As many eagerly await the return of Keanu Reeves as Neo in the upcoming “The Matrix: Resurrections“, the fan chatter’s exploded with theories on whether the original Terminator series had any influence on the franchise. My thoughts, however, raced into a completely different direction. The dystopian future created by those great filmmaking minds – an evil combination of AI and machines taking over humanity – could never be possible in the siloed reality of industrial automation we have today. Pure and simple, we are not even close.
The vision of machines plotting, collaborating and evolving with ease is still the opposite of what the reality has to offer. When it comes to industrial automation, industry and manufacturing at large, these sectors are hindered by vendor lock-in, fused software and incompatible hardware. Interoperability is a distant dream, with organisations being forced to align with a single vendor and compromise on the best industrial solutions to serve their customers.
Valuable data becomes disparate and difficult to access and analyse at speed. Collaboration between any ‘best of breed’ industrial solutions or easy real-time upgrades is all but science fiction. Engineering talent wastes valuable time on reprogramming where it can be automated. Efficiency is compromised, and profits are minimised as a result.
And while the winning vendor takes it all – it is not the industry or end customer that benefits. The situation is far from sustainable, in any sense of the word. Customer experience – that should be the focus of every vendor or any market-oriented organisation for that matter – inevitably takes a hit.
An industrial automation revolution
Yet change is in the air. Fairly recently, a group of industrial players started a movement. Organisations like Shell and Intel, alongside academia and several industrial pioneers (full disclosure: including Schneider Electric), have joined forces to form UniversalAutomation.Org. It works to recreate for industrial players what we take for granted in our day-to-day – like the ability to use any PC or smartphone with any app or software programme.
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An independent, not-for-profit association, it aims to create an entirely vendor-agnostic ecosystem for automation software that can run on any hardware. This means that organisations would no longer be limited to a single vendor, can get the best tools for each individual job, and have a fully integrated tech ecosystem that works seamlessly.
Not only will this new industry standard of interoperability have a positive effect on efficiency, it will lead to new ways of working, and a better digital experience. By allowing best-of-breed systems to communicate and fully leverage all data, it becomes possible to pinpoint areas where organisations can save energy, minimise waste and increase profits.
UniversalAutomation.org aims to disrupt the market, but it also seeks to unite the industry around a common, universally acceptable industrial automation standard. The end goal is similar to what the Connectivity Standards Alliance is aiming to achieve with the introduction of Matter in the smart homes space. Which is making IoT more accessible, secure and usable to all thus expanding the market for all players. Solutions’ interoperability and mass market adoption is at the heart of both organisations’ vision. The key point is that by agreeing on a universal standard – the lingua franca – for industrial or smart home automation, respectively, the entire market benefits.
Red pill or blue pill?
However, there is another reason to standardise approaches to technology – whether at home or on a factory floor. It goes beyond ending territorial vendor ‘wars’. As both the Matrix and the Terminator showcase, once technology becomes adopted at scale it reaches a tipping point after which barriers to adoption become virtually non-existent. Then technology builds upon itself and creates a new reality.
We’ve seen that with the World Wide Web and the emergence of e-commerce and the shared economy – that would not have been possible without this large-scale buy in from the entire sector. Universal automation is the next area that promises a similar transformation for industry and is open to all. Those who don’t join the revolution risk being left behind.
Industrial players, original equipment manufacturers and vendors must now make a choice. Do they take the red pill? Joining the movement and fully embracing a future of intelligent industrial automation, and moving towards a more efficient and sustainable future. Or do they take the blue pill? Sticking to one vendor, continuing to be hindered by inefficient tools and incompatible systems and prolonging the agony of industry ripe for disruption?
Industrial interoperability will create countless new opportunities for the digital economy, for big and small companies – leading us towards a net zero utopian, rather than a dystopian future. This is certainly the promise of universal automation if it were to hyper scale and reach its inevitable tipping point. The big screen franchise-inspired question remains: how many will join the ‘resistance’?