In the development of new automation controllers, the clear trends are lower costs, smaller controllers and the convergence of motion, logic, HMI and vision on single hardware and software platforms. Separate motion and logic controllers each have an application niche, but suppliers are positioning their offerings to provide more tightly integrated control.
"The overall trend that we see is customers doing more on a single platform, squeezing more out of the technology and implementing multiple control disciplines," says Craig Resnick, an industry analyst for ARC Advisory Group. "In manufacturing applications that require multiple functions, including logic, motion and process control, engineers are looking for a platform that can handle multiple disciplines of control with one HMI, one database and one system to maintain and program. The automation controller is moving to more functions on a single platform, more power in smaller form factors and lower cost."
Resnick says programmable automation controllers, or PACs, are "the epicenter of the trend in automation controllers." Starting in 2002, ARC coined the term PAC because it noticed multidisciplinary platforms beginning to appear and needed a term to classify them. "The PAC is the epicenter because, if more than one function is required, the end user or OEM is no longer looking at using two or more different systems if it can be done with one system," says Resnick.
According to Resnick, the PAC fits into the trend because it provides a far quicker return on investment for the manufacturer or OEM. By enabling users to extract data on key performance indicators and convert it into meaningful information and metrics such as OEE (overall equipment effectiveness), it helps plant management make appropriate decisions based on how well the plant is operating from a financial perspective. It also provides meaningful information that helps with choices on modifications, changes and optimizing production and profitability.
Resnick says a PAC is differentiated from a PLC, motion controller or DCS because its primary function is to perform two or more control disciplines simultaneously. There are products that have been used for years, such as PLCs where they can perform some motion and process control. But a PAC is designed from the ground up for multi-disciplinary control.
"That is the key differentiator," he says. "The key thing to emphasize is that PACs are not better, because not every application requires multidiscipline control. Pure DCSs and PLCs will live very long, healthy and productive lives. By no means do we see the other products vanishing, because there are many applications that don't require multidiscipline control."
Moving forward, he says control suppliers are looking to the latest state-of-the-art products coming from the computer industry, and finding ways to leverage and industrialize the latest hardware and software developments.
The goal is to be competitive by driving down costs and merging the enterprise and automation worlds, so there is no longer a firewall between the two. The IT world needs to have full access to what is happening on the factory floor and be able to convert data into meaningful information. The same information can not only be sent to the supply chain, but also be used for forecasting, product development and support.
"That's the reason why, despite the times, we're bullish on the prospects for the automation market," Resnick says.