Since the turn of the century, the global recession has affected most businesses, including industrial automation. Because of the relatively small production volumes and huge varieties of applications, industrial automation typically utilizes new technologies developed in other markets. In order to be stable in the competitive global industry companies compete with each other by their quality, speed and low prices. Thus they invest automation systems, because automation systems not only reduce price, number of employers and needed time but also increase quality and flexibility.
Over the past few decades, some innovations have indeed given industrial automation new surges of growth: The programmable logic controller (PLC) was designed to replace relay-logic; it generated growth in applications where custom logic was difficult to implement and change. The PLC was a lot more reliable than relay-contacts, and much easier to program and reprogram. The PLC has had a long and productive life – some three decades – and (understandably) has now become a commodity.
Industrial automation can and will generate explosive growth with technology related to new inflection points: nanotechnology and nanoscale assembly systems; MEMS and nanotech sensors (tiny, low-power, low-cost sensors) which can measure everything and anything; and the pervasive Internet, machine to machine (M2M) networking.
Automated factories and processes to be highly configurable and flexible. To successfully reconfigure an entire production line or process requires direct access to most of its control elements – switches, valves, motors and drives – down to a fine level of detail.
The vision of fully automated factories has already existed for some time now: customers order online, with electronic transactions that negotiate batch size (in some cases as low as one), price, size and color; intelligent robots and sophisticated machines smoothly and rapidly fabricate a variety of customized products on demand.
The promise of remote-controlled automation is finally making headway in manufacturing settings and maintenance applications. The decades-old machine-based vision of automation – powerful super-robots without people to tend them – underestimated the importance of communications. But today, this is purely a matter of networked intelligence which is now well developed and widely available.