25 Jul 2024


Consortium backs Schneider’s open automation vision

John Conway: industrial automation has been held back by closed and proprietary platforms

A group of more than 25 automation companies and other organisations has be formed to develop, and campaign for, a common software layer that will work on automation technologies of any brand. The founder members of UniversalAutomation.org (UAO) include Advantech, Belden, Hirschmann, Intel, Jetter, Phoenix Contact, ProsSoft, Shell, Wood and Yokogawa.

A key member of the group is Schneider Electric which, last year, outlined its vision of “the world’s first software-centric automation system”, based on open standards, which it predicted would “unleash innovation and boost efficiency, resilience, productivity, agility and sustainability”. It named this “revolution in automation technologies” universal automation.

The independent, not-for-profit organisation brings together automation suppliers and users, systems integrators, OEMs and academic institutions. The members say they are uniting to bring interoperability and portability to the industrial world.

The association will drive the development of an ecosystem of portable, interoperable, “plug and produce” technologies, creating “an entirely new category of industrial automation”.

Portability, they point out, is already a reality in other markets. Mobile phone apps, for example, run on different makes of phone, allowing rapid advances through collective innovation. Until now, however, the industrial world has worked differently, relying largely closed proprietary architectures and hardware-dependent software. UniversalAutomation.org says it will create “a new era of openness and collaboration”, decoupling software and hardware by sharing a reference runtime implementation of the IEC 61499 standard. 

UAO will offer software that can run on almost any Universal Automation-compliant hardware, creating a vendor-agnostic ecosystem for automation software development. By merging the worlds of information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT), the organisation hopes “to unleash the full potential of Industry 4.0”. 

“Industrial operations are undergoing a total transformation,” declares John Conway, a Schneider Electric veteran who has been appointed president of the new group. “As the IT sector has proven, advances in machine learning, augmented reality, real-time analytics, and the IoT hold great promise for step-change advancements in performance, agility, and sustainability.

“However,” he continues, “within industry this promise is being held back by closed and proprietary automation platforms that restrict widespread adoption, hamper innovation, are challenging to integrate with third-party components, and are expensive to upgrade and maintain. Using a shared runtime changes all that.”

Conway has been with Schneider for more than 12 years, most recently as its vice-president for business transformation.

“With the formation of UniversalAutomation.org, we are hitting the reset button on automation technology,” adds Greg Boucaud, the new organisation’s chief marketing officer.  “Using the IEC 61499 standard for distributed systems, we can create a new, open industrial environment that will lead to a more sustainable, efficient future.

“UniversalAutomation.org will remove the barriers to innovation in automation by decoupling hardware and software and providing end users with the freedom they have been asking for – to easily integrate different technologies regardless of where they came from and fully optimise their automation systems.”

Boucaud is also joining UAO from Schneider, where he has worked for more than ten years, spending the past three years as manager of its motion control and robotics products.


The industry analyst, the ARC Advisory Group, predicts that adopting a common runtime, shared across vendors, could save the industrial market the $30bn that it currently spends each year on servicing and maintaining its installed base of proprietary systems  

Members of the new group expect their new approach to industrial automation to deliver a range of benefits, including: 
• portability and re-use of software components on different systems, improving ROI on software intellectual property;
• greater innovation through the faster integration of new technologies and systems, development of new business models, easier connectivity, and the flexibility to meet user needs quicker; 
• extending the lifespan of existing industrial tools, devices and systems, and easier upgrading of systems reaching the ends of their lives; 
• simplified training and skills (with teams only needing to learn one common system), making it easier for IT experts to enter the automation industry and creating a new generation of automation professionals; and
• the development of apps that can be shared between automation applications 

“UniversalAutomation.org is the beginning of new era for industrial automation,” predicts Dr Barbara Frei, Schneider Electric’s executive vice-president for industrial automation. “Current architectures have done a great job of advancing industry to where we are now, but to reach next-generation sustainability, innovation, and agility, we must embrace portable and interoperable software. Doing so requires a re-imagining of our current systems and processes, and collaboration on a new scale – which the UniversalAutomation.org members have agreed to do.”

UniversalAutomation.org aims to offer a ready-to-go system that will support flexible Industry 4.0 automation architectures and “drastically” improve return-on-investment, with easy reusability and portability. The association is managing the development of the shared runtime technology based on IEC61499 for interoperability between hardware from different vendors and portability of software applications. Its members will act collectively, sharing technology development, insights, and information to create a market of “plug and produce” automation technologies.  

The consortium is recruiting more members, encouraging any organisation looking to help advance industrial automation to join.

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