Over 70% of employees admit their sense of purpose is defined by their work. Yet when it comes to industrial engineers – central to our ability as a society to unlock sustainable development – up to 50% of their time and effort can go into wrestling with legacy or vendor locked-in manufacturing and production equipment. In this time, engineers could have been innovating, creating value, driving efficiencies, enabling sustainable growth and supporting a green recovery. At a minimum, they could simply have spent more quality time with their loved ones.

In this day and age, technology shouldn’t punish the people and organisations using it. It should enable and empower agile teams, helping infuse them with a renewed sense of purpose. I believe that universal automation – open, software-centric industrial systems – can solve this issue for industry, enabling smarter and more sustainable manufacturing, faster.

Industrial technology concept. Factory automation. INDUSTRY 4.0

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Turning uncertainty into opportunity through purposeful collaboration

If the last 12 months have taught us anything, it is that change can be unexpected and long lasting. While industrial players may no longer be able to predict the future, modern technologies based on the principles of interoperability and universal automation can give them the tools to quickly react to fluctuating market demand and changes in production environments. It can also improve circularity, reduce waste and extend the lifespan of hardware. Industry is yet to unlock key efficiencies, estimated at between $30bn annually according to ARC, and $100 billion in value based on an estimate by McKinsey. But this will only be possible if industry transforms itself and embraces digital collaboration at scale.

How could this be when we hear about multiple breakthroughs in machine learning, augmented reality, real-time analytics and the IIoT, which hold great promise for industrial enterprises and manufacturers to meet the demands of today’s agile and digital world? In reality, industry is still held back by vendor lock-in, limited machine-to-machine collaboration and limited ability to integrate the best-of-breed technologies. The same restraints are preventing it from realising a new purpose – becoming a conduit to the net zero future through low impact, carbon neutral manufacturing, cutting-edge products and solutions. As we strive to recover from the impact of the pandemic, improve productivity and drive sustainable agendas, industry has a golden opportunity to become a central pillar of a green global economic recovery.

Fragmentation and isolation are preventing industrial players from moving at pace to respond to rapidly changing market conditions or dramatically reduce their carbon footprint. Industry is currently responsible for almost a third (32%) of global emissions. If the status quo is maintained, industry cannot transition to sustainable models. Industrial collaboration  at scale is required. Only then can top engineering talent be fulfilled, the promise of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the purpose of Industries of the Future realised.

Standardisation is essential for innovation

I believe a standardised approach to industrial automation is the answer. The existing IEC61499  already provides the basis for integration and collaboration. Standardisation and the separation of hardware and software lifecycles have played a vital role in the growth and success of the IT sector. Today, downloading real-time software updates on our computers and smart phones has become second nature. Tesla has pioneered a similar approach when it comes to its vehicles, with software updates regularly available to optimise and enhancing performance.

With universal automation – for the first time – this dream is within reach for industrial machinery. The ability to standardise will free up engineering time and refocus their priorities from troubleshooting to innovating. It will also help make industrial operations more cost and energy efficient and expand the lifespan of hardware, unlocking sustainable growth while protecting the planet.

The pioneers of positive change

New software-centric universal automation technology is already paying dividends for the rapidly changing segments of consumer-packaged goods, pharmaceutical and logistics enterprises, including companies like GEA and Master Systèmes.

As the software is decoupled from the hardware, modifying the conveying line to adapt as flow requirements change is easier and more cost-effective. When something goes wrong, universal automation is able to pin-point the root cause of failure and troubleshoot four times faster. And with 45% less products on the error line when it comes to packaged consumer goods enterprises, workers and consumers all win.

There can be  resistance to standardisation. But industrial machines don’t thrive on individuality. Quite the opposite. Their whole purpose is to be part of a bigger whole, working in harmony across the operating environment. The standardisation of screw threads back in the day revolutionised manufacturing because it meant machines could be made and repaired using any standard rather than custom-built screw. This was one of the first major feats of industrial standardisation, one which the modern world has come to rely on. Imagine what we could achieve by standardising platforms on which the software solutions run in our factories today?

Universal automation will help engineers realise their full potential and infuse the industry with a renewed sense of purpose, all while granting manufacturers – especially those struggling during the pandemic – a new lease on life. We must ensure that ecology and progress are no longer at the opposing ends of the environmental spectrum, as industry becomes one of the cornerstones of a green recovery.  This and more will be possible through industrial innovation, building on the advances of unified, easily interoperable, standards-based systems.