Digitalization in process automation was not a complete surprise, according to CTO Roland Bent, Phoenix Contact. But “it was not necessarily the obvious, logical conclusion of what happened in the years before.” He sees great potential in new approaches like NOA (Namur Open Architecture) and MTP (Module Type Package) — also for his own company.
PROCESS: What importance does the process industry currently have for your company, Mr. Bent?
Bent: It is of really central importance for us — and is set to become even more important in the future. It has long been one of the four major vertical markets we are addressing. Factory automation and power engineering, infrastructure with water/waste water and, of course, process engineering. The major changes we are currently witnessing in the process industry are making it a really interesting field. The paradigm shift resulting from digitalization is opening the doors for new technologies and new solutions. This will also present us with opportunities for setting ourselves even further apart with new ideas and for further expanding our business. This is why the process industry is becoming increasingly important. This is reflected for example in the fact that we will be taking over the Namur sponsorship for autumn 2019.
PROCESS: For many former sponsors, the event was a real turning point. What can the participants expect from Phoenix Contact?
Bent: Our topic is Enhanced Connectivity. So we won't be moving away from our traditional area of expertise, but we are aiming to show how connectivity is changing. This also includes data connectivity and secure processing of information. Our new PLCnext control technology plays an important role here.
PROCESS: You already launched PLCnext last year. How has the response been so far?
Bent: The feedback we have received has been very, very positive. There is great interest in using this technology platform. First test applications are running, and large, renowned companies are already moving to the application stage. With PLCnext we have also shown that the idea of openness, flexibility and agile solutions, which we are going to need in the future, can be combined with the core topics of process engineering: robustness, security and reliability. It is just as much a platform for classic automation solutions as for extremely flexible approaches with open source applications. PLCnext invites you to experiment. At the same time, it makes sure that reliable operation of a system or plant is never endangered. It thus opens up the opportunities presented by the digital world to our classic industries.
PROCESS: What do you think has been the most dramatic change that has taken place in process automation in the last ten years?
Bent: I believe that this was the progress made in terms of modularization and decentralization of intelligence. It started with the working groups in Namur and in ZVEI, which has now evolved into the Module/Plug and Produce working group. And it led to the MTP approach. I still remember it well. When the subject of digitalization and Industry 4.0 first broached at the Namur Annual General Meeting, everyone really looked up, and the question on everyone's lips was: Will that really fit with what we do? But the topics were soon picked up. That really was a turning point for me: digitalization in process automation. At the same time, discussions took place about the Industry 4.0 component — i.e. a part of a system down to individual products that are fully described in terms of functions and requirements. This is reflected brilliantly in the MTP. Different worlds really are growing together here — the world of process automation and all other aspects of automation, which have run in parallel alongside each other for a long time.
PROCESS: How does NOA, the Namur Open Architecture, fit in with all this?
Bent: For me it is the next key step. NOA is the logical resolution of a topic that has led all too often to a blockage: the fact that, in process automation, extreme importance has to be placed on plant availability, durability and security of processes. People tended to opt for a cautious approach when it came to pursuing new ideas. That is, of course, correct and perfectly understandable. But with NOA it is now possible to keep one area secure while still testing new techniques at the same time. This is because the process control remains unaffected by new approaches in the fields of maintenance and optimization. I believe that this is going to trigger huge bursts of innovation.
PROCESS: Where do you see your company in terms of its future positioning in the market for process automation?
Bent: The rate at which technology is going to evolve in process automation is set to increase even more. We want to be part of that. We also see ourselves in the role of opening up the opportunities presented by the Internet of Things. With PLCnext we are very close to the so-called edge — i.e. the world between the cloud and dedicated hardware solutions. For example, with the aid of PLCnext it is very easy to move data onto the platform on which our customers have their applications running. It also makes it possible for others to make their products available to our customers. If a supplier of analytics solutions offers an app he has developed via the PLCnext Store, this will open up access to new customers. And our customers suddenly have a whole range of new options at their disposal. The ecosystem we are creating here will create huge acceleration. This is a vision for the future of Enhanced Connectivity.
PROCESS: Are you expecting any disruptive developments that will threaten your business model?
Bent: When it comes to disruptive developments, it is always difficult to say. By nature, they are always very unexpected. (Laughs.) But we are, for example, keeping a close eye on the technological promise of 5G. It is changing the level between field device and controller; part of the interface level is no longer required. So that of course is something we are working on. We are one of the initiators of 5G-ACIA, because we believe that this technology will play an important role in the future. We are giving a lot of thought to what our exact role is in this context, and what we can contribute in terms of added value. We are also giving a lot of thought to the issue of platforms and the alternative access to the customer that is created in the process. It is important to know: Who operates this access, and to what extent do they control it? If — analogously to the consumer sector — the specific layout of a platform results in third parties inserting themselves in the interface between customer and supplier, this can have disruptive effects on business models. We cannot allow this type of development to just happen. The digital interface to our customers preferably needs to stay in our hands, for example by deriving orders directly from the engineering of the customer. Furthermore: In future, many products will depend on application software to deliver their final functionality. Just like smartphones. If somebody offers more functionality that can transform an everyday product into a highly specialized solution, it is this add-on that creates the differentiation and no longer the manufacturer of the original product. Eventually, people will supply boxes that don’t do anything until the right application is downloaded for them from a platform. Maybe that is taking things a little too far. But we need to keep this in mind and consider what we need to do to stay in the game. This is the direction we are taking with PLCnext and the app marketplace.
PROCESS: Mr. Bent, thank you very much for talking to us.
* The author is a freelancer at PROCESS.