The Search for Automation's Holy Grail

ABB's New Extended Automation Suite Leads the Quest

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For the past 50 years, the process control industry has been working to improve productivity in manufacturing by extending automation into every aspect of the enterprise. Over the past three or four years, productivity gains have been increasingly overshadowed by a decreasing base of production resources. In other words, process automation has created so much productivity that jobs are disappearing and plants are closing.

ABB, hard hit during this period of contraction, appears to be recovering. Recently reorganized from six business units to three, and with global automation business czar, Dinesh Paliwal now on the Executive Committee, ABB appears to be making a very strong commitment to the process automation industry. At recently held press conference, Paliwal announced that the headquarters for ABB's global automation businesses would be located in the U.S., not Switzerland.

Not-So-Traditional Process Control

Extended application integration is the "Holy Grail" of process automation.

At the same press conference, ABB took the wraps off their year-late new release of Industrial IT software. Now in its third release, System 800xA is considerably different than its earlier releases, and contains some significant extensions out of the company's "simple process control" architecture. While the System 800xA has competition from (among others) Invensys' Archestra, and Honeywell and Emerson's offerings; it is the design philosophy embodied in the new release of Industrial IT that really differentiates it, giving it, as we see it, a small lead over the competition. ABB is highly invested in this new release and has spent, according to Paliwal, over $300 million in R&D to create the new version.

Completely Integrated

At its heart, ABB's System 800xA is not process control software. It is ABB's latest entry in the search for the process automation holy grail. As Mark Taft, ABB's senior vice president, Industrial IT put it, "Microsoft won the desktop by providing integrated applications that worked with a common user interface, seamlessly and without customization. WordPerfect may have worked better, but Microsoft Office worked easier." In the process automation space, the holy grail is said to be found when a completely integrated suite of applications extends from design engineering to maintenance and asset management functions, ties them to the factory floor, encompasses the ability to control myriad processes and then reports and documents it all to help manage the entire enterprise.

Some goals of the new System 800xA: intelligent as-builts that re-draw and re-configure themselves as maintenance is done and reported; drag-and-drop PID creation that will drop the cost of designing a single control loop from an estimated $5,000 and eight man hours to a virtually free, one-minute exercise; plus built-in and automated calibration and CFR 21 Part 11 quality documentation functions. Note that none of this is "process control" in any sort of traditional sense.

When you combine the fact that something close to 80% of process plants are so-called "brownfield" or existing, rather than "greenfield" or new construction, and the fact that unnecessary maintenance is extremely expensive and pervasive, it is obvious why an integrated system that seamlessly links the engineer to the asset management system just might be the holy grail. Add to this the lean staffing of today's process plants, the time and money wasted doing unnecessary scheduled maintenance, the hours spent figuring out bad or incomplete documentation and the cost of repairing and reconfiguring automation systems, the effect on the bottom line can be staggering.

The goal of the latest generation of automation software products is not to produce new and sweepingly different process automation tools. Many of these tools are ubiquitous, and you can buy almost all of the features of System 800xA from a variety of different vendors. The point is that ABB's goal, as it is for other vendors, is to integrate all these tools into common interface architectures that make using them efficient and liberating for both the engineer and the operator.

As Microsoft Office has become a defacto industry standard, eventually there will be a process automation industry defacto standard. ABB has delivered a strong contender. The search for the holy grail continues. Who will be next?

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