Avoid getting locked into a single automation vendor

If you represent a large multi-national company, and are looking to standardise on one automation vendor who will become a strategic partner, this article isn’t for you. With your scale you’ll have enough power over your chosen supplier to agree pricing structures, encourage development of new products, and ensure support for your equipment continues for as long as you need it.

For everyone else, particularly SMEs, the downsides of being reliant on a single supplier often outweigh the ups. Do any of these sound familiar: lack of bargaining power; no access to the latest innovations until they’re adopted by your supplier; feeling forced into product updates; excessive license costs to transfer data into other systems?

If so keep reading.

The established automation vendors have a wealth of industry experience and expertise, product portfolios which meet almost every need, and provide high-quality support throughout the lifecycle of their products. The flip side to this is their ability to lock customers into their ecosystems, securing future revenue.

So is it possible to benefit from the undoubtedly high quality products and services offered by the main vendors without getting locked-in? I believe so. Below is high-level guidance for how to do so, followed by more detailed considerations intended to help engineers with the practical implementation.


1. Own your ‘digital infrastructure’

This isn’t just your networks and computer systems, but the intellectual property built into software.

At the centre of any business which has digitally transformed is a datastore containing every data point and piece of information about the company’s operations. This isn’t unstructured data, a lot of effort will have gone into developing data structures which model physical assets. These ‘Digital Twins’ not only define the characteristics of individual pieces of equipment, but also how they communicate with one another and the human workforce.

Having ownership and control of this central datastore sounds like a no-brainer, it contains the inner workings of your business and a substantial amount of its IP after all. But you’d be surprised at how many companies let automation vendors design these data structures. In so doing, handing them control over how they operate now and into the future.

2. Standardise on ‘Open Technology’

Wherever possible Open communication protocols should be used, between equipment provided by different suppliers and perhaps more importantly within systems and solutions. Do not accept arguments about proprietary technology being cheaper and more efficient. This may be the case during project execution, but will almost certainly not be over the equipment’s lifecycle.

Yes, you should standardise on certain protocols and technology to reduce costs associated with operation and maintenance. But an architecture built using well selected open technologies will ensure you always have a choice of supplier for any future maintenance, modification or migration work.

3. Produce accurate and comprehensive User Requirement Specifications

Time invested in developing complete User Requirement Specification (URS) documents will rarely be wasted - only if you later decide not to proceed with the project. These are the vehicle for communicating your work to this point to your supply chain. Not only do accurate and comprehensive URSs make it easier to evaluate proposals, but also ensure your suppliers deliver according to your needs and not what’s easiest or most profitable for them.

URSs which identify and set out how your supplier’s scope of supply will contribute to your business’s objectives also make evaluated success on contribution to the business rather than simply ‘delivered to scope’ far easier and speeds up the rate at which your organisation learns lessons and improves.

4. Align your procurement strategy to your objectives

And not cost.

This can’t be emphasised enough. If cost was the only factor driving technology projects you’d evaluate every one against the cost of simply maintaining your current equipment. No, the benefits of technology projects need to be clearly identified and built into your procurement process.

It’s important to note, this doesn’t necessitate making crucial decisions on qualitative measures of success – business cases which put a monetary value on achieving strategic objectives are a powerful tool to prioritise and justify investment.


1. Own your ‘digital infrastructure’

Digital infrastructure, as we define it, can be broken into hardware and software components. To ensure your physical infrastructure is capable of supporting equipment from any vendor and future expansion and upgrade, you’ll need to:

  • Create and maintain an up-to-date asset register which documents all ‘active’ devices and the connections between them and external systems
  • Determine standards for connections at all levels of your system architecture, considering different requirements for resilience, bandwith and determinism
  • Decide where your central datastore/unified namespace/single source of truth will or does reside
  • Review your asset register identifying objects with similar characteristics

A strong relationship with your IT department is crucial to your success. They’re your gateway to delivering data to users via higher level company networks, and can support you with expertise and resources in areas such as networking, security and cloud computing.

The software component of your infrastructure is all about establishing standards you can impose on suppliers of automation, which define how your facility runs. This largely takes the form of data structures for communications between systems, and the digital twins which reside in your central datastore. Standards are required for:

  • Communications between equipment, systems and the human workforce
  • Object types for tangible assets like shop floor equipment and fleet vehicles, as well as intangible assets like production batches and material deliveries
  • All types of HMI
  • Data structures for all databases and communication pathways
  • Security models for managing access to data and information

2. Standardise on ‘Open Technology’

Ideally all communications between your automation systems and system components should be via open protocols. In practice this isn’t always in your control, for example packaged equipment must be treated in many cases as a ‘black box’.

Consider how far down in your architecture you wish to specify the protocols in use. You may, for example, be willing to tolerate proprietary communciation between a PLC’s processor and input/output cards. In which case you’ll have to accept using equipment from the same manufacturer for any future upgrade or expansion of this device - unless complete replacement is acceptable.

Now review your facility in light of this decision:

  1. Review existing systems, noting the protocols used to communciate within individual systems (between CPUs, I/O modules, HMIs, …), and across the entire facility (between PLCs, SCADA systems, smart devices, historians, reporting tools, …)
  2. Record this information in your asset register
  3. Create a list of the communication protocols in use across your site, noting which are proprietary and which open
  4. Determine the protocols you wish to standardise on for each type of communication path

3. Produce accurate and comprehensive User Requirement Specifications

Centralising requirements for HMI design, communication protocols, HMI design, alarming, etc. will ensure technology you invest in is consistent in quality and will communciate with any other system you install in the future.

You’ll need to create a URS, however brief, to define every project you undertake. However this will become easier as you build a core library of standards detailing your expectations and requirements for suppliers.

How many specification documents you need, and the level of detail they go into, depends on many factors. These include: the scale and complexity of your operations, the currentl level of automation, in-house skills and expertise, and existing relationships with suppliers. If you are early in this process prioritise according to where your company will see the greatest gains. Below is a list of questions to get you thinking:

  • How much do you anticipate spending on automation in the coming years?
  • What impact has an over-reliance on certain suppliers had on your business to this point?
  • Do you have skills and expertise in-house?
  • Can you allocate sufficient resource to this, not just now, but in the future?

4. Align your procurement strategy to your objectives

Investments in automation should be treated by the business as strategic, as those into CRM or ERP systems. Not all automation solutions are the same, and companies will have to live with the costs of selecting the wrong technology for decades. Particularly if they allow suppliers to deliver to their own specifications.

Those responsible for procuring automation, should be educated in these consequences along with the potential upsides of putting in digital technology which will drive performance increases across the organisation. Buyers must be incentivised to provide the technology which will best deliver on the company’s strategic objectives.

Incorporate learning back into your specification documents and guidance to buyers. Sometimes the true cost of a particular technology is only revealed once the equipment is in production, or even when the time comes to replace it. The main vendors are very adept at concealing the costs of maintaining, upgrading and modifying their systems so every effort should be made to anticipate this in your URS documentation.

Systems should be supplied with any functionality and license costs included, which allow connection via open protocols. This is particularly important for users of distributed control systems (DCS), where 5 figure sums are not uncommon for the equipment and licenses needed to allow data to be retrieved from systems via OPC an extremely common industrial ethernet-based protocol. Include the additional costs suppliers apply to such functionality in any comparisons you make between solutions.


Putting the processes and procedures in place to ensure you correctly specify automation projects to avoid being locked into a suppliers’ ecosystem is not free. It may put more pressure on your existing engineering team, or even require you to recruit or contract the necessary expertise.

Whether this expense is worth it will depend on your situation. By ‘commoditising’ the components of your automation systems you’ll have much greater control over the technology available and what you pay for it.