Automation has come a long way in a few short years. As automation networking grew, it made life more complicated for the control engineer. Over time, there's been a reverse trend. Automation systems are becoming easier to deploy. For many years, the expense of developing and maintaining the automation system was high compared to the system's total cost. That has changed significantly. Now, much of the development and maintenance work is embedded in the systems itself, much of it through the use of PLCs.
Last month, Design News ran a webinar on the subject, Trends in PLCs and PACs.
Like many other vendors, Siemens Industry has worked to make automation easier for the user. "We've always had high integration with the tools that do the automation control," Tim Parmer, product consultant and manager of factory automation at Siemens Industry, told us. "Starting in the mid-90s, we had the architecture of distributed control. The new trend is to make it easier to use. We now have software for PLCs in one integrated package that does it all" -- control, setup, configuration, security, and safety.
One of the big benefits of fully integrated control is the ease of setup and operation for the control engineer. Ease of use quickly translates into efficiency. The control engineer no longer needs to synchronize the multiple hardware components. For example, there is no need to pass information such as axis position to the PLC to calculate new set points that must then be sent back down to the drive. This simplifies user code and improves machine response times. "One current trend is in efficiency. We make the overall project design easier and more efficient," Parmer said. "We're making it more of the concept of designing automation in the machine for totally integrated automation."
The ease of deploying automation systems comes partly through PLC management platforms that gather the automation tools together.
We have a package called Schematic Manager. This portal is a huge advancement in working with these tools in one integrated location. This gives our users a common networking protocol. They can drag and drop on the same network as the other automation tools. They can virtually forget about the network and think about the machine.
Siemens launched this software package three years ago, and now it's integrated into the HMI platforms. "This gives the user a lot of the new functionality, easier network capability."
One of the biggest headaches that developed in automation in recent years is security. Network security has caused rifts between the control team and the company's IT department, and advances in hacking have painted doomsday scenarios for plants across the world. Some tools for fighting intrusions are now showing up in the PLC. "Our security is built into the PLC. We have built protection from cyberattack into the PLC. It's located between the HMI and the PLC. We put password-level protection there."
For decades, safety and control functions were church-and-state separate. The approach was awkward and costly, but it was assured there would be no compromises between the two networks. That separation is now handled digitally on the same network, bringing cost reductions and ease of use to the plant. "We've had a strong base in integrated safety since the mid-90s, when the US standards started to allow the integration. Safety has been integrated into our controller since that day. All of our PLCs come with or without the safety integrated."
Many recent developments in automation have focused on increased intelligence in the PLC, particularly in the area of motion control. The goal is to give the control engineer more flexibility while making deployment easier and less costly. "With the integrated architecture, you configure the network and the drive in one portal, so it's easier to get the drives up and going."