Peter Herweck, executive vice- president and CEO, Industrial Automation, Schneider Electric, and Francisco Betti, head of shaping the future of advanced manufacturing and production, World Economic Forum, discuss ‘plug and produce’ automation


ven before the pandemic, industrial productivity growth was moving in the wrong direction – and lingering at just

0.7%. In Q2, amid the global shutdown, global manufacturing output dropped by 11.1%, only recovering somewhat in the second half of the year. If we’ve learned anything from the

disruption caused by COVID-19, it’s that agility and resiliency are essential to modern industry. To see genuine changes in efficiency and sustainability, we need to make bold moves now. The industrial sector is ripe for disruption. It

is dominated by closed, propriety systems that are not designed for flexibility and prioritise vendor lock-in over innovation. On the surface, many automation suppliers talk about “open” technology. However, open automation as it exists today is not open enough, as many suppliers have yet to embrace vendor-agnostic systems, where software from one vendor can run on hardware from another. As a result, industrial enterprises endure unnecessary engineering expense and delays in rolling out innovation. The consequence is reduced agility and lost business opportunities. Failure to apply truly open, interoperable

standards for automation tools is costly on all fronts. It’s a ubiquitous challenge that is holding industrial operations back across the world. It’s in everyone’s interest – from vendors, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and machine builders to systems integrators and end users – to find a way through the impasse. Ultimately, it can only be


achieved through collaboration. By keeping technology built on closed,

proprietary systems, we are stunting innovation, while crippling productivity from “teamwork” between systems, machines and people. We can no longer accept needlessly big engineering efforts, a lack of modularisation or any barriers to resilience and innovation. A group of co-workers who cannot

communicate cannot be productive. Today’s closed automation systems encounter the same difficulties. They can’t simply integrate or collaborate with third-party devices, nor can they be easily upgraded. In the current paradigm, industrial

businesses and workforces continue to be held back by closed and proprietary systems, hampering the highest priority areas, namely innovation, efficiency, sustainability and agility. We are left with an under-optimised sector, propped up by a damaged global economy. We’ve reached an inflection point. Current

industrial automation system architecture has done a good job of advancing industry to where we are today, but to realise the full promise of the Fourth Industrial Revolution we need to fundamentally change our technology model. We now have the computational power and

levels of connectivity necessary to overhaul industrial sustainability and operational eco- efficiency. And with the environmental clock running out, we can’t afford to miss this opportunity to use software-centric and data- driven automation to make meaningful change.

An alternative future is bright. According to

Accenture, by 2030 the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) could not only add trillions to the global economy but also increase productivity and efficiency for manufacturers worldwide. A World Economic Forum report in collaboration with Boston Consulting Group (BCG) has suggested that 72% of manufacturers see advanced analytics as increasingly important, while 80% believe increased productivity can be achieved through digitalisation and data-driven insight. Just as the IT world has embraced the

benefits of open-operating platforms, now it’s industry’s turn. Universal automation is the world of “plug and produce” automation software components that solve specific customer problems in a proven way. Think of it as the dawn of an industrial automation app store. The technology already exists to make it possible. The IEC 61499 standard for interoperable and portability can be used to create a standardised automation layer across vendors, similar to the way that the Linux open source operating system helped standardised operating systems across computers. By removing technology barriers, universal

automation allows manufacturing lines and industrial processes to be quickly reprogrammed by engineers as required, even remotely. This heightened agility and productivity is necessary to cater to shifting consumer demand patterns, while also accommodating the limitations brought on by the pandemic. The adoption of the IEC61499 standard for

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