The old and new automation pyramid

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The old and new automation pyramid

Ah, the mystery of pyramids! The Pyramids of Giza captured our imaginations as children. Then in biology, we learned that the food chain works as a pyramid as well. (Making a pyramid out of a chain and vice versa is a miracle, if you ask me.) We also learned about the sacred food pyramid used in the arcane rites of Nutrition. And of course no one can fathom the complexities of pyramid schemes, but so many believe they hold treasures untold.


image of industrial automation pyramid
Courtesy of

Today we’ll talk about another pyramid, the industrial automation pyramid. This one divides an application into five levels of communication:

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

In this article, we’ll dig into every level and explain the riches they hold. So let’s explore!

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, and more – provide inputs by measuring variables. They have the simplest jobs in the pyramid, but their work is important too, as you’ll see later.

image of industrial automation
Courtesy of Siemens

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.

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.

Level 3: Supervisory

As the name suggests, this level has the 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 it in databases.

image of SCADA system
Courtesy of

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).

image of manufacturing execution system
Courtesy of

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.

image of ERP system
Courtesy of


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 Internet of Things (IoT), this pyramid may become obsolete. So let’s see how the shape may evolve.

IIoT, Industry 4.0, and the pyramid

If you’re up-to-date in the #pAuto 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.

IoT 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.

Automation Pyramid and New Automation Pillar
Courtesy of Automation World

So what do you think? Will the automation pyramid squish into a pillar with IIoT and Industry 4.0? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

This article is part of our Book of Instrumentation. To learn more about Process Instrumentation check out the whole book here.

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