Brussels— Power and control giant Schneider Electric (www.schneiderelectric.com) brought 2,000 of its European customers, wholesalers, and distributors to a private trade fair called Initi@tive during the first week of December.
In taking stock of the company's position in the broad automation market, which was off by 5 percent in 2002, President Henri Lachmann said his company's sales increased by 5 percent.
Senior Vice President for Automation and Control Alain Marbach proclaimed Schneider a world leader in low and medium voltage products, with 25 percent and 10 percent market shares, and number one in industrial control, with 17 percent share.
The company has some work to do in its automation position, which is currently ranked third behind Siemens and Rockwell, at 10 percent share. Marbach said Schneider committed to "coming back" in areas where it trailed the market leaders: programmable controllers (PLCs), motion control, vision systems, and electronic sensors.
Finally, some unity
Schneider's problem with programmable controllers is a direct consequence of its acquisition strategy over the past 20 years. Merlin Gerin, Telemecanique, Square D, and AEG Modicon were all absorbed into the Schneider empire at one time or another and all brought their own PLCs to the table. Schneider never quite managed to get its arms around these devices.
However in recent years, by concentrating on the leading brands Modicon and Telemecanique—and helping itself with a substantial slice of R&D—Schneider has produced a more consolidated line of PLCs and programming software. With these products it is set to challenge Siemens' (www.ad.siemens.de) highly integrated S7 and Rockwell's (www.ab.com/catalogs/b113/controllogix) ControlLogix systems. Schneider engineers fused the Modicon Concept programming software with the Telemecanique PL7 to produce Unity Pro, an IEC 61131-3 package that will be used across the mid-to-upper product ranges.
Schneider's tiny nano-PLCs, the Twido and Zelio, will remain standalone products outside the Unity umbrella, as will its new Modicon TSX Micro PLC. But for the mid-to-large PLC size range— the Premium, Atrium, and Quantum lines— Schneider has introduced new CPUs for Unity Pro. The new CPUs feature beefed-up memory as well as USB and Ethernet ports. Atrium is the slot-PLC version of Premium, Schneider's solution for PC-based automation.
Unity Pro is part of the Unity software suite supervised by Unity Studio, which is designed to manage multi-application projects and synchronize them over Ethernet. It allows users to graphically describe, with Microsoft's Visio, the process to be automated and the topology of the architecture.
A unique feature of Unity, and one that explains why the software was created just recently in the past several years instead of a decade ago, is that it adopts XML as the source format for all applications: variables, programs, I/O configurations, etc. XML is the World Wide Web Consortium's universal standard for Internet data exchange; Schneider will use it to import or export all or parts of applications to combine them with other elements used in the project. This, it is hoped, will provide a new level of project collaboration.
Two other packages in Unity are the Unity Developer's Edition (UDE), an XML-based collection of VBA, VB, and C++ programming interfaces for third-party developers, and Unity Application Generator (UAG) to provide S88 compliant integration of PLC and HMI for batch processes applications.
Networked I/O redesigned
All the buzz surrounding Unity and the PLC processors didn't overshadow another important development launched at Initi@tive: the Advantys I/O system, which combines Schneider Electric and third party I/O and control system components, as well as wiring interface and power management devices.
Advantys STB (Smart Terminal Block) has some rather innovative features. I/O modules can be hot swapped, for example—something that nearly everybody wants. Independent modules control the power flow through the system so that the operator can, for testing purposes, disconnect all power outputs while the input power remains on.
In another attribute, local "reflex action" can be enabled to provide fast local control or backup control in case the module loses its connection with the fieldbus host. Next year Schneider will introduce specially hardened Advantys modules that can be bolted directly to a machine.
Advantys will interface with virtually any industrial network, but when used with Ethernet, which is clearly what Schneider prefers, the Network Interface Module takes on new meaning: it has an embedded web server, so the system can be remotely configured and programmed with a standard web browser.
Lachmann was so pleased with the results of the Initi@tive event, he said his company may scrap all future trade show participation, including the Hannover Fair.
"In the past, the biggest beneficiaries of trade shows have been our competitors," Lachmann explained. "Now we are looking at better ways to work directly with our customers."
"Today's multi-exhibitor trade shows are no longer effective for presenting software and fostering multiple exchanges," explained Marbach. He said that the advantage of seminars such as Initi@tive is that attendees have the ability to optimize their contacts as they choose between conferences, demonstrations, and one-on-one conversations at the booths.