth.

What are three key things that a machine builder, system integrator or manufacturer should know about your company?

Joey Cate, vice president, Logical Systems: I believe that three things our customers should know about LSI are the following:
  • LSI is a next-gen integrator, meaning that we have a range of in-house capabilities that other integrators do not. We offer electrical design, controls and automation integration and electrical panel fabrication, typical for most system integrators. We also provide manufacturing execution systems (MES) integration, data intelligence services, OT cybersecurity services, full custom process skid, machine design and in-house fabrication, full engineer-procure-construct (EPC) services, construction management and project management.
  • LSI is independently owned and is able to offer innovative solutions to our customers that are a best fit for their specific situation, without bias to a particular vendor's platform or solution. We pride ourselves on listening to, learning and understanding our clients' processes and business drivers.
  • LSI recently celebrated our 35th anniversary and has grown into an international company with seven offices and world-wide project execution. Our very first customer from 35 years ago is still a customer today.
Jean-Pierre Mulley, product expert, OEE Datawatch: OEE Datawatch products are the shortest path to implement overall equipment effectiveness—the best way for manufacturers to understand their business and drive efficiency and uptime. We provide the distillation of decades of automation and control experience in the form of standardized designs that are easy to understand, install and deploy by system integrators and by in-house manufacturing personnel. Essentially, our president and design engineer, Brian Rajotte, has designed his dream control system, so that system integrators and manufacturers don’t have to go through the frustrations he experienced over his 30-year career.

For system integrators, we’ve standardized much of what is traditionally a customized process. For example, we think schematics are wasteful because they often cause integrators to lose significant money when quoting, and they don’t add value for the customer. Our designs eliminate the need for schematics entirely. With innovations like this, we cut an estimated 30% of the cost out of the traditional, one-off way of designing and quoting control systems, which makes our integrators way more competitive. Now, they can complete twice the number of projects in less time and deliver solutions that are much easier to integrate, operate and maintain.

Our products are designed for manufacturability, meaning that costs are low, quality is high, and turnaround is fast. Again, the old Industry 3.0 way of doing things is too slow, inflexible and expensive. We’re here to free people from restrictive, costly proprietary systems and empower them with automation solutions that are flexible and affordable and that improve their businesses.

Eric Huston, vice president, GTI Spindle; chief operating officer, GTI Predictive: GTI Spindle Technology has been dedicated to fulfilling one specific mission: to provide our clients with the highest quality and most extensive range of machine tool spindle repair services and new spindle applications with unsurpassed customer service.

As part of this mission, the GTI Predictive Technology subsidiary was developed by taking advantage of technological advances to bring the industrial reliability maintenance community powerful, affordable and industry-changing solutions.

Through integration of our general machinery knowledge, and more specifically our in-depth machine tool spindle knowledge, our predictive technologies and repair services, GTI is well-equipped to lead the market development of outcome-based business models in support of customers who are looking for a supplier to take more responsibility and create additional value.

Joaquin Ocampo, product manager, automation & electrification solutions, Bosch Rexroth: Three key things a machine builder, system integrator or manufacturer should know about Bosch Rexroth are that we are focused on connectivity, we provide a common product platform and we offer multiple technology options all under one roof (Figure 1).
One roof

Figure 1: Bosch Rexroth is focused on connectivity, providing a common product platform and offering multiple technology options all under one roof.

With connectivity, for example, we offer the most open connectivity options, with Multi-EtherNet- Sercos, EtherCAT, EtherNet/IP and Profinet. And we support higher level languages, such as C++, Java or Python, to name a few for programming of applications and IoT. In addition, we still provide the ability for using PLC language IEC 61131 for those who prefer that.

We also make it easy for customers by offering a common platform. All the products in our portfolio have the same features across the entire line. So, for example, the same software is used for commissioning, configuration and diagnostics. The safety features are the same, regardless of the hardware. This makes it easier for customers to manage their bill of materials, spares and maintenance.

The last item is our expertise across different technologies. A good example here is our expertise also in hydraulics, where our servo drives act as hydraulic pump motor controllers to improve performance and efficiency. We specialize in linear motion technology, so we’re able to offer preconfigured linear slide systems for easy selection by the users. DC-to-DC converter applications are getting more prevalent in industrial application due to electric vehicle and island grid applications. Our Bosch Rexroth servo system is well adapted to be used as a dc-to-dc converter for nontraditional servo markets. We offer worldwide service and support, including offices in many countries where we provide local support.

Which new technologies are driving your product development and why?

Jean-Pierre Mulley, product expert, OEE Datawatch: OEE Datawatch developed a patent-pending technology to eliminate schematics and replace them with a unique I/O identification language that’s built into the physical design of our control systems. This simple, standardized configuration has been needed in manufacturing automation for a long time. It creates stress-free installation and streamlines troubleshooting and maintenance, and that’s crucial because it drastically reduces downtime and makes additions to a line quick and easy.

We’re also very focused on safety, and we use technology to create a safer, more stable control systems by design. Many smaller manufacturers worry about OSHA compliance. It’s a burden for them, and it’s difficult to get right, especially within systems that are cobbled together. An example of how we solve this is the separated voltage compartments in our UAK1000 control system. Operators can troubleshoot the system in perfect safety without shutting down the line because the dangerous high-voltage components are completely isolated behind a lockable disconnect.

Eric Huston, vice president, GTI Spindle; chief operating officer, GTI Predictive:  GTI Predictive Technology utilizes one of the most powerful platforms available today and leverages that with a friendly user interface. Apple’s iOS and iPad platform allows GTI to use the best technology combined with economy-of-scale benefits to provide an amazing predictive maintenance solution. We further enable our technology using wireless communications, low-power consumption electronics and a variety of measurement technologies. We use this approach to identify the best approach at optimal cost to identify and follow machinery faults along the P-F (potential-failure through failed-to-function) curve based on asset criticality.
Allen Tubbs, product manager, automation & electrification solutions, Bosch Rexroth: The digital arena is changing our business in a rapid pace. In fact, the digital shock wave has dramatically changed many industries, overthrown others, and put some of them on the forefront. Opportunities are shifting from hardware to software and services. This is what our new ctrlX Automation platform will provide for the customer or machine builder to be relevant to the times.

CtrlX Automation surmounts the classic boundaries between machine controls, the IT world and the Internet of Things. With a Linux real-time operating system, consistently open standards, app programming technology, web-based engineering and a comprehensive IoT connection, ctrlX Automation reduces components and engineering costs by 30 to 50% while at the same time providing new freedom in engineering.

How does the Industrial Internet of Things figure in your business strategy?

Eric Huston, vice president, GTI Spindle; chief operating officer, GTI Predictive:  GTI Predictive Technology offers a product family that combines vibration data collection and analysis with balancing, shaft alignment, thermography and ultrasound into one affordable and scalable solution on one simple-to-use Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) platform. The use of IIoT is important to GTI for improved demand response and thus increased customer satisfaction—Supply Chain 4.0—especially as we adapt to requests to support outcome-based business models.
Joey Cate, vice president, Logical Systems: IIoT and Industry 4.0 mean a lot of things to different people, but I believe one thing that we can all agree on is that there is now more data available than ever before in manufacturing. LSI's business strategy is to guide our customers to be able to take all of their mountain of data and turn it into actionable intelligence that can drive real business results. We have the experience and expertise to provide end-to-end solutions, including properly planning and installing smart devices and networks, interfacing to those devices and collecting data, via PLCs, edge devices and servers, properly historizing data on-site or in the cloud, and then providing the analysis and intelligence layer to go beyond data and get to results.
Jean-Pierre Mulley, product expert, OEE Datawatch: It’s a given that manufacturers need to embrace Industry 4.0 and IIOT to stay competitive, so it’s central to our strategy. We see ourselves as the plug-and-play foundation that fits seamlessly within the Industry 4.0 architecture. A lot of companies don't even know where to start, and we have the best way for them to start. Our system provides the bedrock first three layers of the Industry 4.0 architecture —edge/PLC, HMI, SCADA—all in one beautifully integrated and designed box that just plugs into their system. We aim to be the fastest, most cost-effective way to connect IIOT devices to PLC/HMI and SCADA, and we enable small and mid-sized manufacturers to remain competitive by jump-starting their digital transformation and modernizing their manufacturing.
Joaquin Ocampo, product manager, automation & electrification solutions, Bosch Rexroth: This is a big part of our business strategy. Our products are designed to be part of IoT. We make access to data seamless. We emphasis the importance of making components connect easily to each other. It is such an important part of our strategy that Bosch Rexroth has an entire business unit dedicated to IoT, making products work together to create a more efficient system and making the connectivity easier to create IoT communications for the success of our users.

How will machine automation and controls alter the way companies staff their operations in the future?

Jean-Pierre Mulley, product expert, OEE Datawatch: A lot of people worry that automation is code for eliminating jobs, but that’s the wrong way to think about it. When companies fail to remain competitive, that’s when jobs are lost. We are passionate about unleashing the human potential that exists on the plant floor. Personnel should be enabled and empowered to grow the business, and we want to help businesses be successful and remain competitive by applying automation in a way that helps them do what they do faster, better and safer than they currently are. Centralized automation is a way to help companies use their personnel more efficiently and effectively.
Allen Tubbs, product manager, automation & electrification solutions, Bosch Rexroth: Machine automation and controls will alter the way companies staff their operations in the future by empowering their staff to do things more efficiently, better and safer. Machine automation and controls will enable the staff to improve operations. For example, by changing between languages on the HMI for operation or changing the ergonomics on the fly for operators running a machine. Other technology, like Bosch Rexroth’s ActiveAssist, can be used for the staff to quickly learn the steps of an assembly process, making the staff a valuable asset for the company. ActiveAssist is revolutionizing the manual workstation and moving the focus of Industry 4.0 towards people. In addition, working with collaboration robots to assist with heavy products or dangerous environment is helping to provide a healthy and safe environment for the staff.
Joey Cate, vice president, Logical Systems: Automation will continue to be used to replace repetitive or dangerous tasks. As automation gets more sophisticated and less expensive, there is the potential for more job functions to be replaced by automated solutions. This changes companies' staffing needs because more skilled workers are needed, and the required skillset continues to evolve. As new technology and more automation is introduced, more specialized skillsets are required. As processes are automated, potentially fewer operations staff are needed, but more controls and automation staff are needed.
Eric Huston, vice president, GTI Spindle; chief operating officer, GTI Predictive:  There will be a continued trend for increased use of automation, in part driven by digital transformation but more importantly due to the innovations required to operate during a pandemic as we all are experiencing. Remote work is just one example where staffing may not change significantly but rather the location of where personnel work changes. As closed-loop automation—cobots, robots—plays a greater role in operations, the role of staffing will shift to the oversight and management of these technologies. There is hope that this will not significantly impact staffing levels, but certainly the required skillset of staffing will change as we move forward.

How is the development of software solutions impacting your requirements for hardware?

Joaquin Ocampo, product manager, automation & electrification solutions, Bosch Rexroth: The development of software solutions is impacting the requirements for hardware to be future proof. It must be designed to function with different software and ready for new technologies in the future, like 5G communication and time-sensitive networking (TSN) and new higher-level languages. The design hardware must be low-cost, high-power and with the ability to cover a large range of applications. We take advantage of economies of scale; we design one board to function in many platforms. It is powerful and flexible and the cost to make it is reduced. Having one hardware platform that can accomplish different applications is much more cost-effective than having multiple hardware to do specific applications.
Jean-Pierre Mulley, product expert, OEE Datawatch: Data science, machine learning and AI have been hot topics for a long time now, and software to process data and make your manufacturing more efficient is everywhere. But those packages are useless without good, clean data presented to them in specific ways. Many people are told that they can just buy a cheap edge device, but this is only true in about 20% of applications. Consider that most older machines do not even have sensors or PLCs. Our products can talk to multiple PLCs and sensors simultaneously, consolidate the line/plant data, and deliver the data to analysis software packages in the formats they are ready to consume.
Eric Huston, vice president, GTI Spindle; chief operating officer, GTI Predictive: Due to the increasing commoditization and transfer of technology from the retail consumer space, we are seeing a “race to the bottom” on the pricing of hardware sensing technology albeit with some significant compromises in the fidelity of data—vibration measurements. Nonetheless, the lower price points on hardware opens new market opportunities, as well as increased propagation of new analytical techniques to decipher increased amounts of data. For example, what we have been calling “predictive” from a machinery health perspective by analyzing high frequency time waveforms and FFT spectra for many years is now also referred to as “predictive” when alternatively using event anomaly detection, artificial intelligence and machine-learning techniques. Technically, these are different approaches aimed at similar if not common outcomes. Still, at the end of the day the fundamentals remain. Bad inputs will not create good outputs—that is, how we see the requirements of hardware on our software development.

As engineering and IT continue their convergence, which one is and/or will be leading the direction of future automation and technology at your organization?

Joey Cate, vice president, Logical Systems: LSI is founded and led by engineers, and engineering will continue to set the direction of future automation. With that said, the convergence of IT and operations technology (OT) has and will continue to impact the direction of automation at our company and our clients.

Technology that originated in the IT space has slowly gained traction in OT as the benefits to industry overcome the resistance to change. At LSI, we are capitalizing on the convergence of IT and OT to provide improved solutions, and our engineering approach leads the direction of the IT technology integration in our solutions. Looking back over my years in Industrial Automation with LSI, there has been a significant shift in industry to adopt technology like virtualization, managed Ethernet networks for OT, wireless networks for OT, big data and cloud services. New technology can sometimes appear to be a solution looking for a problem to solve, but LSI uses our business-owner mentality and engineering approach to leverage technology to solve automation and business problems.

Allen Tubbs, product manager, automation & electrification solutions, Bosch Rexroth: We focus more heavily on engineering because we focus on solutions and products, however, we also rely heavily on IT to accomplish operation such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and data analytics. By integrating IT type of functions into our products, it makes our engineering products even better. They both enhance each other.
Eric Huston, vice president, GTI Spindle; chief operating officer, GTI Predictive:  From my perspective, it is not about who leads but rather the teamwork and collaboration. I like your use of the term convergence in this regard. In my experience, IT delivers the highest value when they are integrally involved and helping those in product development, operations and maintenance achieve the overall business goals.
Jean-Pierre Mulley, product expert, OEE Datawatch: We think engineering should be driving the direction of automation, but engineering needs access to comprehensive, real-time information in order to do that effectively. Too often, IT is a barrier, usually because of security concerns. We are providing solutions that facilitate this convergence. First, we empower engineering/OT with everything they need to connect to their devices, run their processes, and learn from the data. Then we provide a cyber-secure gateway that can be used by IT to safely connect to the broader network.  

Looking into the future, how will technology change your company over the next five years?

Eric Huston, vice president, GTI Spindle; chief operating officer, GTI Predictive: In our manufacturing industry, the future trend is moving toward a subscription-based economy where suppliers are compelled to take more responsibility for their customers’ business outcomes—pay-per-use, pay-per-output. The management of risk, and of reward, for this increased responsibility is highly dependent on the increased use of digitalization—technology—supported by servitization—knowledge and knowledgeable people.
Joaquin Ocampo, product manager, automation & electrification solutions, Bosch Rexroth: In the future, technology will change our company over the next five years by having products that can be used to help produce products in a more efficient matter and with the ability for connectivity and the data analysis that’s required to produce the highest quality products.

Our company will be involved in lean manufacturing and the factory of the future with industries able to produce large batches and even down to a batch of one. This will be accomplished by giving the OEM the ability to design configurable machines to be used in the factory floor to have smart movers and robots helping with the logistics of the production and to be able to use additive manufacturing to accomplish such a task. Having the entire factory connected with true transparency for the efficiency of the production.

We will focus on our cross-technology expertise to provide innovative solutions using technology from all our divisions in order for the solutions or products to communicate, work together efficiently and with effortless setup.

In the future, collaboration with different companies will become much easier. It will not be necessary for the users to work with only with one part for their solution. It will be much easier to go to multiple partners for the expertise and integration. Machine builders will be able to choose the experts and they can all work together seamlessly for the benefit of the customer. They can cooperate with the best of all worlds and work together with them. Connectivity and collaboration will be easier thanks to our accessible products and the future of IoT.

Jean-Pierre Mulley, product expert, OEE Datawatch: We are standardized and designed for the future. As Industry 4.0 takes a stronger hold on manufacturing, more companies will realize the need to standardize their control systems and data to keep up. Standardization makes it faster and easier to update processes and equipment and replacement components are more readily available and cost about 20% less than proprietary components. Our technology allows manufacturers to be adaptable and nimble, adding new equipment and capturing new data points as processes evolve.
Joey Cate, vice president, Logical Systems: I believe that our Manufacturing Intelligence services—data, MES, cybersecurity—will continue to grow driven by technology and customer demand. Cybersecurity, in particular, will continue to be more fundamentally ingrained into every controls and automation project as manufacturing continues to be more connected. Manufacturing has been slow to adopt cloud computing solutions for many reasons, but, in the next five years, I believe that many of the objections to manufacturing being connected to cloud computing will be resolved, resulting in changes to how solutions are delivered. Cloud technology is driving many business offerings to solution as a service (SaaS) models, and it will be interesting to see how industry responds to that business model.
About the author: Mike Bacidore
About the Author

Mike Bacidore | Editor in Chief

Mike Bacidore is chief editor of Control Design and has been an integral part of the Endeavor Business Media editorial team since 2007. Previously, he was editorial director at Hughes Communications and a portfolio manager of the human resources and labor law areas at Wolters Kluwer. Bacidore holds a BA from the University of Illinois and an MBA from Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. He is an award-winning columnist, earning multiple regional and national awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors. He may be reached at [email protected]