Automation in the smartphone era or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the Droid.

It’s a glowing new age where the average homeowner can check out their home’s temperature, make sure all the doors are locked and even stream live feeds from the security cameras from any internet enabled device. Google even sells a thermostat.

Why then is industrial automation lagging so far behind the consumer market in terms of taking advantage of omnipresent wireless internet? A lot of reasons.

In North America the focus has been on reliable robust solutions. Tried tested and true NEMA designs filled this requirement with products that would perform under the harshest of conditions. In Europe, a flexible approach with smaller IEC components purpose built for the specific application is the norm. Europeans have been using smart systems with intelligent controllers for decades but because of the North American reification that old is reliable, we have been slow to adopt new ideas.

Then there is the security argument. There are claims that having remote access increases the risk of hackers gaining access to industrial or process control, and in some applications like power generation this is a very real concern. The reality though, is that due to lack of focus on industrial cyber security most process networks wouldn’t last five minutes against a dedicated cyber attack. The fact that it hasn’t happened yet is more due to fact that there isn’t any purpose to such an attack than to the strength of the network’s security.

For most applications, anonymity is the best defence, and if reasonable precautions in network design are taken a process network with web access can be as secure as any other.

Smart automation, local noded process control, and distributed I/O using simple smart relays and PLC’s has already been proven in Europe but in North America we still want to see a control cabinet packed with electromechanical relays and timers. With SMS modules, Android apps, and a web portal, a control system can be more reliable with a single Logo 8 smart relay than with a cabinet of spring wound timers. I Would much rather have a smart relay fail and text me an alarm message regarding the error, than have an Omron timing relay’s contacts seize and I only find out about it when the water treatment plant shuts down.

Stop worrying and embrace the future.

2 Responses

Jakub Kusenda
Jakub Kusenda

July 25, 2016

Love it.. Especially the part about Europe.
I couldn’t agree more, every trend (from fashion, to food, to technology) appears a minimum of 5-10 years later in North America.
My realization of this phenomenon was brought about by the Dyson airblade hand drier inside of a washroom just off of the Autoban. I remembered that moment with eerie pleasure when they appeared in Canada & were being described as a “new” technology.


July 12, 2016

What you wrote was already true 15 years ago, and I recall trying to convince my employer about using a Logo! to at least replace the timers and the costly alternating relay for small duplex pump controls, alas, to no avail! As for networks… If it is connected to the outside, it is a potential target, but as you say, if ‘they’ don’t care about you…

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