Controlled progress

With remote monitoring and control now possible from country to country, a revolution is taking place in the instrumentation market. Colin Carter explains.


Recent advances in control and instrumentation mean that relatively small, but steady increments are being made — particularly in electronics — to enable components and systems to be smaller, lighter, faster, cheaper, more energy-efficient and easier to configure and install.

Companies such as Mitsubishi and National Instruments are championing a new control development — the programmable automation controller (PAC). This allows superior programmability compared to programmable logic controllers (PLCs). PACs promise greater interoperability and are software-driven, making them compatible with a wide range of I/O devices.

Ian Bell of National Instruments said: ‘They are also easier to customise using familiar interfaces and low-level languages. As it is unnecessary to use “C” programming using software such as Labview to get them to work, the number of people able to do custom automation tasks has grown.’

One area increasing in popularity is the use of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tagging to monitor components during manufacture. Driven by the enormous decrease of both size and cost of radio frequency transmitters and readers, as well as superior data storage capacity, RFID tags — essentially mini hard drives — are superseding traditional barcode systems.

There is much activity in this area — recent announcements, such as a new Siemens tag with 32kb of storage capacity (an AS-interface ready RFID system) have come from, among others, IFM Electronic.

Siemens’ Simatic range looks to be one of the most advanced solutions available, while Omron, Brooks Automation, IDC, Two Technologies and Leuze Mayser are other players which can expect to see their RFID businesses grow.

Advances in ethernet have made data transfer from devices such as RFID tags easier. The expansion in use of industrial Ethernet is expected to be vast, commentators estimating sales to grow at the rate of something like 50 per cent per year for the next five years.

With the internet also seeing its usage expanded for control applications, and remote monitoring and control — even from other countries — now commonplace, control and instrumentation has truly become a global sector.

Brian Holmes of Hagglunds Drives said it is now possible to remotely monitor equipment such as one of its custom drive systems from anywhere in the world using a modem and an internet connection — which is an advantage if the manufacturer, rather than a third-party, is able to identify problems.

There is no doubt the world market for instrumentation and control products is undergoing a revolution. Western markets, while unexciting, are stable, with major growth in Asia and the far east — especially India and China.

There is ample evidence to support this shift. For example, the US-based ARC Advisory Group has identified Asia as the growth driver in the pressure transmitter market — growth in Asia was stated to be ‘well above average’, which is quite considerable considering the group’s estimate of the average world growth rate to be some 3.8 per cent. growth in China was estimated to average 11.4 per cent over a five-year period.

Business consultant Frost and Sullivan has also carried out research which backs up this view, recently noting that the European drives market is primarily investing to improve efficiency (and competitiveness) of existing machinery, whereas the Chinese market is growing at around 14 per cent per year, driven by the explosion in that country’s economy. The company’s researchers also make the point that global manufacturers have an advantage in the current world market.

There are obvious opportunities here, according to Paul Birr of Omega Engineering, who said: ‘We are seeing a growing trend to export high-end products to countries such as China, Taiwan and India. Rather than UK-based companies being bombarded by Chinese products, we are seeing export growth to these regions.’

According to Eriks Zvaigzne of Brook Crompton, the company is constantly using its global capacity to reduce production costs. He said: ‘We have already transferred production of some of our more upmarket products to Poland and also manufacture lower-end products in Dalian, China. We have to do this to counter increased commodity prices to keep our prices stable.’

Control Techniques has also developed its global operations and manufactures drives in China. according to the company this makes economic sense for very high-volume, low-power products, and for products which have a large market in China. However it does not always make sense to manufacture there and the company will continue to manufacture in Europe.

National Instrument’s Ian Bell added another twist, noting that large companies such as his have to deliver to global customers — and have to be able to support customers worldwide with a ‘design anywhere, manufacture anywhere’ mentality to succeed. He also noted that high-volume production products are increasingly being made in the far east, but acknowledged that Europe and the US still excels in the design and production of lower-volume, technologically advanced products.

There is no doubt the industry is being increasingly dominated by a small number of large players. With the effort needed to develop new products, only very large organisations are able to afford the huge sums required to offer state-of-the-art solutions the industry demands.

Control and instrumentation companies are subject to intense merger and acquisition activity — seemingly on an ongoing basis. Recent examples include Parker Hannifin’s takeover of Resistoflex Aerospace (from Crane) as well as a majority stake in Japan-based Kuroda Pneumatics, Schneider Electric’s acquisition of Invensys Building Systems, and the approval of Artesyn shareholders to a takeover by Emerson,

Another approach has been adopted by instrument and safety and protection equipment supplier MTL and electronic connection components manufacturer Weidmuller. They have entered into a sales co-operation agreement to exploit the factory automation and process control sectors by having their sales forces sell both company’s products.

David Hearn of First Sight Vision highlighted the reduction in big players in the image processing field. ‘In the frame grabber market there has been a tendency for companies to consolidate to the extent that two or three dominate the technology, their larger size meaning they can benefit from economies of scale — especially in R&D.’

It will be interesting to see if China is still dominating the C&I community in 10 years’ time, and whether all the large corporations fuse to form one ‘Big Brother’ type instrumentation entity.