The Pyramids of Giza captured our imaginations as children but today, as automation engineers, our minds wander to a pyramid of a different kind: the industrial automation pyramid and how it needs to be updated to for industry 4.0.

The industrial automation pyramid

The industrial automation pyramid divides an industrial automation  application into five layers of communication:industrial automation pyramid

  1. Field
  2. Control
  3. Supervision
  4. Management
  5. Enterprise

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Level 1: Field

The foundation of this pyramid, the field layer contains all the field devices: measuring instruments, actuators, and communication protocols.

The measuring instruments – flow meters, level switches, temperature sensors, and more – provide inputs by measuring variables. They have the simplest jobs in the pyramid, but their work is important, as you’ll see later.

The actuators – valves and pumps and such – keep your variables around their set points. So if you need to change the flow, pressure, or any other measured parameter, then you’ll need actuators.

Last but not least come the communication protocols. These connections enable the measuring instruments and actuators to talk with the control system. And that brings us to our second level of the automation pyramid.

To know more about communication protocols, you can read the Visaya Article here

Level 2: Control

The control layer allows operators to control all the variables, acting as the brain of your process. Usually, it consists either of a programmable logic controller (PLC) or a distributed control system (DCS). If you can control a process with one or two controllers, then you’ll probably use PLCs. Bigger operations often call for a DCS.

Here, the controller processes and analyzes the inputs from the measuring instruments. If the inputs don’t match the set points, then the controller sends outputs to the actuators to change the process values until they meet the set points again.

To know more about control theory, you can read the Visaya Article here

Level 3: Supervisory

As the name suggests, the level of supervisory control systems includes supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems. Human-machine interfaces (HMI) and workstations also fall in this layer. Here, operators monitor process data through user interfaces and store them in databases.

This level often uses operational historians, software programs that store the history of your process data over a certain time. With this historical data, you can study patterns and troubleshoot if something goes awry in your process.

You should note that operational historians aren’t integral parts of SCADA systems. They’re separate applications.

Level 4: Management

So what’s left? We’ve just gone through a fully automated process. However, until now we’ve only collected and stacked data. This fourth layer holds the tools to turn all this data into useful information. Now we come to the manufacturing execution system (MES).

An MES tracks and documents the transformation of raw materials into your finished product. It helps manufacturers in their decision-making by providing, for example, production analysis and downtime management for overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). It can also track data from logistics, such as how much raw material the process used or how many final products the current conditions will produce.

Level 5: Enterprise

We made it to the top of the pyramid! This layer focuses on business intelligence. Here, companies implement their enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.

An ERP system tracks business resources – raw material, production capacity, cash flow – as well as business commitments, like purchase orders and payroll. At this point, the system has all the data from the whole business, not just your process.

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With our last level reached, we stand at the top of the automation pyramid! Or should we say the old automation pyramid?

With the development of technology and the concept of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), this pyramid may become obsolete. So let’s see how the shape may evolve.

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IIoT, Industry 4.0, and the new industrial automation pyramid

If you’re up-to-date in the industrial automation world, you’ve heard about the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and Industry 4.0. These emerging technologies could have a profound effect on our pyramid.

First of all, with cloud systems, data will no longer travel via wires or cables. Therefore, not all parts of the process would need to be in the same physical place. For example, a cloud system with virtual PLCs could run processes that don’t need complex, real-time control.

IIoT would also support data exchange between all levels, not just adjacent layers. All these changes suggest that, with IIoT, the automation pyramid may transform into an automation pillar as seen in this image.

new industrial automation pyramid
Courtesy of

To know more about the Automation Pyramid, you can get in touch with our engineers!

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