I can’t help but snicker when I when I hear the “fear factor” applied to conversations about the future of automation technologies. We have future thinkers proclaiming the demise of industrial protocols, PLC manufacturers, established business models and the controls market as we know it. All are claiming we are at some defined technologic crossroads. Picking the wrong path will lead to certain demise. I don’t buy it.
We are living in an exciting time for automation technology with an accelerating pace of change, opportunities, and benefits. It worth noting though that the trail of automation progress is historically not littered with the bodies of the past technologies. I’d argue that even the more prominent technology “flops” in our industry failed to harm users of the technology dramatically.
Vendors fear changing technology because it represents very expensive bets they need to make. That fear is justified, but we shouldn’t be passing those fears onto the end users of automation.
Users automate to create a more efficient or higher quality process and reap the savings. As a business capital expenditure, an automated systems goal is to generate a return on investment before its end of life. Almost any automation technology released in the last 30 years can help accomplish that task. EtherNet/IP, Profinet, DeviceNet, Profibus, and Modbus can all accomplish most automation tasks
The classic example is a packaging line staffed by eight workers. The labor cost to operate the line is $550,000 a year. It would cost $550,000 to automate the line and require $100,000 annually to pay a single operator and cover a maintenance agreement.
Give or take a reasonable fudge factor you have a two-year ROI. Every additional year is gravy! If some of the technology involved becomes obsolete and needs to be replaced – who cares? The ROI is not in question. There are legacy system maintenance costs that build quickly after five years, but none of those considerations change the fact that the choice to automate, regardless of the technology used, was a sound business decision.
The stories of the Fortune 50 manufacturers utilizing the latest technology writes headlines, but the clear majority of manufacturing operations in the US would benefit from even the most basic automation. The silos of information and burdensome islands of automation we are campaigning against are first world manufacturing problems. Any automation would be a quantum leap forward for the majority of manufacture. We can’t forget that!
Automation can deliver ROI without cloud analytics finding an anomaly in a terabyte of process data.
Don’t let the unknown slow your adoption of automation.
Can I tell a customer that any technology is future-proof? No. Do I know what up and coming technologies will gain market supremacy? No. However, as end users of automation, I say, who cares? I am confident a sound decision to automate a process will create a positive business outcome regardless of future technology. The changes of tomorrow will not alter the fact that automation technologies of yesterday and today continue to create opportunities for significant ROI.
Let’s get automating!
We also promise that five or ten years down the road we will have gateways and solutions available that help maintains the life of the automation system you install today. It’s what we do. Help customer move their data and ensure the legacy of their automation systems are long and fruitful.