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Is automation ready for open-source?

May 11, 2022
Why technology adoption is so slow in industrial automation

Why is the automation industry so slow in adopting new technologies, asked Harry Forbes, research director for ARC Advisory Group, at the ODVA 2022 conference, held March 8 to 10 in San Diego. Forbes identified some reasons for the slow movement, such as interoperability between vendors, a lack of unified global standards for certifications and developments in the software world that the automation industry might be missing.

Obstacles to innovation

In envisioning what the automation industry might look like 10 years from now, Forbes started by outlining the state of technology 25 years ago, which is not all that dissimilar from what we have today. “The control and I/O are mapped into various distributed operations that are tied to various unit operations within the line, and each unit of control has its own database that has its own application,” Forbes explained. Most of them probably also had their own HMI, control algorithms and configuration.

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While the industry has developed some interoperable technology in the past 25 to 30 years, such as CIP, DeviceNET, EtherNet/IP and other safety technologies for automation, the landscape is highly fragmented, Forbes said. “There are multiple families of similar technologies supported by other vendors, so we move forward on interoperability technology, but that’s only if you really stick with one base supplier and if you stay within one supplier’s ecosystem,” Forbes said. “There’s still a great deal of local management, local configuration and local servicing that’s required.” Upgrades are also difficult, and assessing plant attributes, such as network security or device performance as a whole is difficult. “While we’ve made a lot of progress, there is still a very long way to go,” Forbes said.

So, what is slowing down progress? Forbes said a number of top factors are influencing industrial automation, such as the high cost of downtime. “In software development, they say move fast and break things. That’s not a good philosophy for industrial automation. It is actually quite the opposite,” he said. Other factors slowing adoption include long equipment lifecycles and a lack of unified global standards for industry certifications. Some players in the market, naturally, are reluctant as automation companies are protective of their own markets. Proprietary open systems are focused on an ecosystem, he explained. “Automation companies also have to cater to a very broad market. They can’t really focus on a single market. They’ve got to address a very broad market,” he added.

Machine builders, Forbes said, generally have small R&D teams with long innovation cycles and high equipment costs. “That is a barrier to adopting technology in the value chain,” Forbes said. He also described product and business strategy in the automation space as “a walled garden” philosophy. “To be very frank, that causes a lack of scale and some market fragmentation, and this also hampers innovation,” he said.

IT/OT convergence and IT-oriented deployment

What could make the convergence of IT and OT go faster, Forbes asked? In discussions with end users, he hears things like a fear that new technology will only add complexity to production. Companies need a clear business case to justify investment, and they need clear and measurable KPIs for new tech. “And then there’s always the do-everything-yourself attitude because the operational people are responsible for the production and keeping everything right,” Forbes said.

He also shared the opinions of one global automotive manufacturer. This executive from Audi clearly outlined his vision for a virtualized/containerized software environment, he explained. Currently, if the plant needs a specific function, it buys a box and an appliance, such as a PLC with some I/O or an industrial PC. “I buy a box that has the functionality, and that’s how I get it. But what I want to do is I want to buy software in the future that does that,” Forbes explained. With a standardized box, software can add the functionality needed, rather than adding more hardware. What the Audi executive really asked for was a virtualized and containerized software environment within those standardized boxes, Forbes explained. With a fleet of 45,000 appliances on the Audi plant floor, updating equipment requires a fleet of people to update each node of equipment. Much of that work must be done on off-time and costs a fortune, Forbes added. One of the most important things Forbes pulled from the Audi executive’s discussion was that the upgrades are ongoing with no end in sight. “The workload is very technical; it’s very local; it's off hours; and it’s getting worse,” Forbes said.

What’s the solution? Forbes said, “We want to standardize the equipment at the platform.” It could be bought as a commodity, both hardware and software. In the case of the Audi plants, which were driven primarily with industrial PCs, this would serve as the box or hardware. “But what they really needed was a higher level of software standardization,” Forbes said.

This standardization is also underlying part of all the buzz about edge computing, he added. How does this standardization improve the updating process? “In this architecture is a very thin operating system that really does just enough to run a hypervisor and virtualize the network interfaces and the other interfaces of the device,” Forbes explained. “Beyond that, you have a set of one or more operating systems providing and serving applications.” The benefit of these applications being containerized, Forbes explained, is that they can be deployed automatically. “The orchestration layer really provides for its own updates,” he said. “It provides virtualization for the applications.”

In this model updates are quite different. To update software, push out new applications. If you need more compute power, push out a new virtualization layer, Forbes said. You can install a more powerful box and use the same software. “This is really an IT-oriented deployment strategy, much more than an OT-oriented deployment strategy,” Forbes added.

What the automation industry might be missing

The industry, Forbes said, needs to be paying attention to one software juggernaut with an immense influence over the direction of IT software. “It’s well-organized; it’s well-funded; and it’s grown immensely and quickly in scope,” he said. The Linux Foundation “provides a neutral, trusted hub for developers to code, manage and scale open technology projects.” We’ve all heard the cliché: software is eating the world, “but what’s really eating the world is open-source software,” Forbes said.

The Linux Foundation has taken over almost 200 major open-source projects, and Forbes said there is good and bad news to this one organization dominating the enterprise open-source environment. With billions of dollars a year in revenue, the foundation is delivering huge resources to developers in these projects. “So these projects have incredible resources to grow,” Forbes said. “The bad news is that there’s so much influence and resources that are going to those projects, that essentially, the Linux Foundation is picking winners and losers in the space.” The other bad news, perhaps for the automation industry, he said, it that the organization is governed by IT. “So they’re providing a lot of capability to these software developers and teams,” Forbes said. “They want to put a layer of heavy compute at the tower base and keep those functions in software. They call that NFD, in their terminology, network function virtualization, and Linux Foundation is working on contributing, sponsoring and managing dozens of projects that support that.”

The main point for the automation industry to take away, Forbes said, is that automation firms “simply do not comprehend any open-source business model, and IT firms have started to adapt to this. I think it’s an important component or part of a strategy for both major automation companies, smaller automation companies and industrial organizations or industrial consortia to think about how they’re going to operate in this future world, where much more of the enterprise software is open source.”

About the author: Anna Townshend
Anna Townshend has been a writer and journalist for almost 20 years. Previously, she was the editor of Marina Dock Age and International Dredging Review, published by The Waterways Journal, until she joined Putman Media in June 2020. She is the managing editor of Control Design and Plant Services. Email her at [email protected].
About the Author

Anna Townshend | Managing Editor

Anna Townshend has been a writer and journalist for 20 years. Previously, she was the editor of Marina Dock Age and International Dredging Review, until she joined Endeavor Business Media in June 2020. She is the managing editor of Control Design and Plant Services.

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