The Complete Guide to Industrial Automation

Christian Berg
December 13, 2021
30 min read

Industrial automation is a complex, dynamically evolving and utterly fascinating technology field. This guide covers the basics of industrial automation, including its main principles and concepts, technological solutions powering modern-day automation and their applications in the industrial environments.

Industrial Automation application


In the modern world, the industrial automation is omnipresent across virtually all fields and niches of the economy. Automation systems allow manufacturing, engineering, construction, power generation and other processes laying at the core of the economy to function with increasing efficiency and productivity. Industrial automation today is going through a new major developmental boom, which is fueled by innovative technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing, Big Data, Internet of Things (IoT) and others. 

This guide covers the basics of industrial automation, including its main principles and concepts, technological solutions powering modern-day automation and their applications in the industrial environments.

What is industrial automation?

In order to understand industrial automation and its specific applications, let’s define automation as a concept first. 

Automation: definition and meaning

The term “automation” describes a wide variety of technologies, methods and tools used to reduce human intervention in processes, making them more efficient, fast, productive and error-free. Automation can be found in practically all areas of our life, covering a wide range of applications, from consumer tools and household appliances to advanced and complex systems, powering modern-day transport vehicles, such as aircrafts and ships, factories and even banking solutions. 

Automation can be achieved by a number of scientific techniques and approaches—mainly mechanical, hydraulic, electrical and electronic, pneumatic, and computer—that are typically used in combination.

Industrial automation

Industrial automation as a field deals primarily with automation of industrial processes and machinery. To achieve that, a combination of information technologies, specialized equipment (logic controllers, modules of various kinds, etc.) and robots is used to enhance manufacturing, quality control, and material handling processes. 

It is safe to say that today automation is everywhere across industries and supply chains. It is hard to imagine a factory or a production line of any kind that doesn’t use any industrial automation technology and tools. 

The scope of application for industrial automation solutions is growing rapidly along with evolving capabilities of new tech. Software tools, machines and robots are used today to perform an increasing number of tasks that historically were done manually or required human supervision and intervention.

History of industrial automation

Even though automation as a separate technology field has emerged only in the twentieth century, it is safe to say that it existed long before, being the foundation of a strive to increase manufacturing efficiencies from the very beginning of human civilization. Biggest manufacturers were creating specialized machinery to improve productivity and precision of work beyond human capabilities for centuries prior to the industrial revolution. And modern-day industrial automation technologies, designed to operate without downtimes and with minimal human intervention for maximum efficiency, are the crowning achievement of this urge to automate.

History of industrial automation

The dawn of automation (300 BC to 1700s AD)

Without turning this into a boring history lecture, we can say that the earliest kinds of automation tools and techniques date as far back in history as 300 BC, invented by the leading civilizations of that time such as Ancient Greece and Persia.

First Industrial Revolution (1760 to 1840)

But it wasn’t until the mid-19th century when the development of automation technologies truly exploded and gave birth to industrial automation. The creation of the steam engine and first self-driven machines in the seventeenth century led to the need to invent first automatic control systems such as speed control devices, temperature and pressure regulators, etc. 

During the period in history known as the Industrial Revolution (or the First Industrial Revolution), which lasted from about 1760 to 1840, a bunch of groundbreaking industrial automation systems and devices emerged. Fully automated spinning mill driven by water power (invented in 1771), automated loom (1745) and punch-card system to program looms (1800), automatic flour mill (1785) are some of the most notable examples of earliest automation in industrial environments. 

Industrial automation received a powerful impetus to the development with the invention and rapid adoption of factory electrification early in the twentieth century. Electrification gave birth to a new generation of automation solutions. Such as control and monitoring systems of various kinds, as well as new means of communication (long-distance telephony) and signal processing.

Second Industrial Revolution (1871 and 1914)

The period between 1871 and 1914 went down in history as the Second Industrial Revolution, marked by wide adoption of electricity, telegraph networks and railroads worldwide. The combination of these allowed us to achieve a new level of productivity and economic growth. 

Being a second step in evolution following mechanization, the term “automation” itself was coined and initially popularized by the U.S. automobile industry. A number of innovative industrial automation products and tools, such as feedback controllers, were introduced and started to gain popularity mainly among the automobile manufacturers in the 1930s. Ford was one of the pioneers in this field, establishing an automation department in 1947 as part of its operations.

Digital Revolution (1947 - present)

Another notable period in time when the industrial automation field underwent the next big development spiral was the Third Industrial Revolution, also commonly known as the Digital Revolution. It began in the second half of the 20th century, following the end of the two world wars, and was marked by the shift from mechanical and analogue electronic systems to digital technologies, rapidly evolving thanks to the advancement of computing and communications. 

The Third Industrial Revolution is the period we are still living through. Industrial automation naturally flourishes in our time, powered by the introduction of microprocessors, integrated circuit (IC) chips and other elements of advanced computing systems. Communication technologies, such as mobile telephony and the Internet, are also an essential component of the modern-day automation industry.

What is Industry 4.0?

The transition from automation history to its present brings us to the concept of the Fourth Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0, which is inextricably linked to industrial automation. 

Allegedly coined by Klaus Schwab, a German engineer and economist, founder of the World Economic Forum, the concept of Industry 4.0 describes rapid changes in industries, technologies and processes, fueled by the integration of latest tech innovations. 

Considered by Schwab to be a substantive shift in industrial capitalism, shift to Industry 4.0 is marked by wide adoption of multiple technologies that are part of the automation field. The most notable and important industrial automation-powering technology fields being AI, robotics, large-scale machine-to-machine communication (M2M), IoT, smart automation and interconnection techniques, and some others. 

These technological innovations, along with other more specific solutions and approaches, had a dramatic effect on industrial automation, significantly increasing overall efficiency and productivity to unprecedentedly high levels.

What is Industry 5.0?

Industry 5.0 is another major set of industrial concepts, coexisting with Industry 4.0. 

The vision of Industry 5.0 has emerged and gained momentum as a post-COVID take on the future of industrial automation. In this vision, robots, smart machines, IoT, AI and Big Data are still the key to business success, but the technological side is balanced with more focus on sustainability, resilience and enhancement of human talent, supported by increasingly intelligent and efficient devices. 

In short, the concept of Industry 5.0 is mostly focused on the integration of humans working alongside robots and IoT devices in the automated industrial environments of the future. As opposed to Industry 4.0 that was mostly about leveraging robots and smart machines for maximum efficiency and high performance in manufacturing, Industry 5.0 is centered around the human impact and how latest technologies can be leveraged to empower human work and capabilities. Read our guie on Industry 5.0 to learn about this concept in more detail.


Being a sub-branch of industrial automation, robotics is a rapidly evolving field of growing importance, which is why it deserves a few separate words. 

According to the International Federation of Robotics, more than 3 million industrial robots were in operation worldwide in 2020. This is a huge increase compared to 1997, when there were 700,000 industrial robots in use. The adoption of robotics in industrial automation is growing at an average of 14% per year, more than doubling within the 2014-2020 period. 

Robots today are utilized in a wide range of industrial automation applications and processes, including welding, painting, assembling, material handling, packaging, palletizing, product inspection, testing, etc. With the development and adoption of latest tech innovations (mainly machine vision, AI, and Edge computing) the industrial robotics field received a new boost of development, leading to the emergence of increasingly complex and powerful solutions able to take care of a growing number of tasks that were previously considered to be non-automatable and thus, had to be performed by humans.

What is the purpose of industrial automation?

Industrial automation is essential for running the modern-day world the way we know it. Using computers, software, robots, advanced machinery and control systems allows us to run all the processes with minimum time and effort, leading to continuously increasing productivity of all work in general. Automation powers the economy, allowing it to grow and remain competitive while providing companies of all sizes with priceless benefits. 

According to a recent industrial automation market study, the size of the global industrial automation market was US$205.86 bln in 2021. It is projected to reach $191.74 bln in 2022. Analysts expect the industrial automation market to grow at a CAGR of 9.2% in the 2021-2028 period, reaching $395.09 bln in 2029. 

Even though it may seem fairly obvious how utilizing machines, robots and industrial automation solutions adds value and allows companies to reach new, previously unimaginable levels of efficiency and productivity, let’s briefly go through the main advantages of industrial automation solutions. 

They would also be the reasons why this market is growing so rapidly.

Advantages of industrial automation
  1. High productivity
    Industrial automation solutions are what enables a continuous mass production today, allowing plants and factories to run 24/7 with minimal downtime. Automation solutions speed up all the processes, reduce assembly times and improve productivity.
  2. Reduced costs
    The reduction of costs is one of the most substantial business benefits of implementing industrial automation solutions. The introduction of technological innovations, such as robotics, smart machinery, and AI systems, helped to increasingly reduce production costs. Which enhances the value of business assets and makes companies more profitable.
  3. Better quality and consistency
    Another valuable advantage of implementing automation solutions is the elimination of human error and much greater consistency, leading to better quality of the products as well as this high level staying consistently stable. The average rate in manual processes is 1.15%, whereas industrial automation solutions typically have error rates as low as 0.00001%.
  4. Greater safety
    Considerably improved work safety and employee protection is another valuable advantage of wide implementation of industrial automation solutions. The minimization of human errors leads to reduction of accidents and injuries, while deploying robots and machines to handle tasks in dangerous and hazardous conditions allows employees to avoid risks and prevent long-term health effects of working in industrial environments.
  5. Improved flexibility
    Automation solutions are also designed to make the industrial processes and machinery a lot more flexible. The ability to reprogram robots and devices allows organizations to adapt robustly to the fast-changing market demands.
  6. Increased added value and human capacity
    Designed to liberate employees from having to perform repetitive and mundane work, automation solutions are adding value by allowing humans to concentrate on more complex creative tasks. This is why combining powerful industrial automation solutions with expert human labour also leads to a great increase in human capacity.
  7. New level of data support and production traceability
    Automated data collection is another crucial component of automation, and Industry 4.0 solutions in particular. Innovative systems able to collect and analyse various kinds of data in real time provide a whole new level of possibilities. They allow companies to improve traceability, reduce waste and continuously optimize all work processes.
  8. Real-time monitoring and predictive maintenance
    As a final advantage that we would like to highlight, one of the key functions of industrial automation systems is to enable continuous monitoring of all the processes in real-time mode. Thanks to a variety of highly sensitive sensors in modern-day industrial machinery, issues and errors in production processes can be easily detected and addressed. This results in lower maintenance costs and longer life cycles of the equipment, as well as minimization of incidental malfunctions.

Examples of industrial automation

As you can see, industrial automation is an incredibly wide field that incorporates a huge variety of techniques and solutions. And we will cover the most notable, important and relevant of them in more detail further in this article.

In order to illustrate this diversity and all-encompassing complexity of industrial automation, here are some examples of industrial automation solutions.

Different types of industrial automation

Clearly, sorting out and understanding all this variety of interconnected technologies won’t be easy. Let’s begin this journey by organizing areas of industrial automation by types. 

One of the most common and general ways to categorize industrial automation systems is based on how they are applied.

Fixed (hard) automation

Fixed automation, which is also often referred to as hard or rigid automation, describes the most permanent and application-specific kind of industrial automation systems, which are typically designed to carry out a single process, tasks or a set of tasks and can’t be easily adapted for other applications. 

Once a fixed automation solution is implemented, it would be challenging to configure it or modify the way it handles processes. This is why fixed industrial automation systems are typically used in mass production and continuous flow systems to automate repetitive non-variational processes of all kinds.

Here are some examples of fixed automation solutions:

Programmable automation

Programmable automation describes a field of industrial automation solutions that can perform multiple functions and are controllable via commands delivered by the means of entering computer code in the systems. Designed to be more adjustable than fixed tools, programmable automation components are widely used across the industries, but today most commonly can be found in manufacturing operations focused on producing goods in batches. Programmable automation solutions allow customization and adjustment of the manufacturing equipment in accordance with the requirements for each specific product.

Examples of programmable automation are:

Flexible (soft) automation

Flexible automation, also sometimes referred to as soft automation, includes computer-controlled industrial automation systems and software solutions designed to interconnect, adjust control and measure the sequence of operations of various machines and equipment, as well as human workers.

Here are some examples of flexible automation:

What is the difference between programmable and flexible automation?

If the last two categories seemed confusingly similar to you, this is because they indeed are. Flexible automation is in many ways an extension of programmable automation. The difference between these two types is essentially in the extent of flexibility they provide. Programmable automation products are typically designed as a way to produce batch quantities of goods of the same kind or perform a range of tasks with low variations. Flexible automation systems are more universal and adjustable for different kinds of tasks and requirements, hence the name.

Integrated automation

Integrated automation, also referred to as totally-integrated automation, describes what is essentially viewed as the next step in the evolution of industrial automation systems. Integrated automation includes solutions designed to centralize and further automate the utilization of tools and management of processes in order to achieve maximum optimization and minimize the need for human involvement.

Here are several examples of integrated automation systems:

Industrial control systems

One of the technologies that are fundamental to industrial automation are industrial control systems (ICSs).

Industrial control systems are, once again, a wide technology field that incorporates a number of control systems and related software tools used to automate and manage various industrial processes. Control systems can vary in size and complexity, ranging from rather simple controllers to comprehensive SCADA systems, able to manage manufacturing and other industrial processes across the technological layers and geographical locations. 

Let’s go through some of the most common types and components of industrial control systems.

SCADA systems

Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) is a term for complex industrial automation control systems that use a combination of components, such as computers, graphical user interfaces and networked data communications, to provide a high level of automated controls and monitoring of processes. We will talk about SCADA systems in more detail later in the article.

Programmable logic controllers (PLC)

Programmable logic controllers are modular devices of various sizes that include a microprocessor with the appropriate number (ranging from dozens to hundreds and even thousands) of inputs and outputs (I/O). They are used to interconnect different kinds of industrial solutions in one network, enabling automated control and monitoring of industrial machinery and processes.

Distributed control systems (DCS)

Distributed control systems (DCSs) are serving a similar purpose with PLCs, providing controls, monitoring and management for large industrial equipment. The difference is that in DCSs controller functions and field connection modules are not centralized and instead are distributed throughout the system. This feature allows these industrial automation solutions to cover even large-scale processes while also enabling easy interfacing with other computer systems and configuration of equipment.

Human-machine interfaces (HMI)

A human-machine interface is a component of industrial automation control systems, a user interface or dashboard that allows humans to interact with machines, systems and devices, as well as monitoring the status of the processes.

Proportional-integral-derivative controllers (PID)

PID control is a way of driving a system towards a position or level that is specified as desirable. Proportional–integral–derivative controllers are programmed in a specific way to be able to use closed-loop control feedback to keep the actual output from a process as close to the target or setpoint output as possible. They are mostly used in industrial automation systems for continuously modulated control of crucial process variables such as flow, pressure, speed, temperature, etc.

Programmable automation controllers (PAC)

Programmable automation controllers are similar to PLCs, but more complex. Typically, they have a number of microprocessors that increase their computing power and allow PACs to control multiple processes and perform various tasks simultaneously.

Discrete controllers

Discrete controllers are some of the most simple kinds of industrial automation control devices. They are mostly used for basic on and off controls in devices such as thermostats or timers.

On-premise vs. cloud systems for industrial automation

The adoption of cloud technologies and solutions gets increasingly widespread. According to the latest forecast from Gartner, the worldwide end-user spending on public cloud services is forecast to grow 20.4% in 2022 to total $494.7 bln, up from $410.9 bln in 2021. In 2023, end-user spending is expected to reach nearly $600 bln. 

The number of vendors supplying cloud industrial automation software systems is rapidly growing as well. So it is natural for organizations to look at the possibility of shifting from having on-premise solutions to cloud delivery models, considering they are able to provide them with a number of benefits. 

As both approaches certainly have their strengths and weaknesses, making the choice can be quite a non-trivial task for the decision makers in companies and organizations that are looking to implement new automation systems. This decision, however, can and in most cases does have long-lasting consequences, especially for large organizations with wide operations and multiple processes.

On-premise vs. cloud systems

Even though cloud and on-premise systems fundamentally have only one difference—the deployment approach, or, in simpler terms, where the industrial automation software is located—this is a big enough factor to play a role in the overall success of an organization’s automation strategy. 

Just to be sure we are all on the same page, let’s specify what on-premise and cloud actually means.

Naturally, each of these approaches can be more beneficial than the other depending on the specific needs and requirements of the organization. 

In order to make the right choice, you need to have a clear understanding of the pros and cons that are typical for each approach. So let’s look at them in more detail.

Cloud automation systems advantages

Advantages of cloud automation systems

  1. High accessibility
    Remote accessibility from any device and location is one of the main strengths of all cloud solutions, and it is definitely applicable to the cloud industrial automation systems as well. Using cloud systems allows organizations to establish internal automation systems even if their IT infrastructure is spread across locations and, in some cases, different continents.
  2. Lower costs
    Another major strength of automation solutions and other SaaS products delivered in the cloud are much higher affordability compared to on-premise hosting. Implementing cloud solutions allows organizations to avoid the need to allocate a budget on purchasing, installing and maintaining the on-premise servers and other infrastructure required to run the industrial automation solution.
  3. Reliable performance
    Using a third-party solution—given it is provided by a reputable industrial automation vendor, of course—allows a company to outsource not just the need to run the hardware infrastructure of the automation system, but other headaches related to the on-premise approach as well. Which can be plenty, considering the industrial automation systems today need to run 24/7, provide high and stable performance, be compatible with a growing variety of platforms and software solutions, get frequent and timely updates, etc.
  4. Financial predictability
    From the financial point of view, cloud-based industrial automation solutions can be extremely beneficial not just due to having no up-front costs and generally much cheaper on average to use. Another considerable factor is that the costs are much more predictable, allowing organizations to budget for automation ahead of time and not to worry about unexpected expenses.
  5. Flexible and scalable costs
    Additionally, the majority of cloud process automation solutions provide flexible subscription options based on the current needs and requirements of an organization. This allows companies to avoid overspending on IT infrastructure and makes it easier for them to scale operations, as the automation support costs will only grow with increasing business operations.
  6. Better security
    When it comes to the protection of industrial automation systems from cyberthreats of various kinds, from hacker attacks to data breaches, cloud solutions can typically offer a higher level of security. Cloud providers usually host their servers in major data centers, which utilize powerful centralized cybersecurity systems that are not affordable for most small and medium-sized organizations.
  7. Quick deployment
    Finally, cloud systems are much easier and faster to deploy, allowing organizations to implement an industrial automation technology in a matter of days and weeks when on-premise deployment would take months or longer.

Disadvantages of cloud automation systems

  1. Lower customization potential
    On a negative side, a cloud industrial automation system, being a third-party solution, would typically provide the organization using it less control and limited customization options.
  2. Dependence on the solution provider
    Even though choosing to utilize a cloud system instead of implementing an independent industrial automation solution allows organizations to outsource most of the difficulties related to its development and maintenance, it also increases the importance of the third-party provider. This is why choosing the right provider is another dilemma factory automation integrators, IT managers and business decision makers are facing when reviewing their automation options.
  3. Internet connectivity required
    Cloud automation systems need Internet connectivity in order to be productive. This certainly can be a problem in some cases, mainly for those organizations that require their industrial automation systems to be completely autonomous from the Web.

Advantages of on-premise automation systems

  1. Full control
    The main advantage of using on-premise industrial automation components is the fact that it's an in-house developed solution that can be customized and implemented to fit specific needs and requirements. And the organization has full control over its further life cycle.
  2. Better uptime
    Since on-premise industrial automation solutions do not require Internet access in order to be functional, they are typically able to provide a better uptime and reliability, given that the IT infrastructure of the organization is up to this standard as well.

Disadvantages of on-premise automation systems

  1. Require large up-front investments
    Naturally, the main disadvantage of on-premise industrial automation systems is that they require significant up-front investments for the development and implementation.
  2. Higher maintenance costs
    Maintenance expenses can be another disadvantage of on-premise systems. As the costs of supporting any software solution tend to grow over time—maintenance costs account for 55% of the total cost of ownership of any software product—an on-premise system will become a continuously bigger burden for a company’s budget.
  3. More time to build and implement
    The development and implementation of an on-premise automation solution also takes more time. The customization of the system, its installation on servers and all the devices, takes time. While potential complications, typical for in-house IT projects of companies without expertise in software development, often result in delays and project budget overruns.

Wrap up

To conclude all the above, both cloud and on-premise industrial automation systems are still relevant and serve their purposes. Cloud systems, however, being a part of the Industry 4.0 tech innovations, are definitely getting more and more popular as they make the automation technologies much more affordable and accessible even to small and medium companies that don’t have a budget to accommodate an on-premise solution. 

As the demand for cloud solutions is growing, so is the number of products available on this market.

What is an automation company?

Every industry today is rapidly moving towards increasing the usage of automation solutions of various kinds because they provide organizations with crucial benefits, allowing to achieve much greater productivity and efficiency, which is essential to meet the performance requirements of the Industry 4.0/5.0 era. Industrial automation is at the forefront of this process, adopting new technologies in order to optimize the operations of production facilities. 

Naturally, organizations and businesses across fields are in need of high-quality automation products and expertise in order to keep up with rapidly evolving technologies.  

Automation companies are the ones that intend to satisfy this growing appetite for automation, providing hardware and software solutions of various kinds to enhance accuracy, quality and precision of industrial automation systems. 

Here are several examples of reputable companies providing powerful industrial automation solutions.


Siemens is one of the largest industrial manufacturing and engineering companies in the world. Being a large international conglomerate, Siemens provides a large variety of electrification, digitalization, and automation solutions for organizations in manufacturing, infrastructure, energy and other industries.

Here are some of the automation products by Siemens:


ABB is another large industrial automation company headquartered in Europe and operating globally. ABB has a wide portfolio of automation solutions actively utilized by companies across industries.

Here are some of notable automation products by ABB:

Yokogawa Electric

Yokogawa Electric is a Japanese software and electrical engineering company that specializes in providing smart control systems for industrial automation, as well as various test and measurement solutions.

Here are some of the most popular industrial automation products by Yokogawa Electric:

Honeywell International

Honeywell International is an American company that provides a huge variety of commercial and consumer products across multiple technological niches, including industrial automation. Specifically, Honeywell Robotic, which is a subsidiary of Honeywell, focuses on the development of industry-specific robotic devices designed to increase throughput, speed, and accuracy.

Here are some notable industrial automation products by Honeywell:

What are system integrators and automation engineers?

Talking about automation companies, we should also cover how various industrial automation solutions are delivered. There are two main roles responsible for the implementation of automation products: system integrators and automation engineering experts.

System Integrator working

What is an automation system integrator?

A systems integrator can be both an individual person or a company that specializes in system integration services. System integrators are typically responsible for bringing different industrial automation systems and components together, integrating them with each other and ensuring they are all functioning properly without errors.

In the industrial automation industry, system integrators are typically either the providers of automation products or are aligned with them, offering the implementation of complex automation solutions as a service.

What is an automation engineer?

Automation engineer is a similar role, which can also be played by both a company or a person, but this term typically refers to an individual. 

Automation engineers are the ones who deliver automation projects within the companies that are implementing them. They are responsible for all the internal automation engineering processes related to the implementation of automation tools and system components, from gathering requirements and making different versions of automation hardware and software work together to investigating and eliminating errors and system conflicts affecting the performance of automation systems.

What is SCADA/HMI?

Now, as we covered the base of industrial automation, we can dive a bit deeper into the technical aspect of this field, talking about some of the most important control solutions that are used in this field. 

SCADA/HMI is one of the most important concepts related to the automation industry.

Generally speaking, SCADA/HMI is a wide category of software architecture used to build industrial automation control systems that rely on networked data and have a graphical user interface as a way to provide performance monitoring and control capabilities to human operators.

What is the difference between SCADA and HMI?

SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) is a term for all kinds of complex industrial control systems that use a combination of components—such as computers, graphical user interfaces and networked data communications—to provide a high level of automated controls and monitoring of processes. 

HMI (human-machine interface) is essentially a component of larger industrial control systems such as SCADA, a user interface or dashboard that allows humans to interact with machines, systems and devices, as well as to monitor the status of the processes.

Brief history of SCADA

Industrial automation solutions and the process control were increasingly handled by electronic systems since the early 1960s. The term SCADA emerged in the mid-1970s, describing a universal concept of automated control, data acquisition and remote-access to a variety of local control modules.

First generation of SCADA (monolithic systems)

First SCADA solutions provided by industrial automation suppliers were based on monolithic mainframe systems with very limited networking capabilities. Unable to communicate with each other, they were used as physically isolated standalone systems.

Second generation of SCADA (distributed systems)

Second generation of SCADA arrived in the early 1980s, utilizing some of the technological innovations that emerged at the time. Specifically, the second generation of SCADA solutions was able to advance thanks to local area network (LAN) technology and small sized MTU computers. Second generation SCADA were distributed systems able to communicate with each other and allow multiple stations to exchange data in real time. They also became smaller in size and more affordable.

Third generation of SCADA (networked systems)

Further evolution of networking technologies in the late 1980s and early 1990s brought us the third generation of SCADA systems. They extended the integration of LAN networks, making it possible to establish SCADA control over multiple geographical locations, with several distributed SCADA systems working under the supervision of a single and centralized master SCADA system.

Fourth generation of SCADA (Internet of things systems)

Finally, the fourth and current generation of SCADA came in the 2000s, using the latest technological advances in industrial automation engineering. Specifically, SCADA solutions of the fourth generation utilize cloud computing, IoT, and WAN protocols, such as Internet Protocol (IP), available thanks to the introduction of an open system architecture. These innovations allowed SCADA systems to enable real-time communication of different components through an Ethernet connection, easier maintenance, high level of integration and reduced costs.

What is SCADA Historian?

One of the fundamental concepts related to SCADA systems is Historian, also sometimes called process historian. 

A process historian is a service responsible for collecting and storing in a database all of the data that the SCADA system aggregates from its various components. Historians serve as an important monitoring and analytics tool, allowing industrial facility operators and stakeholders to access the data from all automated systems. Historians also often include reporting capabilities, helping users to generate automated or manual reports. 

Historians were originally developed in the second half of the 1980s to be used with SCADAs and other industrial automation systems. Primarily, they were utilized for the needs of the process manufacturing sector in industries such as oil and gas, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, pipelines and refining, etc. 

Today, however, process historians are widely used across industries, serving as an important tool for performance monitoring, supervisory control, analytics, and quality assurance. They allow industrial facility managers and stakeholders, as well as engineers, data scientists and various machinery operators, to access the data collected from a variety of automated systems and sensors. The collected data can be utilized for performance monitoring, process tracking or business analytics. Modern-day historians also often include other features related to the utilization of collected data, such as reporting capabilities that allow users to generate automated or manual reports. 

Read more about data historians in our guide.

What is the difference between a database and a historian?

As you can probably tell from the explanation above, a historian is very similar to a local database used to store all the systems data, such as SQL. A Historian, however, is more than just a database, as it not only collects the raw data, but also processes and organizes it into reports. 

That being said, however, a typical SCADA Historian is essentially a time-series database extensively customized to serve the needs of industrial automation.

Time series is a collection of observations for a single subject assembled at different points in time and organized chronologically. Time series databases are widely used across industries, and process historians in SCADA are one example of a specific time series data application in the automation field.

Popular industrial automation process historians

There are a large number of process historians and time series data solutions from a variety of providers. 

Here are some examples of the process historians used in the industrial automation field:

AVEVA Historian (formerly Wonderware)

AVEVA Historian (formerly Wonderware) is one of the oldest data historians on the market — the original version of Wonderware was released in 1987 by Wonderware Corporation, co-founded by software engineers Dennis Morin and Phil Huber in California, the U.S. Wonderware changed owners several times over the years and is now owned by AVEVA Group, following the merger of AVEVA with Schneider Electric Software in 2018. 

Modern version of AVEVA is a high-performance data historian that provides advanced data storage and compression capabilities, along with industry-standard query interface to enable easy access to the data. This solution is able to collect both time-series process data, as well as alarm and event data. 

Canary Enterprise Historian

Canary Historian is one more data historian that was among the market pioneers. Created by Canary Labs, a developer of enterprise data management and trending software, in the late 1980s, since its original release Canary Historian has been installed over 19,000 times in more than 65 countries. 

Canary Historian is a NoSQL time series database that uses loss-less compression algorithms for high performance and data security. According to the developers, the Canary Historian can maintain a continuous read speed of more than 2.5 million reads-per-second. Additionally, it can handle high-speed data logging with deployments reaching data resolutions as fast as 10 milliseconds. 

OSIsoft PI Historian

OSI PI Data Historian, which is a part of real-time data management software suite by OSIsoft called the PI System, is considered to be the first process historian on the market. Originally founded back in 1980, OSIsoft was acquired by AVEVA in a deal worth close to $5 bln that was officially completed in 2021. Following the acquisition, the two companies announced plans to gradually combine their portfolios of products over the time. As of now, however, OSIsoft’s PI System is still available as a standalone product. 

PI System is known to be one of the most widely used industrial data management solutions in the world. Analysts estimate that different elements of the PI System are deployed at more than 20,000 sites worldwide, managing data flows from more than 2 billion real-time sensors. 

Proficy Historian by General Electric

Proficy Historian by GE Digital, a subsidiary of General Electric multinational conglomerate, focused on providing software and IIoT solutions to industrial companies, is another widely used data historian. Proficy Historian is able to collect industrial time-series and A&E (accidents and emergency) data at high speed, store and distribute it. The solution also includes features enabling fast data retrieval and analysis. 

Data analysis and visualization is powered by Proficy Operations Hub and the Historian Analysis run-time applications, which are licensed with Proficy Historian. The combination of Proficy Historian and Proficy Operations Hub allows users to receive aggregation of data across multiple data sources and historians, define an asset model via tag mapping and in other ways, as well as to perform advanced trend analysis.

FactoryTalk Historian by Rockwell Automation

FactoryTalk Historian by Rockwell Automation is based on the PI Server solution from OSIsoft. This solution was developed by Rockwell as a specialized data historian to use with a wide portfolio of industrial automation software and hardware products provided by this company. This is why FactoryTalk Historian shares many of its features and technical capabilities with OSI PI Data Historian. 

Specifically, FactoryTalk Historian provides high-speed collection, organization, and storage of critical plant performance data for supervisory control, performance monitoring and quality assurance. This data historian includes data analysis and visualization features, allowing users to easily convert raw machine historical data into dashboards and reports that can be shared among different people who should have access to this information.

Different historians utilized in the industrial automation settings typically have varying features and capabilities. Some of them are focused on the collection of time series data, but have either no or very limited data processing capabilities. In order to process and utilize what was collected by a historian, organizations often use additional tools or specialized platforms designed to simplify the process of integration, organization and visualization of industrial data, such as Clarify.

What is SCADA alarming?

Alarm handling is another important aspect of SCADA systems implementation in industrial automation environments that should be mentioned. 

An alarm is a message or notification that is sent when certain alarm conditions are satisfied to inform the human operator. Alarming is one of the most important functions of SCADA systems. The conditions for alarm events can be both explicit (specific rules that trigger the alarm) and implicit (the SCADA system automatically monitors various parameters and activates alarms in the case of abnormalities). 

The alarm events can vary significantly, from routine maintenance and regular cycle notifications to emergencies. In most cases, the alarm events are being monitored by a human operator, who decides if they should remain active. SCADA system alarms also have different indicators of an alarm, ranging from simply a flashing area on a SCADA monitoring screen to a siren for emergency alerts.

Popular SCADA systems

SCADA systems are widely used in many public and private industrial sectors today. There is a variety of SCADA software solutions available for organizations to choose from. 

Here are several examples of popular SCADA systems:

What is a PLC?

Another important industrial automation technology component is PLC (Programmable logic controllers). 

Programmable logic controllers or just programmable controllers are modular industrial computers used for the control of various automated processes, machines, robotic devices and basically any activity that requires reliability and control. 

PLCs can come in various sizes depending on the specific needs. They typically include a microprocessor with the appropriate number of inputs and outputs (I/O), ranging from dozens to hundreds and even thousands. I/O are used to interconnect other components, such as other PLCs and SCADA systems, in one network.

Most popular PLCs

Here is a list of the most popular PLCs on the industrial automation market:

What is the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)?

The Internet of Things (IoT) describes different kinds of computing devices embedded with sensors, software, and other automation technologies that allow them to be interconnected and exchange data with each other and external systems. 

Being one of the most crucial components of Industry 4.0/5.0, IoT plays a major role in the modern-day industrial automation systems as well. In fact, there is a separate term describing the utilization of IoT technologies in industrial automation: Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

IIoT refers to the extended use of IoT in industrial automation solutions, describing the ecosystem of sensors, machines, robotic devices and other instruments connected together, communicating and exchanging data with both internal and external software automation systems.  

Today, IIoT is widely used across industries, enabling improved productivity, efficiency and analytics with a combination of innovative technologies that are fueling the new generation of industrial automation. 

Here are some of the most important Industry 4.0/5.0 technologies that are combined and interconnected in IIoT:

Brief history of IIoT

Interestingly, the invention of programmable logic controllers (PLCs) in 1968 also gave birth to the IIoT. First DCSs (distributed control systems) were introduced in 1975, being another step in the evolution of industrial automation and flexible process control. The development of advanced networking capabilities of smart devices was boosted in 1980 by the introduction of Ethernet and creation of the first internet-connected machines and devices. 

The evolution of enterprise networking and communication solutions led to the growing popularity of IoT as a concept in the late 1990s. The final element that formed the current conception of IIoT was cloud computing technology introduced in the early 2000s. The OPC Unified Architecture protocol, which enabled secure, remote communications between devices, programs, and data sources without the need for human intervention or interfaces, was introduced in 2006.

Most popular IoT platforms and frameworks

IoT frameworks and platforms today play an important role in IIoT implementation and maintenance by serving as a middleware layer that helps to support the interaction between parts of the IoT ecosystems and allow the operations of complex industrial automation systems. 

Here is a list of IoT frameworks that are among the most popular in industrial automation today:

What are IoT gateways?

As we learnt from the previous sections, the Internet of things (IoT) is one of the key technologies that enabled the fourth generation of SCADA systems and plays an important part in the modern-day automation industry.

IoT gateways are physical devices or virtual platforms that serve as an intermediary between edge systems and the cloud. IoT gateways interconnect sensors, IoT modules, smart devices, backend platforms and the cloud, sending communication between the devices and filtering data. They also have computing platforms that allow users to manage data, security and communication settings of the IoT gateway.

Why are IoT gateways important?

Even though based on the description IoT gateways may look very similar to simple routers, which also are devices serving as communicators between various protocols and devices, they do in fact play a much bigger role. 

Here are some of the IoT gateway applications that are most common today:

Now it should be more clear why IoT gateways are an important component of industrial automation and Industry 4.0/5.0 enterprise systems in general. IoT gateways filter, direct and collect the massive data from all the connected devices and sensors in an IoT ecosystem. They process the internal data before passing it to cloud platforms and receive information back from the cloud, sending it to devices, enabling the autonomous management of systems and devices in the industrial IT infrastructure. 

When it comes to industrial automation systems, IoT gateways play a major role in a handful of processes. Such as:

How do IoT gateways work?

As you can see, IoT gateways are relatively complex devices that serve a number of purposes. This is why they can also be quite different from each other depending on the role a specific IoT gateway plays in an industrial automation system. 

Let’s look at the main components of a typical IoT gateway from the technical point of view.

Hardware layer

IoT gateway’s hardware layer usually comprises a microprocessor or controller, a connectivity module (cellular, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth), and IoT sensors.

Communication protocols

Depending on the tasks: TCP IP, Message Queuing Telemetry Transport (MQTT), ZigBee, Bluetooth, Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP). Data-Distribution Service (DDS), Advanced Message Queuing Protocol (AMQP), OPC UA, Sparkplug, Lightweight M2M (LwM2M).

Operating systems

Generally, IoT gateways can run on any operating system, but Linux-based OSs are most commonly used for these purposes in industrial automation applications.

Device management and configuration layer

Tracks all the settings and configurations of connected devices and sensors within the system.

Security layer

Encryption, authentication, and other cybersecurity related properties.

Data management layer

Controls data from sensors, connected devices and the cloud, including data filtering and traffic management.

Cloud connectivity manager

Enables seamless connectivity of the internal IoT ecosystem with cloud platforms.

Sensor and module drivers

An interface enabling communication of the device with sensors and modules.

Custom software applications

IoT gateways also can include various custom software solutions designed to enable the efficient communication with some specific parts of an organization’s IT infrastructure. The deployment of user-defined applications is typically enabled by installing a container runtime, such as Docker, runC, containerd, and Windows Containers.

Most popular IoT gateways

Here are several examples of IoT gateway solutions from various vendors that are commonly used in industrial automation applications:

Final words

As you can see, modern-day industrial automation encompasses a variety of concepts and technologies used in combination to automate multiple processes, enabling a continuously rising level of productivity and efficiency that is foundational to our economy. 

Today we learnt about the technologies and solutions that are most vital to industrial automation in our time. You should remember, however, that automation is an extremely dynamic field going through rapid progress. The power of Industry 4.0/5.0 technologies transform industrial automation solutions as you read this, allowing organizations that manage to adopt the innovations sooner than others to reap the benefits and have an edge over competition. Being able to collect and analyze Big Data in real time is the key component of digital transformation. Clarify is a solution that provides industrial teams with a next-gen level of time series intelligence, helping to make data from historians, SCADA and IoT devices useful for the whole workforce, from field workers to data scientists.


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