From 2001 to 2003, the United States saw the worst industrial decline since the Depression with customer capacity reduction, including outsourcing and consolidation. “The focus has always been to decrease cost and increase uptime and machine process control,” said Keith Nosbusch, chief executive officer of Rockwell Automation. “The effects on the decline were new capacity being predominantly outside the United States. Since then, we have seen a rapid growth in emerging markets serving global customers. There has also been a significant investment to build industry domain expertise.”

Along with these concerns has been a rise in product and technology needs. More and more consumers are seeking seamless networks, information-enabled and multidiscipline platforms, and scalability. Electrical engineers have been tackling the issue of how to take high-end technology to the low-end, especially for those who truly value cost savings. They have been able to do so by focusing on simplifying the architecture, eliminating custom equipment and standardizing installation and maintenance efforts.

Industrial automation can be employed in a variety of circumstances by businesses wishing to increase productivity while limiting the amount of financial investment. Most companies do not want to spend endless budgets on the high price of equipment, due to concerns over a limited return, but the companies are now able to offer services that integrate automation technology with their existing equipment, providing greater cost efficiency.

When numerous operations rely on several nonconnected machines to run smoothly, the opportunities for malfunction and downtime are more at risk. For companies that depend solely on one piece of equipment, a malfunction could easily lose significant revenue. Central monitoring systems allow the operator to check the current status and functionality within the building. For the electrical contractor, the opportunity exists to enable the operator with greater efficiency by providing the ability to easily check the status of card access, fire monitoring and security systems from one set location within an industrial complex.

The growing rise in industrial automation technologies allow corporations to evolve from manually operated machines to fully automated state-of-the-art equipment. Today's technology has further advanced the shift toward complete industrial automation with the advent of incorporating advanced computer systems within all industrial equipment.

The idea of eliminating the need for manual operation further provides for increased productivity and reduced on-the-job injuries. Industrial automation technologies can also be applied to entire control systems to monitor equipment in the workplace. Large machinery often uses a multitude of interrelated components that depend on one another to function properly.

The demand for shorter processing times, quicker, error-free installation and reduced downtime is pushing forward the development of new systems and methods. The trend now is setting new standards for installations of motors, drives and switchgear on machines. Through its implementation, a centralized automation system will be used through a continuous power and data system.

Now, these control systems in which most devices are being wired or cabled back to a central control cabinet are being replaced by more efficient modular systems with comprehensive diagnostics. These connection systems provide drive and switch manufacturers with a quicker wiring method that eliminates hard wiring and any possible wiring errors. Electrical connections are integrated in connectors, which also reduces wiring errors, enabling both the connection and disconnection of motors without the use of tools.

Some recent concerns that have been raised over the past few years is the fact that the production base of many manufacturing industries has shifted from North America and Europe to Asian Pacific and Latin American manufacturers. Cheaper labor and unsaturated markets have made the Latin American region particularly attractive for the manufacturing setup, but what does that mean for American electrical contractors?

“Industrial automation this year has been slow,” said John Pfeiffer of Pfeiffer Engineering. “When industrial construction began, new products were introduced in the community and over the Internet where most of the development has been making it easier to put internal communications in the plant. Since then, moving the data has been the newest part. There is a large amount of new hardware available, particularly for Ethernet. A lot of engineers have gone out on their own to hard wire and use RF communications. The problem that I have seen is that a lot of this work has gone overseas with more and more factories popping up overseas. It has been having a large effect on the automation industry here. It is adding more press for the engineers as they look for work.”

More companies are seeking increasingly efficient and cost-effective ways to use industrial automation, which has proved to provide higher levels of quality, efficiency and productivity and reduced overall total costs. Over the past few years, the overall demand for industrial automation has drastically increased, and recent research projects this demand is expected to grow even further over the next five years.

In addition, the growing demand for industrial automation has produced a new opportunity in the integration of control systems, producing a vast number of opportunities for both automation engineers and programmers. As a result, several universities and technical schools have also begun to offer courses in the automation field. Until just a few years ago, the structure of automation systems for industrial plants was solely application-oriented with programmable logic controllers for manufacturing and distributed control systems for continuous processes.

Another growing trend affecting industrial automation is the accelerating rate of improvements constantly being made in personal computer processor speed, storage and reliability. Redundancy is also one of the hottest topics for many information-backup systems. The rapid development of both hardware and software to be used for industrial automation has piqued the interest of network administrators and electrical contractors seeking alternate requirements for backup systems within an unstable environment.

The rising trend suggests that over the next 10 years, manufacturers will begin producing customized products on a much larger scale with better accuracy because of customer demand. This machinery design will also provide more reliable and simpler connectivity solutions. While many leading manufacturers have already jumped on the bandwagon for this trend toward total system automation, widespread implementation is quite possibly only a few years away. EC

SPEED is a freelance writer based in Weymouth, Mass. She can be reached at 617.529.2676 or kkspeed@aol.com.