Where Does Plug-and-Play Fit into Industry 4.0?
Communications interfaces rely on handshakes, but software and simplicity no longer go hand-in-hand.
“Plug-and-play” seems a simple, efficient concept, a beautiful merger of elegant design and high technology. What happened to it?

I forget exactly when I first heard the term plug-and-play, but it was sometime back in the late 1980s. As I recall, consumer electronics had something to do with it – perhaps a VCR player that connected to a TV. Or possibly it was tied to early personal computers, where the various accessories could be mixed and matched, so any brand of monitor, printer or keyboard could be added interchangeably to the system. Wherever the phrase came from, the meaning was universal: You could replace one part of a system with a new or different component, and the system would operate without a hitch.

In business the term seemed to morph in two directions. In administrative office environments, the term was associated with updates or upgrades to software. Transitioning spreadsheet software such as Lotus 1-2-3 to, say, Quattro Pro was seamless, thanks to the elegant design of similar operating commands. Just upload the new software onto your computer and begin using it. Meanwhile, on the manufacturing floor, a new piece of capital equipment could be dropped into the process flow and hooked up, and it fit seamlessly with the existing machines. Voila! New replaced old. Simple, easy, painless.

Regrettably, over time what was once plug-and-play has become complicated. Too often, when a “new and improved” version is introduced, the product interface also changes, not necessarily to improve the connection, but most certainly to appear new. As software and sensors replace traditional electromechanical options on newer, advanced manufacturing equipment, so too have most time-tested, mundane types of process equipment taken on entirely new looks.

Over the past decade, I have invested in a variety of capital equipment. Some is new technology, which understandably brings a steep learning curve as operators learn from scratch how it works, how it relates to processes up- and downstream, and all the collateral ways other processes may require rethinking and tweaking to best deliver the results the new process promises. I have also invested a significant amount in traditional processes, run on venerable equipment whose design has not changed for decades. When you duplicate or replace such equipment, most assuredly you think it will be a simple plug-and-play exchange or addition. Then reality sets in. The new and improved piece of equipment does not look or operate the same, and requires a total reeducation by all involved just to build product no different or better than has been produced for years. That’s when I ask myself, “What happened to the simplicity of plug-and-play?”

If Industry 4.0 is the totally connected office and shop floor of the future, where sensors, computer power and feedback loops enable data to ensure quality flow, and if the traditional plug-and-play order (also known as Industry 3.0) is a shop floor of equipment performing binary tasks and equipment and processes operating virtually independently from each other, we may be living in an industrial Twilight Zone!

The sensors and interactive computing power required to enable equipment made by a variety of different companies performing different tasks to accomplish varying final results require elegant, high technology design to have the ability to communicate simply, flawlessly and continuously. And that is where The Twilight Zone comes in.

Quattro Pro’s elegant design mimicked the operating communication commands of Lotus 1-2-3, enabling an easy shift between the software packages. The issue of intellectual property arose, however, with Lotus suing Quattro over patent infringements. The result: Quattro Pro had to remove that user-friendly, elegant design. Ever since, software companies have worked to differentiate product from competitors, and successfully made their “new and improved” version look totally different from the version it was replacing, to make it harder for competitors to copy, mimic or imitate their proprietary IP. IP protection certainly makes sense, yet it throws a wrench in the idea of achieving Industry 4.0’s plug-and-play approach.

For the truly interactive shop floor, all the various manufacturers of capital equipment supplying industry – not just our industry – must be able to interface and interact with each other’s equipment. More important, they need to be able to do it over generations of equipment, since the reality of manufacturing is equipment of all ages and origins is used. A new state-of-the-art machine has a better than 50-50 chance of being placed in service next to a 10-year-old model. Software suppliers have their work cut out for them. Not only must the operating system communicate universally, it needs to be upgradable and supported for decades!

Until that time, I fear we are living in industrial surreality, left wishing for plug-and-play simplicity, while struggling to try to best harness equipment to interact, leveraging all the necessary workarounds to make that myriad combination of exotic and mundane equipment that produces cutting-edge product work effectively together.

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Peter Bigelow
is president and CEO of IMI Inc.; His column appears monthly.