Open Controls allow interoperability among different vendors' products to help engineers create control systems with the products that work best for their applications.
Woonsocket, RI —Why is a system owned by nobody and free to everybody the most important thing to happen in the automation controls industry in decades? Industry luminaries and the media at The Museum of Work and Culture here explored that question and others this spring. The event, hosted by Control.com Inc.'s President Ken Crater, included the story of how the company's Automation List™initiated an open source controller revolution.
The Automation List, or A List as it's called, is an online community of control engineering professionals and a venue for interaction, learning, and professional advancement. In mid-December last year, A-list regular Curt Wuollet proposed a user-community project that immediately captured the imagination of many members: the creation of an open-source PLC (programmable logic controller) to run under the Linux operating system. This idea spawned a separate forum, the LinuxPLC list, which has grown over the last few months from 150 to 350 members—all working toward a free, truly open control system.
"Control.com is advancing the industry toward the open-controls paradigm, where interoperability among different vendors' products allows designers to create control systems with the products that work best for their applications," says Crater. The company's open-control initiatives include:
Hosting the PuffinPLC project, where the first Linux-based PLC is under development. Control.com provides code repository services as well as development support.
The Open Control Lab (OC Lab), scheduled to open in late 2000, where hardware and software products from many suppliers will be tested and characterized. The OC Lab will work interactively with the control engineering community to establish testing and interoperability goals and criteria. The lab will share its processes and results on the Control.com website.
In addition to hosting a variety of peer forums, Control.com provides additional services and opportunities for interchange within the controls community. The company plans to play a key role in the establishment of open control as the norm, through the integration, supply, service, and support of open systems and their components.
The latest offering from Control.com Inc. is a public archive of contributed PLC programming examples. Based on a discussion among A-List members from around the world, participants agreed that control engineers could really use access to existing PLC programs that had been developed and tested by other industry engineers. "There are many recurring themes in the programming of automated machinery," explains Crater. "This forum allows people to share their experience and 'tricks of the trade' with others."
The PLC Archive is for both seasoned control engineers and junior designers wishing to share their strategies for solving control problems and wanting to learn from their colleagues' experience. The archive is available for uploading and downloading PLC program files in PDF format at http:// www.plcarchive.org. Each downloadable file has a description of the contained program including tips or other information from its author. A project administrator can always be reached by e-mail. A separate section for beginners is anticipated to be especially helpful to students and junior engineers.
Automation List member Joe Jansen, who manages production automation and data collection in the manufacturing plant at Wisconsin-based Gehl's, agreed to maintain the archive and is working closely with staff at Control.com to make as many programs as possible available for use. "I would like to see the PLC Archive bring some of the benefits of the open source movement to the plant floor, which is currently very closed and proprietary. The PLC Archive provides a place where PLC, servo, and other control programmers can share techniques and ideas to improve system design and functionality," says Jansen. Additional volunteers will perform format conversions where necessary.
So what kind of impact will the new open controls paradigm have on mechanical design engineers in the OEM? Most likely, OEMs will work more closely with systems integrators, choosing best-of-breed components for more cost-effective solutions. "Working more closely with integrators allows mechanical engineers to focus on what they do best," says consulting editor to Control Engineering magazine Vance VanDoren, "which is design and build original equipment."
For more information about open controls from Control.com, visit www.control.com.