From Electromechanics to Industry 4.0

Automation technology: Communication systems set the pace

For decades, advancements in machine system automation have been driven by fast-paced change in electrical engineering and electronics. As the world becomes more digital, automation innovations are increasingly coupled with information technology. As a result, the next pioneering steps taken with automation technologies will be based on extensive networking of the tasks carried out by machine systems. This networking of equipment through internet technologies has been touted as the fourth industrial revolution and is now commonly referred to as “Industry 4.0.” Whether it’s an evolution or a revolution, a lot will change in the field of automation technology and German companies would be wise to stay at the forefront of developments.

Looking back at the long-term development of machine system technologies, it’s easy to see that – starting with the invention of the steam engine – much of the progress we’ve made has been driven by advancements in the fields of mechanical systems and mechanical engineering. Machine system functions were increasingly enhanced by electromechanical open- and closed-loop control, which slowly but surely began dictating the overall functioning of the entire system through centralized control of the machinery.

Massive change was ushered in with the invention of the transistor in the 1950s. Thanks to the use of microcontrollers and signal processors, the scope of open- and closed-loop control functions seemed to grow exponentially and far more complex processes could be mastered – and all this with reductions in costs and space requirements. This process was accompanied by a demand for more precise data, but with this came significant wiring costs. As a consequence, this heralded the development of centrally controlled field buses for the exchange of process data.

The communication systems that were introduced at the time – like Interbus S, Profibus, DeviceNet, Sercos, AS-Interface and many others – made it possible to implement decentralized open- and closed-loop control through intelligent field devices. Practical application was carried out in phases, that is, in an evolutionary manner. Despite this, it had a revolutionary impact in terms of the new possibilities it opened up to modularize and customize machines and equipment.

As it turns out, the functional limitations of communication systems now set the boundaries for innovative machine system functionality. In other words, the communication system sets the pace and becomes the defining element. In addition to a limitation in the scope of process data, real-time parameters like latency (the time it takes to transfer the data) and synchronization jitters are the measures for concurrency in a decentralized process.

With the advent of industrial Ethernet (an Ethernet which meets industrial demand and which is suited for industrial environments) a much more powerful technology was introduced in the year 2000. This opened up enormous potential for innovation. One significant effect was the dissolution of the lines between the individual layers of the automation pyramid according to IEC 62264 – a process also referred to as “vertical integration.” All variants of the industrial Ethernet standardized in IEC 61158 have one thing in common: They make all of the functions known in IT available to the components of automation technology – in particular, the very important Internet Protocol (IP). This creates a broad spectrum of applications for using IT technologies in machines and equipment. Telematic functions are also used extensively in the monitoring of plant equipment, as well as for diagnostics and maintenance.

It is important to assess the opportunities and risks associated with using IT functions in machine systems. Great leaps in increased efficiency are counteracted by the risk of damage through attacks on a machine’s control functions from the outside. The “Stuxnet” attack on the uranium enrichment facility in Natanz, Iran was a prime example of why the issue of security must be given a lot more attention in future.

Despite the skepticism that arises when looking at risk, opportunities abound when it comes to the additional functionality currently proclaimed under the concept of “Industry 4.0.” Central to the idea known as the “Internet of Things” – which describes this all-encompassing networking of machines, equipment, indeed whole factories – stand newly defined industrial processes that are to be established based on the functions we’re familiar with from the “Internet of the People.”

Whereas nowadays the subsystems and components of a plant are involved in communications, and the interplay between the individual components is supposed to be controlled in an overarching system, in the future, processes and the recording of all data relevant for a given process will be a strict digitized, establishing a basis for planning, implementation and optimization. For example, it can be expected that we will achieve superior quality by mastering more complex processes thanks to simulations based on actual data and the models that can be generated from this.

These developments clearly show that the communication systems used within machine systems will gain in importance and will set the pace for innovation to an even greater extent in the future.

Due to the fast-paced developments that can be expected, it will become vital for companies involved in automation technology to keep at the forefront of developments in the coming years. The Steinbeis Systems Technology Group (Steinbeis STG) is an association of three Steinbeis Enterprises: the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Systems Engineering (Steinbeis TZS), the Steinbeis Embedded Systems Technologies GmbH (Steinbeis EST GmbH) and the Steinbeis Interagierende Systeme GmbH (Steinbeis IAS GmbH). Steinbeis STG supports its customers with the implementation of cutting-edge IT in pioneering products: Steinbeis experts help with the design and implementation of innovations that are based on the application of IT in the field of embedded systems. The group is an active player in the field of automation technology with a focus on industrial communication and the development of innovative solutions. It also helps with the certification of control units for automotive technologies.


Professor Reinhard Keller is head of the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Systems Engineering and a professor at Esslingen University of Applied Sciences. The enterprise works on system solutions and develops hardware and software for distributed embedded systems with a focus on industrial communications. It also offers extensive services related to system integration.

Professor Reinhard Keller
Steinbeis Transfer Center Systems Engineering (Esslingen)

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