Rockwell Automation’s 2023 Automation Fair: Acquisitions, AI, and Modular Architecture

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By James Prestwood | 4Q 2023 | IN-7145

Rockwell Automation hosted its 32nd annual Automation Fair from November 6 to 9 in Boston, Massachusetts, with Artificial Intelligence (AI) capabilities (FactoryTalk Analytics GuardianAI), the creation of a modular product ecosystem to simplify automation projects, and strategic acquisitions (Verve & Clearpath Robotics) being key highlights of the event.

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Topline Themes: Acquisitions, AI, and Modular Architecture


Rockwell Automation’s 2023 Automation Fair can be split into three key themes: targeted acquisitions, development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) solutions, and the creation of modular solution architectures. Autonomous production logistics and cybersecurity were the focus of the company’s recent acquisition of Clearpath Robotics (closed September 2023) and Verve (closed November 2023), augmenting Rockwell’s strong automation capabilities with robotics solutions and further service capabilities.

An upcoming solution of note was the company’s new AI-powered predictive maintenance solution for Rockwell PowerFlex drives, FactoryTalk Analytics GuardianAI (due to be released in January 2024), which represents a safe, low-hanging fruit for manufacturers to deploy and begin to integrate AI into their production processes. Product releases such as this underscore Rockwell’s central design philosophy of simplifying automation initiatives, which was clearly articulated throughout the show. Through its modular portfolio architecture, manufacturers can rapidly deploy best-of-breed solutions that solve specific production pain points, rather than having to deploy an entire ecosystem to get started with digital transformation.

Other new product highlights to take stock of were Rockwell’s FLEX 5000 Input/Output (I/O) modules and FactoryTalk DataMosaix software. The former is Rockwell’s first universal I/O module that supports both digital and analog interfaces and provides significant flexibility to customers when building out plant I/O structures. This aligns with the consistent trend in the industrial automation market toward easier to deploy and adaptable controllers, epitomized by Siemens’ virtual Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) product announcement earlier this year. While Rockwell’s Logix controller offerings still stay in the physical world, its increased range of versatile I/Os go a long way to accommodating all types of control architecture. FactoryTalk DataMosaix, the company’s new industrial DataOps platform, serves to increase Rockwell’s growing footprint in the enterprise software space, following its acquisition of Plex Systems in 2021, and enables manufactures to contextualize disparate data pulled from traditional data silos and sources, and present it to Information Technology (IT)/Operational Technology (OT)/Engineering Technology (ET) or other groups to inform decision-making around energy management, product optimization, and asset optimization. While not a unique solution in the market, the software offered allows Rockwell to effectively compete with other holistic manufacturing software providers.

Digging Deeper into the Clearpath Robotics Acquisition and FactoryTalk Analytics GuardianAI


Rockwell’s acquisition of Clearpath Robotics is the company’s move into the autonomous robotics space, providing it with the tools to support manufacturers’ smart and mobile factory goals. Clearpath’s OTTO Motors division, which offers Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) and fleet management software, was a key feature at the show, highlighting Rockwell’s ability to now provide an End-to-End (E2E), autonomous, and adaptable material movement solution with the combination of its Logix controllers/drives and OTTO Motor’s AMRs. Rockwell Automation can now effectively address manufacturers’ needs to be able to rapidly retool operations to adapt to fluctuating demand and new product design created by rapid changes in customers’ requirements and desires.  

With AI representing the current manufacturing solution zeitgeist, Rockwell accompanied its coverage of the company’s latest acquisitions with information about its upcoming AI solution. FactoryTalk Analytics GuardianAI is a no-code predictive maintenance software for Rockwell PowerFlex drives that monitors assets on the plant floor by using AI to identify deviations from a machine’s normal operating conditions to predict potential failure. By analyzing a combination of historic and real-time data at the edge, FactoryTalk Analytics GuardianAI provides a deep level of insight to inform maintenance, proactively suppling information on specific issues and reducing engineering investigation times. Rockwell demonstrated an example where a mining operation used FactoryTalk Analytics GuardianAI to ensure uptime of ventilation fans, which are critical for workers’ safety.

While the concept of predictive maintenance is not new to the manufacturing market, many manufacturers had been slow to adopt the technology due to the expense associated with deploying new solutions, employee resistance to adoption with favor toward traditional maintenance methods, and difficulty managing the massive amounts of data required to effectively utilize the technology. The reality now is that for many manufacturers, deploying predictive maintenance solutions is a low-hanging fruit that can provide a rapid Return on Investment (RO)I. Uptake resistance will continue to ease over time as AI lowers barriers to entry in terms of learning, implementation, and maintenance.

Market Trends and Rockwell's Reactions


Three notable trends that are currently playing out in manufacturing markets that technology vendors are having to react to are the growing value of holistic product ecosystems, cybersecurity concerns, and tight labor markets. While manufacturers like being able to source a full ecosystem of Industry 4.0 technology solutions from a single vendor, they often want to be able to ease themselves into the digital transformation process and not deploy everything at once. Rockwell’s ecosystem architecture leans into this modular design, allowing manufacturers to effectively chose which elements of the portfolio they want to deploy, with the company’s consulting business, Kalypso, supporting customers in adopting the solutions. Partnerships also play a key role in building these ecosystems, with one of Rockwell’s most notable collaborations being its decade-long relationship with Microsoft. From that partnership, one significant advantage that customers have been able to leverage has been the ability to rapidly integrate OT data from Rockwell devices into the Azure cloud, breaking down data silos and supporting real-time data analysis in the cloud.

The increased access and usage of data, combined with the fact that factories are some of the most heavily targeted locations for cyberattacks due to the significant presence of unpatched legacy infrastructure, has led cybersecurity to become an ever-more pressing issue for many manufacturers. The tight labor market for cybersecurity makes this issue even more challenging to manage, with Rockwell’s event highlighting the shortage of 3.5 million cybersecurity professionals. This has driven Rockwell to focus on providing services that focus on OT cybersecurity, with the acquisition of Verve continuing to solidify the company’s cybersecurity capabilities.