Advantech Europe

Collaboration and innovation: The heart of universal automation

Author : John Conway, President at UniversalAutomation.Org

10 August 2022

All over the world, we are discovering the benefits of digital automation, whether this is streamlining home appliances via one central application or revolutionising industrial manufacturing systems. The scope of automation is rapidly growing, and we need to get on board or risk becoming obsolete.

We need to deploy more than just new technologies to harness these benefits. We must come together and reform the way we collaborate, both in person and through our equipment. 

Innovation must be harnessed to create competitive advantages and bolster our position within the quickly evolving industrial market. To achieve this, we must begin to automate all manufacturing equipment universally. This will create greater efficiencies, removing the obstacles of vendor-locked manufacturing processes. Operators, engineers, and technicians have the power to drive better outcomes and create more resilient and efficient business futures. 

Laying the foundation for innovation 

To achieve the benefits that Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) promises, next-generation automation systems must address: 

1. Data-enabled and software-centric innovation through IT/OT convergence 

Industrial players must invest in software-centric and data-enabled innovation that enables actions based on the gathering and analysis of information that the traditional siloed industrial hardware alone is not able to offer. Only then will the promise of the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be fully realised.   

UniversalAutomation.Org supports an event-driven software component design methodology, built on IEC 61499 technology, that integrates automation systems with IT data analysis tools. 

There is evidence that shows this technology saves costs and enables a shorter time to market. Using software-driven tools such as digital twins, we can simulate outcomes without having to invest in hardware to validate a proof of concept, saving valuable time and money.   

2. Plug and produce automation 

Though “open” automation exists today, it does not go far enough. The existing locked-in industrial automation models no longer address the challenges of a more complex, volatile marketplace. Industry players need open, flexible and efficient interoperable systems, at an application level, that are easy to integrate and that fluidly and easily adapt to change. 

In such an environment, the concept of “universal” automation is gaining traction. Universal automation is an open and collaborative approach, introducing users to a world of “plug and produce” applications. It enables “à la carte automation” because software is decoupled from the underlying hardware. Cost and performance can then be optimised by assembling proven-in-use software components – without regard to brand. 

As a result, an “app store” model for industry, consisting of asset-centric automation systems, can be leveraged to drive increased efficiency (“do not reinvent the wheel” but use best-of-breed proven-in-use software) and new business opportunities for users through software. 

3. Use reference implementation 

In the IT domain, the use of reference implementations has enabled the quick adoption of new technology. The future of Industrial Automation should follow this trend as well. As a shared source, this reference implementation can radically increase the adoption rate of new technology and decrease compliance testing between systems from different suppliers. 

UniversalAutomation.Org shares the reference implementation of an IEC 61499-based runtime execution engine to enable other market players to implement the technology quickly, while also ensuring interoperability at application level and portability of automation solutions. 

An open vendor network 

Implementing these changes and reaping the benefits of the next generation of industrial automation requires every company to develop a tightknit ecosystem of partners. Industry 4.0 automation cannot be achieved by a single firm or vendor. Industry players must unite to share expertise, technology, and innovation.

Members of UniversalAutomation.Org come from the user community, the vendor community, software developers, academics, start-ups, and industry leaders. What they have in common is a shared vision of universal automation systems where the application software is portable and seamlessly interoperates across vendor platforms.

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