No doubt many new and creative manager to-do lists were generated during the 23rd annual Rockwell Automation Fair, held Nov. 9-10 in Anaheim, California.

It took years for automation companies to find the right formula for blending emerging software solutions with traditional PLC and instrumentation lines. But now hardware and software are so seamless — and management so sure-footed in this regard — that the issue barely persists.

Rockwell Automation is strong in discrete manufacturing. Yet it’s had DCS technology for years now and says it leapfrogged previous DCS technology generations in bringing its process-industry solutions to market.

Much discussion at the event focused on how best to bring advanced automation and IT capabilities to plants that are starved for trained human resources. Industrial automation and IT suppliers realize they must take more responsibility within the installing base. They must do so, however, without damaging relationships within their partner networks.

Rockwell executives say one very big in-the-midst industry trend is so-called “virtualization” of industrial automation assets, which “frees” software from its underlying hardware. They say also that today users are less tolerant of disparate systems and increasingly turn to a single supplier for integrated solutions. As a result, they can adopt emerging system capabilities that include advanced-process, batch, safety and motor controls, as well as plant software infrastructures that optimize integration and sound data management.

Which means what?

One of the bigger announcements at the event was the latest release of Rockwell Automation’s FactoryTalk Batch software, now with a baked-in enhanced recipe-approval process; recipe versioning to allow tracking and testing of changes; and security-authority binding features that protect intellectual property.

Studio 5000 is Rockwell Automation’s design environment for developing software applications. When a company invests in plant-automation and information-technology infrastructure it acquires an integrated environment that evolves over time as applications, services and reports are developed.

Studio 5000 can now deliver a logical view, in addition to an execution view, of the code involved. That eases the management task because it reflects how users “look” at a process, rather than being based on mere serial temporality. Also mentioned was improved library management to allow importing code from other projects and program parameters.

One example of the kind of integrations that can now be achieved was the announcement that an integrated condition-monitoring system, the Allen-Bradley Dynamix 1444 series monitor, now uses standard Ethernet TCP/IP Ethernet/IP networking to allow storing its data in production systems and to deploy and maintain condition monitoring, primarily of rotating and reciprocating equipment, in the same environment as that for automation control, including Studio 5000.

The big fellow

For the PlantPax process automation system, Rockwell’s DCS platform, virtualization speeds system integration, lowers hardware costs and extends life cycles, Rockwell says. PlantPax core documentation now includes a selection guide for adopting a virtualized automation system.

The PlantPax batch and sequence managers — which now allow sequence configuration right in the controller — are said to be well-suited for skid-control and stand-alone process units, such as mixers, blenders and reactors.

Through integration with motor-control devices such as Allen-Bradley PowerFlex 520 series of AC drives and Allen-Bradley motor starters and electronic overload relays, intelligent motor devices can now be part of a unified plant network.

PlantPAX has been equipped with multi-variant control (MPC) right in the chassis. New uses for MPC are sure to emerge as a result.

Studio 5000 delivers an integrated system view, visualization and control. Also mentioned were process-object configuration in Studio 5000 and a bulk-configuration tool.

More virtualizing

Oddly enough, it turns out hardware-software integration is eased by its virtual separation.

Rockwell says it’s seeing a high level of adoption for virtualization and “fog” computing, i.e., localized cloud computing. If done correctly, the net result should be higher system availability with fewer servers. Being able to separate the control software from the hardware on which it resides, via virtualization, has implications and benefits for remote support, replication of a hosting infrastructure, maintenance and development.

The skills needed for these kinds of tunings aren’t often found on plant sites. Rockwell Automation says it’s a business it wants to be in and is already providing those services to its user base.

One of the talking points most stressed by Rockwell Automation executives and product managers at the event, as well as by the attendees, was the continuing need for “OT and IT,” i.e., operations and information technology, to come together.

Increasing use of plant-wide Ethernet is seen as one good way for this to happen. Reference architectures help translate the terms particular to mostly separate computing realms into a zone of common understanding. Communication is better than ever before, yet OT remains bent on productivity while IT focuses on protection.

Driven to devices

A consensus seems to have arisen within the user community, it is said, that cellular connections are the better way to go when it comes to remote-asset utilization and connected-machine management.

The combination of AT&T Global Sim and M2X data service platform with Rockwell cloud-enabled service offerings is one way to accomplish just that, the two companies say. They continue to collaborate on the reference architectures needed.

At the event, Rockwell and Cisco Systems announced release of a white paper on use of WiFi networks in industrial environments, “Deploying 802.11 wireless LAN technology within a converged plantwide Ethernet architecture.”

Finally, in case you wondered, “device drivers,” those bits of software code that accomplish that final version integration, haven’t gone away, and aren’t going away, despite all the ingenuity devoted to architectures and busses and standards. Rockwell Automation says it’s expanding its device-driver library.