There are basically two levels in any industrial automation project—the device level and the operator and supervisory control levels. “The trend today in input/output devices is to replace hard-wired systems with device-level networks,” said Tom Harris, vice president at Shambaugh & Son, Inc., Ft. Wayne, Ind. These networks provide the same levels of control and more information about device operation, but need fewer wires to operate.

At the control level, the trend is to link together the various programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and the human machine interface (HMI) stations that are located throughout an industrial facility to form a network, typically in an Ethernet system. “Generally speaking, customers want to link all the automated systems in a facility together to form a single network and achieve total plant integration,” Harris said.

“A lot of wire is being replaced by network cables in industrial facilities to form distributed network controls that can handle an increased number of remote devices,” agreed Dan Walsh, president of United Electric Co., Inc., Louisville, Ky. So, instead of needing a few hundred wires to connect remote devices to a control center, electricians need only to run one power and one control cable.

According to Gary Bruce, vice president of Bruce & Merrilees Electrical Co., New Castle, another trend in industrial automation systems is the increased use of fiber optic computer control and Category 5 cable. Although primarily the steel and automotive manufacturing companies are demanding this technology, smaller manufacturing and pharmaceutical companies are also moving toward using the latest cabling to control their processes in an effort to increase efficiencies and competitiveness.

“There is also a move toward PLC systems being internally pre-wired by the manufacturer, allowing electrical contractors to more easily install the systems and provide customers with a more cost-effective product,” said Kevin Bielicki, project engineer for Triangle Electric Co., Madison Heights, Mich. And, finally, more Ethernet systems are being used in industrial automation to facilitate communication between the automated systems themselves and the human network administrators.

How high is high?

“Automation levels in industrial facilities today are almost complete,” said Doug Clark, manager of process controls and automation at Shambaugh & Son. Total plant integration, he added, is more than just integrating control of the processes on the factory floor.

It also provides seamless integration with office software, remote access to the plant’s systems over the Internet or by direct landlines using modems, and the ability to contact key plant personnel in the event of an emergency via e-mail, pagers, or telephones. “There is, however, concern in the industry about posting such information over the Web,” Clark cautioned.

According to Stuart Tanner, vice president of Automation and Electronics, Inc., Casper Wyo., the majority of the company’s clients’ facilities are fully automated. “Our customers are now dealing with second- and third-generation upgrades including faster computers and other hardware such as PLCs and distributed control systems, improved software, and the integration of fiber optic communication systems for greater data throughput,” he said.

Bielicki agreed that the current levels of automation in industrial facilities are extremely high. “Industrial customers need their plants and factories to be as automated as possible to help lower overhead costs,” he said. Bielicki suggested that, although the initial cost of automating a new facility or retrofitting an old one may be high, the overall cost savings in increased efficiencies and productivity over the life of the system are even greater.

The levels of efficiency in automated systems are also rising, according to Walsh. “For example, 10 years ago, a production line robot performed one task in a 45-second cycle. Today, they are performing six to seven tasks in the same time frame, at least in stationary situations, such as welding,” he said.

Unfortunately, this means decreased opportunities for electrical contractors as fewer robots are needed to perform functions in the plant and robotic components are being reprogrammed for different tasks as needed, rather than new robotics and automation systems being installed.

Who, then, is designing all of these automated systems? In Triangle Electric’s market, few electrical contractors are involved in the design of industrial facilities’ automated systems. “We mostly receive drawings and specs from the control manufacturer’s engineers,” Bielicki said. The company does, however, rely on its years of installation experience to provide feedback to the system’s designers to help ensure that all of the customer’s specific needs are being met.

Bruce believes that the electrical contractor’s involvement in automated systems design is limited because the expertise required is very specific. “We do work, however, with the design engineers to make sure that the system will function optimally within the design parameters,” Bruce said.

United Electric, although not heavily involved in designing automated systems, is working closely with the automotive manufacturers in its market and the makers of the control systems to develop certain standards. “Using accepted standards for the automated control systems and networks we are installing will provide a great deal of continuity for our automotive and other industrial customers,” Walsh said.

Automation and Electronics, however, is heavily involved in design/build. “We saw a need in the market for design/build services that was going unfulfilled and decided to take advantage of that,” Tanner said. The company has eight electrical engineers who specialize in designing various automated control systems for industrial facilities.

Shambaugh & Son also has a staff dedicated to designing automation systems for factories, plants, and other industrial facilities. This separate division supplies customers throughout the country with turnkey automation systems and solutions. “Typically, not many electrical contractors are involved with designing automation systems because they don’t have the resources to design, engineer, and support these projects,” Harris said.

Needed resources

“The first thing an electrical contractor needs to have is a good grasp of automation in general,” Bielicki said. He also advised gathering as much knowledge about the engineering concepts involved as possible and keeping up with technological changes and advances in installation methods.

Field wiremen must also constantly keep current with the latest engineering concepts of automated systems. “The field electricians are usually the people who first notice during the installation that various design criteria may not make practical sense,” he added.

According to Bruce, capital investments are necessary in modern telecommunication and information technology (IT) testing and termination equipment, and training in proper installation techniques. “Field electricians can get continuing education in new technologies and installation methods from the local Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (JATC), but money must also be spent for electricians and project managers to receive product-specific manufacturers’ training,” Bruce added.

The successful electrical contractor that specializes in installing industrial automation systems must also invest in experienced industry people. “You need experienced people who are willing to work late nights and on weekends and holidays,” Walsh said. Most work in industrial facilities is performed while the plant is nonoperational.

“Nothing can be allowed to interfere with production,” he explained. And since industrial facilities are frequently harsh environments, electrical contractors that work in the field must be willing to invest in additional safety training and to hire more safety directors to ensure that the workplace is secure and that potential safety hazards are eliminated.

Clark agreed that the capital investment in personnel and training can be substantial in the industrial automation market. “You need electricians that are trained on how to install and troubleshoot network systems, and qualified engineers on staff who are able to design both high- and low-voltage systems that will fulfill the customer’s performance requirements,” he said. Other investments in more sophisticated tools and equipment, such as fiber optic terminations, testing equipment, and network analyzers, are also required.

“When involved in design/build, an electrical contractor must retain engineers with a background in electrical and control systems design, and highly trained electricians with a background in process facility installation and construction,” said Tanner. In addition, software developers and technicians with the capacity to develop and implement site-specific control strategies are required. And all of these highly trained professionals, according to Tanner, must be able to work closely and communicate effectively with the owner during all construction phases.

Keeping pace

Technology is an ever-changing process, and electrical contractors that don’t keep up with its advances will surely get left behind in the industrial automation market. As customers’ needs for automation equipment increases, electrical contractors must be prepared to adapt immediately to those changes. “You can adapt to changes in technology through training and continuing education, but, equally important, you must always be ready to adapt to changes in the needs of the customer,” said Bielicki.

As customers demand faster, more technologically advanced systems to increase their productivity, successful electrical contractors must be willing to maximize available training opportunities, said Bruce. “Clean, high-quality power is an important issue today because of the increased use of IT systems in industrial and commercial facilities. Electrical contractors need to be ready to respond to that demand.”

Walsh also emphasized training as a tool to keep pace with changing technology, but believes that the best strategy is to begin the process before customers demand new systems. “Keep involved in the industry, communicate with manufacturers and their agents, and begin training personnel before new systems are required by customers,” he advised.

Some industries embrace new technologies more quickly than others. The automotive industry, for example, tends to wait for new technology to prove itself in other industries before investing in it.

Tanner stated clearly that, for the electrical contractor to keep pace with changing technology, it must be willing to make capital investments in ongoing training and make upgrades in new tools, equipment, and computer software and hardware. “You simply must be prepared to adapt to every new development as it occurs, and to provide your electricians with the tools needed to perform the work and provide the customer with the systems it requires.”

What the future holds

“In the next few years, automated equipment will be modified and fine-tuned to allow more extensive communication within a facility,” Bielicki said. He also believes that PLCs will be used in more varied applications as more nonindustrial facilities and buildings use automated systems. “As needs for energy savings increases, PLCs will be used in even more varied ways to monitor energy use and help customers reduce consumption and costs,” he added.

Although Bruce believes that technology will determine the trends in the automation controls industry trends, he predicted the first few changes will include faster fiber optic cabling and broadband and wireless systems. “Industrial facilities are already using wireless for fire alarm, lighting, and communication systems, and in wide area networks (WANs) and local area networks (LANs),” he said.

Walsh agreed that wireless systems are gaining popularity in some places, primarily because they provide facilities with more flexible communication. Wireless systems, however, can be difficult to use in certain environments, such as around welding robots, which emit a great deal of frequency interference. “It will be awhile, I think, before wireless systems make huge inroads in industrial equipment applications,” he said. Wireless technology, added Harris, will eventually force electrical contractors to shift their focus from conduit and wire radio frequency (RF) systems.

“I believe the industry will continue to move toward more sophisticated facility operations that require little or no maintenance by the owner,” Tanner said. All of these trends should provide opportunities for electrical contractors to broaden their service offerings and to grow along with changing technologies.

BREMER, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributes frequently to Electrical Contractor. She can be reached at (410) 394-6966 or by e-mail at dbremer@erols.com.