Where Hardware & Software Intersect - Opportunity Areas for Innovation

Since every automation company has fielded display, configuration and operations management level software it seems clear that the closer to the process the more obvious the alignment between hardware and software. The further from the plant floor or the operational infrastructure, such as the grid in a utility, you get the more difficult it is to rationalize the relationship between software and automation. This is one reason vendors like SAP and Oracle have, so far, drawn the lower boundary for their software at the operations or execution level. These enterprise software vendors have recognized that process/operational information is readily accessible via interfaces and have decided that currently they do not need to go deeper into the process.

On the other hand we have automation companies that have continued to push upwards into the business software realm, although with limited success.  Invensys tried with its acquisition of Baan, as noted previously.  ABB is trying with its Ventyx/Mincom acquisitions, and Siemens has invested heavily in the product engineering and lifecycle management space with its acquisition of UGS, placing it in direct competition with Oracle and SAP.  So why did Invensys have such limited success with Baan, ultimately keeping only the Avantis maintenance application and why is Siemens apparently successful with its engineering software investments?  Part of the explanation is related to the functionality of the application.  Maintenance applications have both a real-time element as well as a business element.  As organizations mature in their maintenance maturity they start to pursue predictive and reliability centered maintenance philosophies which depend heavily on actual performance related data.  Automation companies have this information as an inherent feature.  Likewise, product lifecycle data, particularly in discrete manufacturing, is also close to the process.  Whether it is a recipe, the actual machining steps for computer controlled machine centers, or robotic assembly or path instructions, the link to automation is strong.  The implication is the opportunity area is then where there exists a strong link between the automation and the operational application.  GE’s “brilliant machines” initiative so far has focused on this as has many of the competing vendors smart grid initiatives in the energy sector.  So as an end user it seems to make sense to look at where your automation suppliers are making their investments.  The more they focus on the process and the less on the white-collar aspects of the business the more logical. at least for the present those investments are.

Dan Miklovic is blogger contributor for Control's blog Manufacturing 2010. You can email him at danmiklovic@gmail.com or check out his Google+ profile.