According to the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), Rosslyn, Va., sales of industrial control products and systems, as measured by the organization’s Primary Industrial Controls Index, increased 3 percent during the third quarter of 2005.

The index jumped 5.5 percent compared to the same period in 2004. With eight consecutive quarterly gains, the index is 24 percent above the market’s recessionary low, indicating increasingly robust growth for an industry that was hit hard by weaknesses in U.S. manufacturing activity.

The global market for industrial automation in 2003 was about $47 billion, with the North American sector of the market accounting for 35 percent of that, according to Paul Gillespie, senior vice president, Motor City Electric Technologies Inc., Madison Heights, Mich.

“Market growth of about 3 percent per year is being driven by the desire of facility owners for increased cost savings through automation and increased quality reliability from automated processes,” he said.

That growth rate is down, however, from an annual 7 percent average a decade ago, but no one is sure whether the decrease stems from market saturation or the increased movement of processes to overseas facilities.

John Brown, vice president of business development for Sachs Electric Co., an automation and industrial group based in St. Louis, believes the market continues to grow because the technology permeates every industry, from power, petrochemical, food and beverage, and pharmaceutical, to manufacturing, water and wastewater treatment, and homeland security.

Growth drivers, according to Brown, include that manufacturers are leveraging a competitive edge through the efficiencies gained through automation, new power markets, such as natural gas and coal-fired power generation facilities, upgrades to nuclear power generation plants, additional petrochemical refining expansions and renovations, and municipalities being mandated to upgrade their water and wastewater treatment plants to meet federal clean water standards and homeland security directives.

Not every area of the United States is experiencing the growth of the industrial automation market. According to Stefan Lopata, vice president of operations, Kelso-Burnett Co., Rolling Meadows, Ill., the main explosion happened 20 years ago, and the market is now mature.

“For industrial concerns to be competitive, they had to automate to increase productivity 15 to 20 years ago. If they didn’t do it then, they don’t exist anymore,” he said.

Even after the wave of automation in the automotive market, profits decreased, forcing companies to move to areas where pay rates were not as high as in the traditional, industrial “rust belt.” But, if the industrial market moved south to increase profitability, the market there is not growing anymore either, said William Foley Jr., vice president, industrial services for Miller Electric Co., Jacksonville, Fla.

“The industrial market is reluctant to spend a lot of money on large capital projects, and instead, is spending on stabilizing current manufacturing processes,” he said.

However, if the economy continues to improve, the possibility exists that this situation will change and manufacturing plants will begin to invest in new automation technologies.

Technological and market trends

The convergence of automation systems and communications networks is one of the important technological advances in the market, said Richard Cichosz, group manager for controls and automation at Motor City Electric. Historically, separate systems communicated on individual or proprietary networks.

“Today, the market is forcing a more open communications architecture, specifically industrial Ethernet, where supervisory computers, industrial controllers, and the devices themselves all communicate directly with each other and with higher-level systems over the facility’s Ethernet network,” he said.

According to market analysis and forecasts from the Arc Advisory Group Inc., Sidney, Ohio, Ethernet provides users with an architecture that has a lower total cost of ownership and improved adaptability for changing needs. This, combined with widespread availability and market familiarity, continues to drive Ethernet’s growth in industrial automation applications for a broad range of industries.

Another technological advancement for contractors to consider is devices on the processing floor with increased intelligence embedded into them. Now, rather than having “dumb” devices wired to a control system that makes the decision to change or alter how a process is operating, the devices are communicating intelligently with each other and providing increased control decision capabilities.

“This means the process depends less on a central computer to make decisions and becomes more consistently reliable,” Cichosz said.

New communications protocols, such as Foundation Fieldbus, Profibus and DeviceNet are designed to reduce installation costs by lessoning the amount of conduit and wire needed to install all of the devices and sensors that are integrated into an automation system, according to Brown.

“Other technological advances include wireless networks and sensors, and Web-enabled technologies for remote communication and monitoring of facility processes,” he said.

Advanced communications protocols have led to increased speeds of data transmission, also thanks to fiber optics.

“Fiber optics are also being used in photocontrol sensors to enable them to better control operations, ensure that operational parameters are within tolerances, and that monitoring functions are better maintaining uptime through more efficiently scheduled preventative maintenance,” Lopata said.

Finally, there is an increased centralization of control systems into a single control room to allow monitoring of all the processes at one location.

“This saves the facility money by cutting down on the need to staff several control areas and by providing centralized information that can be acted upon more effectively,” Foley said.

In addition, the information gathered is linked with corporate business systems to allow upper management to have real-time data about processes in every facility for more efficient decision making.

How to control success

What electrical contractors need to succeed in the industrial automation market has changed. Factory floors used to have engineers that understood the processes executed and purchased the necessary equipment and software.

“These engineers have been slowly disappearing and facilities are turning to system integrators to perform the work,” said Mike Savel, Motor City Electric’s group manager for networks and systems.

To succeed, electrical contractors or system integrators need to be able to not only perform electrical engineering and control panel installations, but have the process and application knowledge for the systems they are working on to demonstrate that they can deliver the high levels of technologically advanced systems.

“Opportunities to succeed in industrial automation definitely exist because plants are increasingly turning toward system integrators to perform the engineering, installation and maintenance of the facility’s automated process systems,” Savel said.

With plant operators looking for a single provider to outsource all of these functions to, the electrical contractor that can provide these integration services is the one that can expand its market. According to Brown, the best way for electrical contractors to succeed in this market is to keep current with technology and to have at least some in-house technical competence.

“In today’s communications and automation markets, a high degree of knowledge and understanding is required to install the complex technologies available to, and being demanded by, the end-user,” he said.

Opportunities to increase market share are available to electrical contractors in all industries in a robust economy and in upgrades and retrofits that take advantage of new technologies.

“It is helpful if the contractor can provide sole-source solutions to customers, who prefer to deal with as few vendors and installers as possible,” Brown said.

Lopata agrees that it is important for electrical contractors to keep current with expanding knowledge and technological advances. Contractors can take advantage of the expertise of distributors and manufacturers to learn about new products, technologies and applications.

“If a contractor can’t demonstrate to the customer that it has the knowledge and necessary industry relationships, it will be left behind in this market,” Lopata said.

Gillespie believes the next technological leap in industrial automation will be in communications, because devices continue to consistently get smaller and faster.

“Advances, however, are limited by the laws of physics, and it’s impossible to predict what they will be,” he said.

Lopata envisions increased use in the future of wireless technology to allow the processes on the plant floor to be easily reconfigured for producing different products at different times.

“Wireless technology provides more flexibility and the ability to change the manufacturing focus as required to remain competitive and increase profitability,” he said.

Lopata expects wireless technology to be increasingly adopted by industrial concerns within the next two years as they fully understand the benefits and advantages.

“Something that we’ve hearing a lot of talk about lately is the movement away from using manufacturers’ preprogrammed programmable logic controllers (PLCs) to using a facility’s own computer network software to program and control processes,” said Foley.

Such programmable automation controllers (PACs) are the new generation of industrial controllers that function as a PLC and a personal computer (PC) combined. They blend the best features of the PC, such as the processor, random-access memory (RAM) and powerful software, with the reliability and distributed nature of the PLC.

Finally, electrical contractors should be aware of and keep an eye on future applications of nanotechnologies. These involve embedding and distributing intelligence into the smallest point where data originates on the floor.

“Nanotechnology could be used to create minute sensors with tremendous amounts of processing power that can wirelessly transmit data directly to the facility’s data management systems, IT monitoring points, or directly onto the Internet for remote access,” Brown said.

He estimates that nanotechnology used in these applications will be commonplace, and that 70 to 80 percent of Internet communications will be wireless, in two or three years.

“The technology exists now, and it will not take long for the industry to recognize the advantages,” Brown said.     EC

BREMER, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributes frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. She can be reached at 410.394.6966 or darbremer@comcast.net.