Automation is expanding into new industries and new applications. I/O systems are becoming faster, more compact and more integrated with other components, and more operations are taking advantage of simplified designs and increased speed and storage rates via the cloud or at the edge. Improved cybersecurity, wiring and protocol options are also being led by open network infrastructure.
Eleven companies—Emerson, Newark, Opto 22, Omron, Phoenix Contact, Advantech, Beijer Electronics, Belden, Wago, Pepperl+Fuchs and Sealevel Systems—discuss the market trends driving I/O system development. With a shrinking technical workforce, the industry faces more challenges in expanding applications for I/O systems, but these experts also share some current solutions and predictions for the future.
More smart factories and remote access
“The majority of customer applications which are driving I/O growth are focused around the development of smart factories and exponential growth of power grid projects around the world. The pandemic has fueled this growth further, as I/O modules are usually associated with smart energy meters, IT and other communication networks, which support remote working or working from home and increased automation within factories,” says Ankur Tomar, global solutions development manager at Newark.
Decentralized edge and cloud intelligence
“Intelligent sensors enable I/O systems to autosense and dynamically enable digital or analog, input or output. I/O systems are adding new functionality, such as integrating PLC software such as CODESYS software. The added intelligence is decentralized, moving to the edge, and part of a broader, networked I/O infrastructure. Historically standalone I/O systems are no longer. Diagnostic and collected data are remote accessed and being pushed to the cloud using common protocols like MQTT.
“Pandemic and competent-availability issues aside, costs to build I/O systems have declined. Advanced models such as redundancy and hot-swap features are now in play whereas in the past, they were too expensive,” says Jeff Hayes, product manager—Americas at Beijer Electronics.
“The following customer trends are driving development in the I/O systems market: machine-to-machine communication, machine learning, real-time data transfer, mass customization/lot size one and more human-machine collaborations and IIoT.
“Increasing cybersecurity requirements influence the design of new features and innovations for I/O systems technology,” says Svenja Litz, product manager at Belden.
One wiring solution
“We see a demand for lower total installed cost solutions, driven by more flexible I/O architectures. For larger systems, customers can save a significant amount of capital cost by moving distributed junction box I/O into the field close to the instrumentation, which eliminates a large amount of cable trays and multi-core field wiring, along with the associated design engineering and installation costs required to install them.
“Customers want to be able to easily run wire from all field instrumentation, motors and valves and terminate them the same way in the I/O subsystem; they do not want the complexity of wiring discrete devices with one method, smart instruments with another, and Ethernet-enabled devices yet another way. This will drive the industry toward a simplified holistic approach to I/O,” says Sergio Diaz, DeltaV SIS & I/O integration product manager at Emerson.
Flattened industrial architectures on the edge
“Demands for greater connectivity and security are facilitating industry-wide changes like IIoT and Industry 4.0. Broadly available, secure connectivity is flattening industrial architectures, making data from field assets more directly accessible to data consumers. I/O systems get caught up in this change because they are the first, most direct route to raw field data.
“The shift toward flatter architectures has also placed more emphasis on edge-oriented design. Engineers want to get more done near the source of the data to avoid complicating infrastructure and negatively impacting scalability. Naturally, this trend is pushing more functionality down into I/O systems, not just security and connectivity options but even programming, data processing and storage,” says Benson Hougland, vice president of product strategy, at Opto 22.
Open protocols for data analysis and logic control
“As data aggregation demand is increasing, the trend is pushing I/O data to connect with cloud, SCADA, MES and proprietary systems. Hence, customers tend to look for the I/O solution that can adapt to the system in terms of protocol support and data security protection.
“Given that I/O data volume is increasing and system structure is getting more complicated—in order to handle the event efficiently—I/O systems are requested to have basic analysis and logic control capability. For example, when the machine that the I/O system is monitoring turns abnormal, the I/O system is able to notify the event to engineers actively and take action immediately instead of waiting for the actions from management system,” says Eric Wang, product sales manager of iSensing devices and smart I/O & communication at Advantech.
Open systems to reduce time to production
“Control system suppliers are working to develop systems that are easier to use, more open, thus reducing development and commission hours. With open systems, users can quickly utilize the best technology available for their application and in many cases find predefined tools to make their jobs easier,” says Charlie Norz, product manager for automation at Wago.
Save space and time with versatile technology
“More and more customers are looking for space and time savings. As automation continues to rapidly expand, control boxes are getting smaller to allow for more functionality in a smaller space, and labor savings are becoming a necessity as demand is skyrocketing.
“Products that are being implemented into I/O systems technology need to be more versatile than ever. Automation is expanding into markets and areas that we have never seen before, forcing products to have the ability to perform in environments, spaces and industries that they have not in the past,” says Cory Myer, lead product specialist for industrial cabinet connectivity at Phoenix Contact.
Universal I/O control systems
“In process automation, the need for flexibility and cost efficiency is driving end users to universal I/O control systems and cabinet design. In traditional control systems, I/O card functionality was limited to a specific I/O type: Analog Input (AI), Analog Output (AO), Digital Input (DI), and Digital Output (DO). Control system manufacturers would offer a specific number of channels per I/O card (16 to 32 channels typically but can vary by each manufacturer). This might not be as restrictive on AI and DI as these are common signals and widely used. However, for DO and AO signals, an end user would be forced to buy a multi-channel I/O card for DO and AO, when in many cases, they might only have a few control loops of this signal type. This leads to unnecessary cost by having many I/O channels not being utilized, as well as additional space required in control cabinet for these I/O cards.
“With universal I/O cards, each channel has intelligence to determine the signal type that it is connected to, allowing for DI, DO, AI or AO signals all to be connected to the same universal I/O card. This allows for the control cabinet design to be much more efficient, and the end-user is not burdened with the cost of extra I/O card space that is not being utilized. Additionally, this makes future expansion much more flexible, since different I/O cards are not required for each signal type. This also helps reduce the amount of front-end engineering work as in many cases, we can consider this approach plug and play,” says Brian Alvarado, manager of product management and technical support at Pepperl+Fuchs.
Higher density I/O
“Durability and cost are always present in the industrial market. New technology such as faster analog and digital industrial computers are allowing higher performance via higher sampling rates and clock speeds. This allows PLCs and their I/O systems to expand into applications that were considered off limits. For example, analog input modules are being used in systems where sound and very high-speed vibrations are measured and acted on. Previously, these applications were only solvable with an expensive mostly analog system in conjunction with an industrial computer. So, in many ways development is being driven by increased capability and expanding applications. Some inroads have been made with wireless I/O, mostly in smaller systems where conduit and hard wiring are not needed.
“Aside from what was mentioned above with regard to durability and cost, the drivers also include higher density I/O. Higher density allows an increase in function while at the same time reducing the footprint in the enclosure and on the machine. Smarter I/O are becoming available at more reasonable costs to mesh with the IIoT and Industry 4.0 narrative to provide data and information on function and operation. Some I/O modules are being tailored for certain industries or applications by combining inputs and outputs, analog or protocol in a single module for more standardized machines,” says Clark Kromenaker, product manager for Omron.
Remote monitoring and control
“One of the biggest trends has been the shift to more companies of all sizes retrofitting older machines and manufacturing processes with advanced electronics for remote monitoring and control. Many companies have embraced the use of cloud computing, analytics and AI to improve quality, streamline production, detect safety issues and to cut costs. In order to facilitate this trend companies are turning to I/O manufacturers to design and develop smarter, more advanced I/O products that integrate embedded computing technology with the I/O required to interface to a vast assortment of sensors. These devices offload some of the computing from the host computer and push it closer to the edge. This shift to using edge computing allows manufacturing operations to use the data that they are gathering right at the source, which minimizes the latency time from when data is gathered to when a response to that data is required and facilitates the near-real-time actions required by smart factories,” says Marc Foster, western regional sales manager for Sealevel Systems.
Market challenges for I/O systems
As with most manufacturing operations, workforce issues are challenging expansion in many ways, and technicians to install and work on I/O systems are no exception. Many manufacturers pointed toward workforce challenges as the biggest issue and that could be solved with product designs that are easier to install and configure.
- Diminished technical workforce: “The labor force that commissions new plants and expansions is changing dramatically, with the most experienced people retiring and the new workforce tasked to do more with less formal training. Plants need field device commissioning to be simply wired and intelligently automated to eliminate extensive engineering, installation effort and human error. Instead of proceduralizing the work, we are looking to eliminate work wherever possible,” says Diaz of Emerson.
- More user-friendly products: “I/O management is a complex process. Traditional methods of handling data streams require senior-level programmers to manage multiple proprietary programming interfaces and hardware drivers for each device that their applications access. These are difficult to configure and require specific solutions and expertise. To overcome this, some manufacturers have come up with I/O modules that are more user-friendly and easy to configure, allowing customers to use and process their data more efficiently,” says Tomar of Newark.
- Reducing development and commission hours: “Globalization and retiring control-engineering specialists are major trends in industrial control today. These factors are pressuring OEMs, system integrators and factory engineers alike to find ways to make control system design simpler,” says Norz of Wago. “I/O systems today are focused on both reducing engineering time for program development and commission time. They also concentrate on making it easy to connect to Cloud based systems to help in any digital transformation.”
The growing market for automation and I/O systems also presents challenges outside of the workforce needed to expand, and in many cases, legacy systems present challenges for incorporating with new technology, or communication protocol options limit choices. With the changing market comes new and added security challenges, and as automation expands into new industries, more and more customized solutions will be required.
- Updating legacy systems: “Connecting older products into newer architectures is a common challenge in the broad category of digital transformation. Therefore, newer I/O products are also being tasked with providing gateway functions like protocol conversion for legacy PLCs and I/O devices,” says Hoagland of Opto 22.
- Supporting multiple protocols: “Most network adapters are designed to support a single protocol. Machine builders and end users have a growing need for a single network adapter to support multiple protocols simultaneously, such as EtherNet/IP and EtherCAT,” says Hayes of Beijer Electronics.
- Security for cloud integration: “There will be more demand to integrate I/O data with the cloud, SCADA, MES and proprietary systems. The challenges will be how to deal with the security mechanism to protect that data and how to integrate the system with suitable protocols in the I/O level. Hence, the I/O systems will need to have highly integrated functions in protocol support and data security protection,” says Wang of Advantech.
- Customized solutions: “Particularly with OEM customers, the drive to lower costs and provide only the features and function that are needed, as opposed to generalized solutions has challenged some suppliers. Partnerships with OEMs can be a benefit for both in these areas. The plethora of tools needed to configure, manage and monitor not just the I/O systems, but the rest of the control system is under some pressure. Simpler or combined programming and monitoring solutions are a benefit,” says Kronemaker of Omron.
- Data storage and analysis: “Not every manufacturer has the technical capability to implement I/O products capable of fully monitoring their operations. Adding advanced data gathering through I/O devices and sending it to the cloud is not an easy task. Then, what do you do with that data once it’s there? In many cases there are gigantic amounts of data produced, and many companies aren’t sure what to do with it all. It takes time to analyze the data to determine which data is meaningful to your operations. Data storage is also an issue. You’ve gathered enormous amounts of data to analyze, but how and where do you store it? By adding smart networked I/O devices and cloud connectivity you are also increasing the risk of cyberattack. Making sure that the multitude of devices, data, and cloud applications are secure is difficult. Internet connections are reliable, but they don’t have 100% up time. They occasionally go down for maintenance or due to a hardware failure of some kind. This is where edge computing can keep your operation runnin, and save your data until the connection is restored,” says Foster of Sealevel.
Wired I/O and wireless connections must work together as operators embrace the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) more and more, and new systems are supporting that flexibility.
“With the proliferation of IIoT devices and intelligent field equipment, there is still demand in new and legacy installations for monitoring and controlling conventional wired I/O points. Traditionally, they would be connected to an I/O system mastered by a controller, while newer I/O systems offer flexible features to ease design, installation and maintenance, saving time and money. But the latest generation of I/O systems goes even further, offering greater wireless I/O, enabling more flexibility and easy adoption without changing the entire infrastructure. In regards to wired connectivity, Ethernet is growing in part due to advanced protocols and improved peer-to-peer networking. The use of other devices and software systems means these are no longer bound to only one master. This new wireless and wired I/O will make it possible to create fully IIoT-capable automation systems,” says Tomar of Newark.
Most manufacturers cannot upgrade an entire facility at once and new systems need to work with legacy ones, by way of edge and gateway devices. “Industrial IoT and Industry 4.0 has driven the development of smarter I/O devices that integrate edge computing capability with various types of I/O. It has also driven the development of Gateway devices that are designed to connect to old I/O devices, like some PLCs, to take the data that they gather and send it to the cloud. These devices utilize advanced embedded processors that are both high performance and reliable enough to be used in critical industrial operations that are frequently not very hospitable to standard consumer grade electronics, says Foster of Sealevel.
Most manufacturers have realized that being bound to one communication protocol is inhibitive to market expansion. Many devices are designed to work with multiple protocols, and customers expect that communication to be quick and secure.
“Ethernet-APL products are a result of the demand for intelligent devices to be able to securely communicate to the control system and beyond. Advanced-physical-layer (APL) devices communicate and are powered over the same pair of wires across long distances in hazardous areas. Because APL is a physical standard that can support Ethernet IP protocols such as Secure HART-IP, Profinet and Ethernet/IP, customers will be able to select the device and protocol that best suits the application, and systems should be able to support multiple simultaneous protocols across a common APL field network,” says Diaz of Emerson.
Not only do customers expect protocol options, the convergence of information technology (IT) and operations technology (OT) requires even more parallel communication.
“IIoT protocols such as OPC UA, CoAP, REST API and MQTT are becoming mandatory. Customers want to access the data on two different communication paths in parallel —IT/OT convergence,” says Litz of Belden.
With a true convergence of IT and OT, it provides the data and analysis needed for production optimization. With more performance data all connected, diagnostics occur more quickly, remotely or even autonomously.
“IIoT and Industry 4.0 imply greater intelligence and connectivity. I/O systems have more functionality, more diagnostics, more performance data, all available for analysis. The analysis can help improve optimization, productivity and yield, quality, availability and preventative maintenance, and control costs,” says Hayes of Beijer Electronics.
To make production decisions autonomously or as quickly as possible, processing data at the edge is beneficial to shorten response times.
“In IIoT and Industry 4.0, there will be more needs in protocol communication and data processing at the edge. Additionally, I/O systems will need to have integrated functions, such as protocol support, security protection and flexibility in programming for customized functions,” says Wang of Advantech.
To move from preventive maintenance to predictive analytics, I/O solutions with open network capabilities lead the way.
“There is a drive to smarter I/O solutions and protocols in support of IIoT and Industry 4.0. IO Link is one example of an I/O solution and protocol that allows not just the state of the I/O to be communicated to the controller, but also a vast array of information about the I/O module or sensor connected to it. This helps enable capabilities such as preventive maintenance, predictive analytics, product recall management and data mining,” says Kromenaker of Omron.
8 future predictions for I/O systems
- New markets and applications: “The utilization of industrial I/O modules in smart factories, automation and manufacturing, power generation, distribution and transmission are predicted to increase even further,” says Tomar of Newark.
- Seamless migration from old to new: “We see that Ethernet-APL systems could begin to make significant traction in the market as more types of APL devices become available and the value proposition of a secure, simplified and more powerful I/O subsystem is proven in use for faster control, safety applications and asset monitoring. Systems that allow the seamless migration of traditional I/O to new modern I/O at the lowest cost will be successful the market,” says Diaz of Emerson.
- From the field level to the cloud: “In a perfect world, all field instrumentation would utilize the same communication, eliminating the need for universal I/O. New Ethernet based field instruments and system controllers are already being designed. The newest technology that is starting to get promoted is APL, or Advanced Physical Layer. Not only would this new technology allow for harmonization of system controllers and field instrumentation, it also allows for communication from the field level to mobile, cloud-based applications, while at the same time allowing for the collection of much more process data than today’s current smart device,” says Alvarado of Pepperl+Fuchs.
- More safety and more flexible modules: “The future of I/O systems design and other customer applications will include more safety I/O modules and more flexible modules which will support versatile protocols,” says Litz of Belden.
- Machine learning and data analysis: “I/O systems will become more intelligent, more connected, and be the source of additional data points for machine learning and business analysis,” says Hayes of Beijer.
- Expanded market for automation: “IIoT is expanding rapidly, and we will continue to see more and more applications become smart and automated. As new markets and applications begin to automate, products will need to continue to grow and adapt to accommodate places they have never been, resulting in a clean slate for new designs and developments. It is an exciting time for an industry that, for the most part, used to move at a slower pace,” says Myer of Phoenix Contact.
- More inclusive, smarter devices: “I/O devices will continue to become smarter, and the line between sensors, I/O devices, and traditional embedded computers will become blurred. The devices will become easier to use, and the use of wireless devices and sensors will become more common. Also, the number and types of applications will continue to become more diverse as more companies find ways of creating value by implementing I/O capabilities. I/O, IIoT, and cloud-based computing will be utilized in every aspect of business, and every market,” says Foster of Sealevel.
- Network integration for I/O and beyond: “The trends of lower cost, smaller size, higher function will continue. More compact I/O modules are pushing innovations with regard to physically connecting conventional wiring to the module due to size. Trends toward more on-machine I/O, which does not require an enclosure will probably continue. Another trend is pulling advanced applications into the I/O module and network that are currently stand-alone or regarded as separate, such as RFID, machine vision, video capability, safety, motion. There will be a blurring of what is considered conventional I/O vs. a functional module on a network. After all, if it’s not a controller, isn’t it all I/O?” asks Kronemaker of Omron.