“Modular automation” – do we really need it?

“Modular automation” – do we really need it?

13. October 2016

Computers moved in

In the late eighties and early nineties, computer technology gradually gained a foothold in offices and living rooms on a large scale with the advent of the 286 generation of PCs. That happened mainly because the technology became affordable, with numerous different component manufacturers engaged in cut-throat competition with one another. Discount PC stores sprang up like mushrooms, selling components that were more and more powerful as well as being cheaper. In those days, however, it was extremely complicated to install a new video or sound card, or a CD-ROM drive, or replace an existing one. I spent many a weekend myself in front of the computer trying to work it all out. I’ll never forget how proud I felt when I finally persuaded my PC to read its first ever CD-ROM. Nor the hours and hours it took me to get that far.

Today, we swap components without batting an eyelid, and driver updates are downloaded from the Internet and installed fully automatically. If I want to use my PC with four monitors rather than two, I simply connect a second video card. My smartphone updates itself as it charges while it’s not in use.

Manual work is expensive

When it comes to automation technology, though, it seems like we’re still stuck in the nineties. Quickly adding or replacing modules (or package units) in a process plant is virtually impossible. For the most part these modules are individually manufactured, and they can often only be integrated into an existing automation system manually in a very time-consuming procedure. Even the standardized interfaces meanwhile available in the market – OPC, Modbus, or Profibus, to name but a few – are a long way off from plug & play. It can easily take several days, if not weeks, to configure and test these interfaces at both ends. A more acceptable time frame of just a few minutes is presently no more than a pipe dream.

Modular is possible

Yokogawa’s “Automation Design Suite” is a new, integral engineering environment that paves the way for modularity in the world of automation. The complete application has a modular structure. Each class module contributes specific attributes such as design information, control logic, or alarm parameters. These are then instanced centrally on the application using the integrated “bulk engineering” tool. Entire module libraries can be changed or exchanged without having to modify the application or system structure that has already been created.


Yet this is only the first step. The NAMUR MTP concept is currently adding momentum to non-proprietary module descriptions. The AutomationML based semantics now being developed will supply all information necessary to integrate the modules – such as the HMI (visualization), the variables, and the operating philosophy – in a single MTP file (MTP manifest). At the NAMUR Annual General Meeting 2016, Yokogawa will show how this concept has already been integrated into ADSuite. Our experts will be happy to advise you.

Gathering pace

The dynamic pace at which “modular automation” has evolved over the last few years makes me optimistic that we left the “nineties” of computer technology behind us a while ago. Pay a visit to our “TechFair” at the NAMUR Annual General Meeting and see for yourself how the future has already begun.

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