Harnessing the value of digitisation through universal automation
Many water utilities embarking on digital transformation journeys are facing the same challenge: technology changes fast, and it's not always practically or financially feasible to invest in procuring and installing new digital systems and software.
But one award-winning water technology company, Schneider Electric, a global leader in the digital transformation of energy management and automation, has set its sights on helping utilities overcome barriers to achieving optimum value from digitisation by embracing universal automation.
Awarded Water Technology Company of the Year at the 2022 Global Water Awards, Schneider Electric has been acknowledged for its breakthrough work with EcoStruxure Automation Expert V21.2.
The world’s first software-centric industrial automation system, EcoStruxure Automation Expert (EAE) manages the full automation lifecycle for water and wastewater plant operations, and has been heralded a game changer in the drive toward optimum efficiency.
Schneider Electric Digital Services Technical Development Lead Hakeem Haseeb said the award-winning software has been developed to enable universal automation – a secure, open, and interoperable approach to managing automation, and one that the company is actively promoting within the industry.
“EAE presents a paradigm shift in terms of how automation software works. It’s based on the concept of universal automation, which helps enable water utilities to derive the most value possible out of their digitisation journey by removing barriers to continuous automation,” he said.
The digitisation bottleneck
Haseeb said the fundamental nature of industrial automation of control systems is being forced to undergo a large transformation, and with the "fourth industrial revolution" upon us, sectors are embracing digitisation as a way of mitigating disruption.
“Even before COVID-19, the water industry has been facing very significant disruption, including the challenges of population growth, a changing climate and, of course, the race to net zero,” he said.
“And our customers have been embracing digital transformation to adapt to these disruptions effectively. But when we look at how companies are fairing on their digital transformation journey, we are seeing that automation is actually acting as a bit of a bottleneck.
“It’s getting in the way of companies realising the full value of digitisation.”
Haseeb said that while automation is key to digital transformation projects running successfully, it also poses some very real challenges in terms of how it is leveraged.
“Automation is the fundamental link between the digital and the physical world. It enables us to take data and convert it into real business value. But we can see that current automation systems are highly proprietary in nature. They are closed off,” he said.
“These closed systems are inherently difficult to upgrade over time, to adapt or to change. The water sector is developing infrastructure that needs to last for decades, but automation technology typically becomes out of date in a three-to-five-year window.”
Haseeb said the cost involved in procuring this technology, combined with how difficult it is then to change it, is creating a barrier to effective and innovative progress.
“This trend is stifling the ability for companies to drive innovation. This is how automation can act as an inhibitor to a lot of organisations realising that full productivity benefit,” he said.
“We went down this path with EAE because we saw that to get around this issue, automation vendors like us somewhat need to take ownership.
“We need to be driving the adoption and acceleration towards more open and standard automation technology, in terms of interoperability and portability of the solutions.”
Haseeb said universal automation takes a software-centric approach to automations – it de-couples the automation layer from the hardware itself.
“And it’s really enabled by Standard IEC61499. That’s important because, when we consider the paradigm shift we are trying to create, we didn't want to create a new system based on technology that’s destined to become another closed system,” he said.
Standard IEC61499 provides a model for distributed automation systems, aiming to achieve portability, interoperability, and reconfiguration of distributed applications.
With EAE based on the concept of universal automation and developed with Standard IEC61499, Haseeb said Schneider Electric is aiming to help its customers achieve 100% operational efficiency, 100% engineering efficiency, and 100% future-proofing of technology moving forward.
“EAE really is about reimagining automation. By decoupling the control aspect from the hardware itself and enabling it to reside in the software, you future-proof the tech,” he said.
“Companies in the future can decide on whatever automation technology they need to use as it is developed, rather than being stuck with an outdated system.
"Furthermore, with EAE, utilities may not even need a PLC, so we are driving a soft-PLC approach. The automation code can reside in anything that has a digital capacity. It’s natively interoperable and can converge with IT infrastructure.”
Haseeb said the standard also takes a more asset-centric approach.
“This means that our standard libraries for asset management can be effectively copied and pasted, wrapped and reused, in the water market. This significantly reduces engineering hours, and time to market for infrastructure projects. It also means teams can then focus more on other high-value tasks,” he said.
Tackling barriers, meeting challenges
Haseeb said the adoption of more open, standard automation systems, has the ability to help the water sector meet a lot of the challenges that they are facing.
“Water utilities are facing an expanding population that’s geographically more dispersed. But at the same time, water companies are also tasked with achieving net-zero emissions, while also in an inflation of cost environment,” he said.
“Water organisation are tasked with delivering more with less, and to do this they need automation systems to be more interoperable, and more converged with IT systems.”
Another challenge in the water market is that costs are booming, Haseeb said, and investing in new systems every five years is unsustainable.
“WIth EAE, we are able to achieve more digital continuity. We are able to create an end-to-end, continuous cycle of undisrupted improvement. Fundamentally, it reduces the costs incurred over the lifecycle of a project,” he said.
For universal automation to be a success in the Australian market, Haseeb said there are three main levers that need to be used.
“Firstly, thought leadership will be important. Getting people on board and getting industry backing will be key. The second lever is building out the technology ecosystem. It may be new and innovative, but it’s not going to help solve anything if it’s not being utilised,” he said.
In order to bolster adoption of this approach and technology in the wider market, Schnieder Electric, alongside other industrial leaders, formed an independent not-for-profit association called UniversalAutomation.org.
“The organisation is a combination of IT/OT vendors and users, consultants and even educational institutes. The real purpose of the organisation is to drive adoption of technology based on this standard,” Haseeb said.
“UniversalAutomation.org is helping us drive adoption by nurturing the development of universal automation applications within industry.”
Finally, Haseeb said it's also important to consider the skills gap, not only now but also in future, when engineering and technology has transformed further.
“This is a totally new way of delivering engineering and automation systems. And the skills we currently have will need to be adapted and changed, and we are going to need to create new engineers and technical people who can address this moving forward,” he said.
“We’ve been engaging with universities and TAFEs to work through deciphering the skills future engineers and technical experts need and help build this new pathway into curriculum.
“This will be a work in progress, but is incredibly important if we are going to be able to address the skills gap moving forward.”