Moving to modular enabled automation

Large-scale automation systems have been at the heart of production control for decades. Now, driven by changes in consumer demands, an alternative plug and produce modular-enabled automation approach is emerging.

The concept of modular-enabled automation is set to replace some large-scale automation systems which are traditionally limited to mass producing one product type. Changing consumer demands, such as the need for personalised medicines, often of batch size one, requires more flexible production lines that allow rapid changes to machine configuration.

Modular-enabled automation is being driven by the international user association, NAMUR, an organisation whose members comprise process industry end-users that operate automation in plants. It follows the earlier successful modularisation of mechanical plant such as reactors, valves and pipework into standardised modular containers. Since 2014, NAMUR is asking automation manufacturers to rise to a similar challenge and provide automation modules that can be simply plugged together, to meet production needs.

Gero Lustig, global business manager life sciences at ABB, says: “Modular-enabled automation provides the flexibility demanded by providing a building block approach, whereby the blocks can be numbered up or numbered down to meet the production demand, thereby enabling process lines to be turned on and off, on demand.

“The solution launched at ACHEMA by ABB was the first to combine, from one supplier, a module layer, a series of module type packages (MTPs) and an orchestration layer.”

Module layer and MTPs

The module layer contains several intelligent units called MTPs which, according to Lustig, “is the key that opens the door for modular automation”. A MTP contains a vendor neutral and functional description of the process module automation.

Lustig explains: “Information is stored that is necessary for integration into the automation system and comprises archive, human-machine interface (HMI), process control, history and safety, for example. It can be generated by the module’s engineering tool.”

Contained within the MTPs are proprietary controllers. Through a simple import of the MTP into the production plant’s distributed control system (DCS), these pre-automated MTPs can be easily added, arranged and adjusted according to production needs. Upscaling is easier, as entire pre-tested control sub-system programs can be connected with other controllers, which is quicker than writing new code from scratch.

Connectivity is via OPC UA and every module comes with a description language, where the file specifies an interface to the network.

Orchestration layer

MTP, therefore, is a standardised methodology that creates the framework of interoperability between the module layer and orchestration system. Adhering to this standard should allow any module to plug into any automation system.

“The plant’s DCS, thus, evolves into an orchestration system that manages the operation of the modular units,” says Lustig. “The DCS imports the MTPs from its built-in library of process objects. ABB’s System 800xA as a solution for world-scale production has now been enabled to interface with smaller independent modules and operate the process and orchestrate the intelligent modules.”

The intelligent module contains services which are orchestrated by the plant operator in the DCS to reach the optimal production process. Process line control helps each module anticipate others.

The DCS triggers the production process, collecting feedback of the services, handling the information and returning the commands for each process module. All the information on the current state of the plant is available on the HMI of the DCS.


Modular-enabled automation lowers cost, risk and schedule by reducing the non-standard interfaces. There are several benefits in process-encapsulated, reusable modules, including for brownfield plants:

  • up to 50% less downtime
  • up to 50% less capital expenditure for automation engineering
  • 20% lower life cycle management

For flexible production plants the benefits include:

  • up to 40% faster time to market
  • up to 80% faster rearrangement of production equipment
  • almost zero automation engineering to copy and adapt production line
  • up to 50% less capital expenditure

In addition, customer-specific product adaptations can be rapidly and flexibly carried out by exchanging individual modules, bringing the cost of producing a batch size of one in line with that of mass-produced products.

“The end-user can now focus on their core business of producing goods while finding suitable partners to supply modules,” adds Lustig. “The end-user does not need to specify the internal design of the module, rather specify the services that are needed.

“Buying modules that are pre-made and pre-tested only need to be integrated with a plant, thereby ensuring a faster time to market. Over the lifetime of plant, costs can be reduced as upgrades can be carried out with much greater granularity.”

The future

While initial pilots for modular-enabled automation are taking place in the pharmaceutical industry, the principles apply to any industry requiring small batches, including textiles, printing and packaging and marine. For industries like food and beverage, where recipes and ingredients frequently change yet homogenisation and end quality are essential, a modular approach can allow food processors to add, remove or change recipes from a function library, with almost no interruption to production.

Modular machinery can also be easier to clean, as processes that are not required for a particular production run can be stopped and maintenance carried out without necessarily having to shut down the whole process. This is ideal for industries such as medical supplies, where regular washdowns are essential.

Even if an entirely modular approach is not necessarily a perfect fit for every production line, Lustig says almost any industry could benefit from modularising discrete processes where possible, reducing reliance on a single point of control.

“If production no longer needs to be paced by the slowest operation then modules can be optimised individually, which is far quicker and easier than having to reprogram and extensively test an entire process from a central controller,” he says.

“Modular automation is about creating several plants within a plant, making each segment of the production process more manageable, more flexible and cheaper to run,” Lustig continues. “The idea of infinite granular customisation, whereby each individual product can be fully tailored to the customer’s particular preferences, and instantly manufactured and dispatched from the same automated product line one after another, is now technologically feasible using modular solutions.”

Such systems require careful design but afford unprecedented agility to react quickly to market changes while keeping wastage and downtime to a minimum.