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By Nancy Bartels, Managing Editor
Predicting the future is always risky business. I’m still waiting for the flying car I was promised forty years ago. Many, if not most, technology predictions, such as that flying car, are wildly inaccurate, and yet, we never seem to see ahead of time the game-changing developments—can you say Internet?—that catch everybody off-guard, leaving us gasping for air and struggling to find our footing in the new situation.
At the same time, as the saying goes, the more things change, the more they remain the same—especially in the notoriously conservative process automation industries.
Dick Caro, CEO of automation system design consultancy, CMC Associates, and a member of the Process Automation Hall of Fame, says, “The plant of the future will look like the plant of today. There won’t be much difference in chemical or petroleum processing.”
For one thing, you can’t change the laws of physics and chemistry. Peter Zornio, chief strategic officer at Emerson Process Management, reminds us, “The processes themselves can’t change. Most things will look the same unless something totally unforeseen happens. It’s not like we’re saying all these plants are going to be different—not in 10 or 15 years.”
Few companies will rip out a tried-and-true system for something untested, no matter how “gee-whiz” it might appear to be—not without a sufficient track record in the field―and by the time a technology has that track record, it’s hardly brand new anymore.
In fact, much 2025 technology is here now, at least in beta or version 1.0, but we won’t see its real impact for another decade or so.
Caro points to the case of fieldbus technology. “Fieldbus has been on the market for 14 years, and we still don’t use most of the technology that’s available to us—not because it’s difficult or unavailable, but because of the conservative nature of the industry.”
That said, the hardware and software that will run Factory 2025 will make it a very different place to work.
Alex Johnson, solutions architect at Invensys Process Systems, sees hints of what future control rooms will look like in the home entertainment aisle. “The PC control industry tracks the home entertainment industry. When we got color TVs we had to update HMI to color. When video games came along, operators began to expect those kinds of graphics. HMI hasn’t changed significantly for 20 years, but look at home entertainment. That’s what our HMI is going to look like.”
Benson Hougland, vice president of marketing at Opto 22 looks to the Internet for a preview of what will happen in automation. “Automation tends to follow advances in the IT space by one or two decades,” he says. “What the Internet did is facilitate communication. It’s a way of moving communications and intelligence into far-reaching areas, giving devices a way to communicate and understand. It ultimately changed commerce. We’re going to start seeing more of that in the factory rather than traditional DCSs. You might have PLCs ultimately be the decision-makers. We’re going to see a fundamental shift to more autonomous devices that know how to acquire, consume and make decisions about information.”
In the same vein, simulation software will come to look more and more like your kids’ video games and play a bigger role in the control and training rooms. (See “Let’s Pretend” sidebar at the end of this article for more on simulation.)
The biggest sea change in process plants will be a subtraction rather than an addition. “What today is wired will be wireless,” says Caro, echoing all the prognosticators we talked to.
“Wireless is the Internet of the process plant,” says Emerson’s Zornio. “There are only a few game-changing technologies, and wireless is going to be the one for the next eight to 10 years. We don’t know what the wireless apps are going to be. Think of the Internet. We all fixated on email first. It wasn’t about MySpace or YouTube, paying bills online or working from home. All these apps started coming out as the Internet grew in capability.”
But the dirty little secret of current wireless technology is that it isn’t really “wireless.” At some point, every wireless device has to be connected to a power source. The real game changer, what Zornio calls the “last frontier” of wireless, is breaking that connection.
Increasingly powerful, but smaller batteries, such as are found in cell phones, are one way to solve the problem, he says. “Another way is micromachine technology. Visualize a whole little internal combustion engine the size of a D cell battery running on very little fuel, or one that actually siphons natural gas out of the lines it’s running on, and it runs forever.”
Steve Baker, control system specialist at JNE Automation, Hamilton, Ontario, and a member of Rockwell Automation’s, Advisory Board,” says, “MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] is currently developing technology to wirelessly transmit low-wattage power to devices within a 10-foot radius. If this technology was improved, smart field instruments that used wireless communication and power could populate a facility without the need for any wires or conduit.”
This wireless world has other implications. James J. LaBounty, associate director at Wyeth Biotech, Wilmington, Mass., another Rockwell Advisory Board member, anticipates that “sensors out in the process will have no direct power connection, just induced power to the sensors and transmitters. We’ll also have digitized control and monitoring signals to the controller and diagnostic and calibration data to the maintenance monitoring systems—again, no field wiring or I/O modules. We’ll also see an extensive use of 2D bar code and RFID to track production, people and equipment in the plant.”
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