A Tale of Two Softwares

“It was the best of times; it was the worst…”

No, that’s the Tale of Two Cities.

This tale involves two of America’s largest automation companies—Emerson and Rockwell Automation.

Several years ago both added “and software” to their marketing tag lines. 

I never thought I’d hear Emerson CTO Peter Zornio talk so glowingly about software. Now, that seems to be the company’s main message.

Meanwhile, Rockwell Automation went from telling me “it’s an experiment, Gary” to forging a deal with PTC to incorporate ThingWorx into Rockwell’s software suite enabling it to halt its own development. That led to Rockwell investing $1B in PTC leading to a seat on the board and closer looks at other PTC software. Its tag line in press releases added “and software.”

Rockwell hired software executive Brian Shepherd to head the Control and Automation group which included software. For a time Shepherd seemed like the go-to SVP.

Then stories of the increasingly deteriorating relations between PTC and Rockwell emerged. Evidently sales of ThingWorx were not what was expected by the parties.

Then, Rockwell acquires two software companies getting it into the cloud with Plex and FiiX. Then Rockwell divested its investment in PTC for $800M. And now Shepherd has left the company to “pursue other interests.” Replaced by someone with automation experience.

Oh, yes, the “software” tagline has long been replaced by digital transformation.

Meanwhile, I’ve received two new releases from Emerson extolling the benefits of software.

Maybe Marc Andreesen has moved on from his “software is eating the world” comment, but software in one way or another is “eating” the automation market.

IIoT Systems Implementation up Year over Year, Set to Reach 75% Deployment Rate in 2023

All God’s children are doing surveys. They want to know what you think. This report, “Building Industrial IoT Systems in 2024,” presents data from a survey by HiveMQ, an MQTT solution provider, and my friends at IIoT World. 

IIoT no longer generates the buzz it did in the mid-10s of the century. Regardless, the use cases still abound for the technology.

350 professionals were surveyed across Automotive Manufacturing, Power and Utilities, Renewable Energy, Transportation and Logistics, Smart Cities, and more to share feedback on building IIoT systems. The results demonstrate that industries are embracing IIoT technologies and moving towards full implementation and deployment of IIoT solutions. Implementations are up from 67% in 2022 to 75% in 2023.

Getting funding is a never-ending problem for engineers seeking new projects.

With 6 out of ten executives saying it is difficult to quantify investment in technology, more and more professionals are stuck in proof-of-concept purgatory. Industrial automation is no different — over a third of survey respondents said a key challenge for implementing IIoT systems is a lack of budget and uncertain ROI.

Additional insights from the survey include:

  • Increased productivity (29%) and improved Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) (23%) are the top benefits companies expect to gain from implementing IIoT systems.
  • Leadership support (38%) and cybersecurity (35%) are the key challenges companies cite in implementing a new IIoT system.
  • A quarter of survey respondents believed that executive leadership (25%) should own the project while nearly a quarter of respondents (23%) believe that a project team combining both OT and IT expertise should spearhead the IIoT strategy.
  • MQTT (57%) and HTTP (58%) are considered to be essential data movement tools for fulfilling IIoT strategies.
  • Sparkplug is still in its infancy but 25% of companies say they have deployed or are looking at using Sparkplug, while 35% say they need to learn more about it.
  • Microsoft Azure (18%) is the leading cloud provider for IIoT systems, followed by Amazon Web Services (17%), and multi-cloud (14%).

Open Technologies Part Two from ARC Forum with Schneider Electric

I am not attending the annual ARC Forum this year due to some travel conflicts. News does travel, though.

The first Forum I attended way back in 1998 contained a strong presence of open automation from a group called OMAC (Open Modular Architecture Controller). This movement achieved a standardized HMI, especially for packaging machines and now resides within PMMI.

For the past several years the open initiative has been led by a forum within The Open Group called the Open Process Automation Forum (OPAF). Schneider Electric has held a strong presence there along with ABB and Yokogawa. It has really been an industry-led initiative begun by leaders from ExxonMobil. Here is the open technology news from Schneider Electric this year.

In brief:

  • Schneider Electric delivers next-generation, open automation infrastructure in collaboration with Intel and Red Hat 
  • New Distributed Control Node (DCN) software framework to help drive open automation 
  • Solution helps replace vendor-specific hardware with plug-and-produce offer 
  • Interoperability and portability support industrial innovation, reduce obsolescence 

An extension of Schneider Electric’s EcoStruxure Automation Expert, this new framework enables industrial companies to move to a software-defined, plug-and-produce solution, allowing them to enhance their operations, ensure quality, reduce complexity, and optimize costs. 

“This project is the culmination of two years of co-innovation to create efficient, future-proof distributed control systems,” said Nathalie Marcotte, Senior Vice President of Process Automation at Schneider Electric. “The DCN framework is key to fostering an open automation approach, enabling industrial businesses to grow and innovate for the future. Its interoperability and portability help our customers enjoy the freedom of shaping technology around their business needs – and not the other way around.” 

Red Hat, in collaboration with Intel, recently announced the creation of a new industrial edge platform that helps provide a modern approach to building and operating industrial controls. Since implementing this platform, Schneider Electric has now deployed Red Hat Device Edge in the new DCN software, in addition to Red Hat Ansible Automation Platform and Red Hat OpenShift at the compute layer for DCN deployments, combined with a control infrastructure from Schneider Electric and reference architecture from Intel. 

The framework consists of two main components: an advanced computer platform (ACP), which supervises the control workload by providing the content control and automation capabilities needed to deploy workloads securely and programmatically, along with virtualization and monitoring functionalities; and the DCN, which are low-power, industrial systems using Intel Atom x6400E series processors, dedicated to running controls and designed for workloads f mixed-criticality.

Rockwell Automation Touts Open Technologies at ARC Forum

I am not attending the annual ARC Forum this year due to some travel conflicts. News does travel, though.

The first Forum I attended way back in 1998 contained a strong presence of open automation from a group called OMAC (Open Modular Architecture Controller). This movement achieved a standardized HMI, especially for packaging machines and now resides within PMMI.

For the past several years the open initiative has been led by a forum within The Open Group called the Open Process Automation Forum (OPAF). Schneider Electric has held a strong presence there along with ABB and Yokogawa. It has really been an industry-led initiative begun by leaders from ExxonMobil. More on Schneider Electric in my next post. One of two ‘Open’ press releases from this year’s Forum.

This news is from Rockwell Automation. It evidently has decided to get involved with OPAF this year. You may wonder why. This statement from SVP software and control Brian Shepherd provides a clue. “We appreciate and understand our users need for products and systems that integrate well together and allow for collaboration of edge and cloud data sources. Through working with organizations like OPAF and OPC, we will continue to invest in our systems, products and services for market-leading interoperability, longevity and performance.” 

I imagine at some point we may see an open edge device or even controller from Rockwell Automation. For now, the company touts OPC-UA integration into some products along with supporting MQTT and REST. This is a good start.

Here are four examples Rockwell provided of its new emphasis on openness:

  • PlantPAx’s control platform, based on the company’s Logix Controllers, now natively supports OPC-UA, facilitating direct data sharing with edge and cloud applications. Additional connectivity options are available with MQTT and REST.
  • Embedded Edge Compute Module, which provides a compute surface within the Logix environment, enhances plant-wide connectivity through OPC-UA, MQTT, and REST API communication.
  • FactoryTalk Optix, a scalable platform that can be used in PlantPAx to provide native support for OPC-UA to allow operations, maintenance, and plant personnel to visualize various information originating across the enterprise.
  • The combination of PlantPAx and FactoryTalk DataMosaix provides a leading industrial Data Ops platform that supports OPC-UA, provides contextualization of data from multiple sources. The data models can be used to support pre-built Energy, Batch and Asset optimization solutions from Rockwell Automation or to accelerate development of custom solutions.

Fluke Reliability Predictions 2024: AI to Lead the Way in Combating Manufacturing Challenges

Here is the last of the prediction articles I picked up in December but had too much news to pack in. Usually November and December are void of news. These thoughts are from Aaron Merkin, CTO, Fluke Reliability & Ankush Malhotra, President, Fluke Reliability.

The promise of AI to bridge the skilled labor gap

Traditional AI – This is artificial intelligence in its traditional form, learned data that powers predictive insights. We continue to see a shortage of skilled labor to support the industry overall as well as within reliability programs specifically. Active condition monitoring of assets is a prerequisite for a successful predictive maintenance program. Yet organizations wishing to begin, expand, or sustain condition monitoring programs frequently do not have access to the skilled labor necessary for them to execute these programs internally. We expect to see more organizations adopt applications that augment skilled users and enable them to make faster, more effective decisions. AI will supplant human expertise for analytics use cases, reducing barriers to entry for condition monitoring providers, lowering both skill level and the number of resources required to implement predictive maintenance programs. Solutions that involve AI-powered analytics with a significant amount of learned data already stored lower the barriers to widespread adoption of PdM and can increase the amount of assets measured in a condition monitoring strategy. With the availability of AI-powered analytics and remote condition monitoring services that provide expert analysis on a company’s behalf, even expertise-constrained operations can adopt a data-based maintenance strategy.

Adoption of Generative AI – The second category where we anticipate significant growth is the adoption of Generative AI co-pilots by operators, technicians and other plant floor or field personnel. Generative AI can act as a much-needed storehouse for institutional knowledge. As more and more skilled workers reach retirement age and leave the workforce, Generative AI takes on greater importance as a training and educational tool, passing knowledge along to new workers.

AI tools are at their best when they share workflows with human experts. In the year ahead, we expect to see generative AI:

  • performing guided machine maintenance for new workers (and in the process, helping new workers to upskill).
  • providing support to plant managers, especially those tasked with managing multiple worksites.
  • working alongside human experts to provide support on the plant floor.
  • facilitating the shift from experienced, highly skilled labor.
  • replacing low-skilled, entry-level white-collar labor across the enterprise.
  • We also anticipate greater outsourcing of narrow expert skillsets to augment staff generalists. The adoption of generative AI will assist in bridging communication gaps, sharing data and insights, and bringing far-flung teams together.

Increase in Predictive Maintenance for Sustainability Purposes

Whilst in many industry segments sustainability has been a debated topic for a while, in some ways the impact of a well-run maintenance strategy are either overlooked or left untracked. We expect to see an increased focus on using predictive maintenance to drive sustainability results for businesses, beyond just equipment reliability in the coming years. This includes using predictive maintenance tools for the availability of renewable energy assets, extending asset life to reduce the carbon footprint of industrial equipment, reducing pollution by maintaining efficient running machines, improving energy efficiency by managing engines correctly, and maintaining product quality in a production environment to prevent wastage.

Increased availability of IIoT

In recent years, economic pressures have increased the overall emphasis on efficiency and the threat of a downturn isn’t going away. This uncertainty also places emphasis on maintaining, rather than replacing machinery. We expect this trend to reach a new height in 2024, leading to greater adoption of IIoT tools and an increased demand for AI analytics.

In particular, we anticipate greater use of automation across sectors, and a far greater push to keep assets up and running for longer. This in turn will drive more organizations to shift to a condition monitoring / connected reliability approach. Advances in technology have dramatically lowered the cost of continuous measurement and monitoring tools, like wireless sensors. This is already resulting in increased coverage for the balance of plant assets and greater demand for analytic tools. The more assets measured, the more efficient a plant runs which impacts cost, inventory and OEE targets – it’s a win/win.

Manufacturing M&A poised to grow in 2024

I received this outlook for the year from pwc. I’ve been told by other investment people that there are many smaller companies ripe to be acquired. This is the new innovation in a mature market. You’ll see the larger companies acquiring technology and expertise.

Overall deal volume and value fell in 2023 relative to 2022, which had been lower than 2021’s record high. Transactions in 2023 were largely aimed at addressing acquirers’ strategic gaps and/or expanding their capabilities. While there were industrial manufacturing mega deals (greater than $5 billion in enterprise value) in 2023, there were fewer of them compared to 2022.  

Companies are increasingly undertaking thorough portfolio reviews as they seek to divest non-core assets and market dynamics continue to give buyers pause with respect to making acquisitions. These dynamics include macroeconomic uncertainty, the high cost of borrowing, and still-high valuations. A rebound in M&A activity will most likely require improved macroeconomic clarity, increased corporate confidence, and stable financing markets. Once these requirements are met, we expect the rebound in activity to be accelerated due to the preparatory work currently being performed by prospective sellers. 

For deals currently being completed, buyers are seeking to mitigate risk, often through purchasing smaller, strategic assets and/or structuring deals in unique ways (such as making greater use of private capital and earnouts).  

We anticipate industrial manufacturing deal activity in the first half of 2024 to be stable relative to 2023, followed by an increase in activity later in the year.  

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