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A single communication standard could impede technology

A single communication standard could impede technology

Rob Loomis has more than 20 years of industrial automation experience. His responsibilities at Omron include oversight and strategy development for the company's Industrial Automation Division activities in the U.S., Central America, and South America. Prior to joining Omron, he was an industry consultant. Before that, he was vice president of Industrial Controls and Automation at Square D. He received a degree in mechanical engineering from Bradley University in Peoria, IL, and an MBA from Northeastern University in Boston.

In past years, there was confusion about whether there would be a single communication standard, and engineers were reluctant to make a choice in case they picked the wrong platform for their system. Now, says Loomis, they are jumping in.

Design News: What are the major pressures that industrial automation engineers face today?

Loomis: They have to do more with less. Outsourcing and downsizing puts more responsibilities on engineers. They have to do the whole project and service more constituencies. Also, the ever-increasing quest for information means more sensors and integration of information into process management. Engineers must manage data and put it on networks.

Q: Are these pressures different from the pressures of, say, five years ago?

A: Five years ago, there was confusion about emerging fieldbus standards, and thoughts that there would be one universal standard. People were reluctant to make decisions because they were afraid they would make the wrong platform choice. Now, engineers realize they can't sit on the sidelines any longer.

Q: Are the pressures the same for engineers in Europe and Asia?

A: In Asian markets, many of the control strategies are based on the assumption that machines and controllers work. In the U.S., we assume there will be problems, so we want communication upstream and downstream.

Q: Is there a trend toward smaller footprints for components such as controllers? If so, why?

A: The trend is toward a smaller footprint. We used to celebrate when the controller enabled the plant to be 10% smaller. Much of the factory floor then was occupied by control cabinets with relays, contactors, and starters. Our new PLC has all the power of larger ones in a small size we couldn't imagine a few years ago. There is great pressure to make things smaller. Compared to previous generations, today's PLCs take 20% of the space of the original.

Q: What do engineers want from industrial automation suppliers?

A: Engineers want integrated solutions, and controllers with more flexibility. They also want best-in-class in controls. Those solutions may seem mutually exclusive, but both concepts are alive and well. I think companies should stick to what they do best. No one can be all things to all people. We make flexible, general-purpose products and we drive all the cost out of them. Customers today can buy a general-purpose controller rather than going to their own board-level solutions.

Q: Will a single communication standard evolve?

A: I'm not in favor of standards. They impede technology and limit our ability to improve. A standard can create an entry barrier. While many people would be delighted with one fieldbus platform, I prefer three or four. When we design a controller, we choose from competing technologies. If there were only one choice, there would be only one price and maybe one vendor, and that would be bad. Multiple protocols encourage engineers to innovate.

Q: Machine vision seems to have caught on. Why is that?

A: It's critically important, especially with the need for tighter quality control. We can monitor things that it used to take people to monitor. Vision is becoming a product rather than a technology

Q: What's the role of the distributor in your business?

A: Many distributors have been application service providers or value-added resellers, and they have been in the middle between the low end and turnkey developers. In the future, there will be a shakeout. Distributors play a big role in supporting customers, and you can't get that kind of support from an e-commerce model.

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