IT/OT convergence will lead to the collapse of the ‘automation pyramid’ predicts COPA-DATA’s Stefan Reuther...
As a pictorial example of the different levels of automation in a factory, the automation pyramid has long been used as a visual aid to understand how layers of technology communicate.
Starting from process and field levels, working up to the corporate level of manufacturing processes, the traditional pyramid illustrates how devices, actuators and sensors on the factory floor are distinctly separate from other areas, such as process control, supervisory networks and enterprise systems.
Theorised in the 1980s, when comprehensive control software was practically unheard of, how much relevance does it have today when such software is becoming ubiquitous to the operation of manufacturing facilities.
Put simply, the traditional concept is collapsing.
Comprehensive control software is a relatively new addition to manufacturing plants, but that is not to say software was completely absent from factories previously.
Human machine interfaces (HMIs) were the first example of using software to visualise data on a factory floor. However, because each piece of equipment and relative HMI operated a standalone device, the insight was limited.
For an overview of production in its entirety, supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems were implemented to collate data from multiple HMIs. Usually, these systems generated a graphical interface to help operators understand and control multiple systems.
The traditional pyramid doesn’t allow for fluid communication between its different levels, importantly, the control level as it might be possible today
However, this still leaves a space between the SCADA level and enterprise systems, the final level of the automation pyramid. As a result, manufacturing execution systems (MES) were deployed. The automation pyramid was born.
Today, managing these processes in a single, comprehensive software platform is not unrealistic. For example, COPA-DATA’s zenon [YES] software which enables data exchange between all layers of automation, has been demonstrating this ability since its inception.
The traditional automation pyramid is no longer necessary yet many manufacturers are reluctant to abandon the concept.
Technically speaking, manufacturers can still choose to manage their levels of automation using this method. However, there are scenarios where it makes no sense to stick to this model.
Collapsing the pyramid
IT/OT convergence is one example. Manufacturers are widely practicing IT/OT convergence to integrate enterprise systems, such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM) applications, with operational technology like MES and SCADA systems.
Traditionally, these areas remained separate layers of the pyramid, but their ability to influence a company’s performance means it makes business sense to allow these layers to communicate and inform one another.
Consider automotive manufacturing as an example. There are huge planning benefits of integrating CRM data with both ERP and car production. If an engineer can identify the fault in the manufacturing of the product, by analyzing CRM and maintenance data, production can be automatically adjusted to correct the error. Of course, this is just an example, but IT/OT convergence is occurring in almost every sector.
The traditional pyramid doesn’t allow for fluid communication between its different levels, importantly, the control level as it might be possible today. Considering that logic can be placed practically everywhere in a manufacturing facility, such as PCs, PLCs, edge devices and in the cloud, it makes no sense to separate this area.
Egypt’s pyramids may be ancient in comparison to the engineering concept of the automation pyramid. However, considering the rapid pace of change experienced in the manufacturing industry, it could be argued that the concept is equally outdated.
Stefan Reuther is chief sales officer at COPA-DATA