For years, the industrial automation industry has
capitalized on advances in microprocessors and computer platforms to deliver
ever-improving control solutions. Now the big trend is focused on the front end
of these advanced computing systems, with the development of automation system
software that enables system designers to more fully utilize the powerful
hardware at their disposal and make control systems more intuitive. The Ease of Use Challenge
"Software is the key to control system development, and
the importance of ease of use comes down to the software inside the control
system," says Tom Jensen, technology manager at B&R Industrial Automation
builders are looking for PC-based controls, but with the technology we have in
our cell phones and laptops."
PCs as part of the machine can provide access to Web-based
troubleshooting tools that everyone knows as well as better graphic interfaces
for users. With this type of connectivity, if a machine has a problem, instead
of an amber light glowing on top of the machine, the HMI is playing videos to
help the operator fix the machine.
"In a sense, it is nothing new because PCs have been around for
years but the expectation since 3G smart phones have come out is that ‘I have
an iPhone and I've never been trained on it, but I can do everything I need to
do.' That kind of intuitive operation is now being required of machine
builders," Jensen says.
A lot of people will look at software in a modern machine, and
say it is complex. But in reality, software is only reflecting the complexity
of the machines now being made. If we go back 10 years, for example, a
sophisticated machine may have had two servos on it, and it allowed a certain
part of the machine to changeover automatically, but now it might have 20
"Old ideas that have not previously been practical in programming
are now starting to come forward again," says Jensen. "S88 is an old concept
that has been around forever in batch manufacturing. It is based on the concept
that if I have a machine with 20 servos, I should be able to find 20 servo
objects in the software. As a maintenance person, I should be able to go up to
any of those software objects, manipulate it and get a proper reaction out of
the machine. It's simple, but few companies are simplifying their software to
Jensen says an S88 approach to controlling a servo is to have a
function block for every servo. If that approach is in place, and the servo
comes up with an alarm, the software may say the motor is overheating. "The
software object is the window into that motor," he says.
Software Development Tools
"When it comes to simplifying system integration for
machine builders, one significant improvement request we hear about is the need
for improved software development environments," says Paul Ruland, product
marketing, automation systems for Siemens
"One key to this is the programming and configuration
software used for automation devices, and convergence around integrated
development environments that offer one development software for all automation
devices and tasks."
A variety of automation
suppliers are pursuing this goal, and the latest Siemens releases of
development software include the ability to do controller logic for a PLC, PAC,
embedded controllers and IPC for soft control. It also extends to visualization
for all types of HMIs as well, up to PC-based SCADA systems and all of the
networking required between these devices.
Motion control (servo, stepper, variable frequency drives and the
hardware infrastructure around them) as well as specialty functions like
machine safety, remote I/O and Web connectivity, is all addressed using one
development environment and one user project.
"This is a significant step compared to traditional methods that
included a development package for the PLC, a development package for HMI
panels and SCADA, plus a variety of add-ons," says Ruland. "The add-ons might
provide utilities for network configuration which requires saving a separate
configuration file for a particular project, or to configure safety-rated
devices or PID for tuning loops."
The current trend now is to have all of these functions come
together in a single development environment or framework - an approach
embodied in products like Siemens' Totally Integrated Automation (TIA) Portal
software. This software is designed for use with all of the company's
controllers, HMI panels, industrial network infrastructure and SCADA systems.
"Our existing hardware architecture had a lot of built-in
compatibility for networks and interfaces, but now we are bringing all of that to
the software configuration tools, says Ruland. "Before, each function had to be
configured separately and combined together."
Now, within the TIA portal, the software has the intelligence to
self-describe the system components, detect systems on the network and pull
them together. Using a common, tag-shared database, the user can update a
change between all or some of the devices rather than importing and exporting
tags or data types between all of the devices in the system. The new software
alerts the user that they have made a change, and how to propagate that change.
"The key for OEMs and system
integrators implementing automation systems is a shared compatibility inside
the software which eliminates the need for the user to duplicate that effort,"
says Ruland. "This includes maintaining individual software packages and saving
all of the configuration files. For a system engineer, their project is
developing a machine and not the individual software program, the separate
configuration of the network or one PID tuning algorithm."
Doing More with Less
has responded to this simplification of system integration trend with the
development of its EasyHandling
technology. Here, standard function blocks can address the majority of
individual application needs, along with a new commissioning tool that narrows
the scope of system configuration tasks and helps reduce the time required to
develop custom software solutions.
"During the last few years, more and more system integrators have
downsized and have fewer engineering resources. This trend means that they are
looking to automation suppliers to deliver products that are easier to use,"
says Richard Vaughn, a robotics product engineer for Bosch Rexroth, linear
motion and assembly technologies.
If you look at the mechanical
solutions such as linear modules used with Cartesian robots and integrated
custom solutions, system integrators traditionally did the majority of the
integration work. Now, integrators are looking for assembled solutions and are
increasingly purchasing linear modules complete with brackets that are pre-made
and easy to configure, as well as dropping in subassemblies rather than
building the system themselves.
The concept behind the EasyHandling software is to have all drive
and control technologies integrated with linear systems, standardized
mechanical and electrical interfaces, and new commissioning assistants to
simplify the integration process. The EasyHandling system is based on a
three-level architecture, which includes basic, comfort, and advanced variants
which cover all levels of automation from mechatronic actuators and intelligent
axes to the preconfigured system solution. The "basic" level of the system
encompasses mechanical single- and multiple-axis systems that are ready to
install, with motors and pneumatic actuators such as grippers and rotary
modules, as well as sensors.
Preconfigured Rexroth servo drives expand the entire range of
basic axes at EasyHandling "comfort" level. New hardware supports several
Ethernet protocols including communication with IndraDrive Cs controllers using
SERCOS III Ethernet, Profinet IO, EtherNet/IP and EtherCAT.
EasyHandling "advanced" integrates a scalable, preconfigured
motion-logic controller compliant with the IEC 61131-3 and PLCopen standards
that offers predefined functions for handling applications. The controller is
pre-programmed to support coordinated point-to-point motions, along with
smoothing and optimized handling paths for Cartesian systems. The drive
controller software provides operator maintenance instructions that correspond
to the specific run times and travel paths based on the axis-specific mechanical
"A significant trend
gaining a foothold in automation system integration is model-based design,"
says Sal Spada, a research director specializing in industrial automation for
ARC Advisory Group. "Companies outside of the automation industry are
developing software development platforms that enable engineers to take an
abstract view of their problem using design tools that are already applied in
their work environments. The environment combines both the underlying system
behaviors (aka models) and control strategy.
"The tools used by control
system engineers are now allowing them to port their applications onto general
purpose automation systems," says Spada. "This is significant because the
general automation platform is now becoming a general-purpose computing
Furthermore, the ability to do modeling and simulation will lower
the cost of deployment over time and eliminate some of the hardware prototyping
associated with machine building.
The MathWorks is seeing a significant increase in the use of
model-based design, which has been used in the automotive and aerospace
industries for nearly two decades, among machines.
"With model-based design, the
machine builder's goal is to design better equipment by capturing important
dynamics resulting from the interaction of the mechanical, electrical and
control systems. In other words, mechatronic system design," says Tony Lennon,
industry marketing manager for The MathWorks. "The engineers at the OEMs are
motivated to find integration errors and poor performance early in the
development process, well in advance of the hardware prototype stage when the
cause of design problems is costly to isolate and correct."
Another benefit for machine builders is the ability to be more
innovative through testing of new design
approaches and control strategies in the lower-cost simulation environment.
Using model-based design means engineers can devote more time to creating
better products, rather than spending that time troubleshooting hardware
prototypes that fail on the test floor.
To support this greater adoption of model-based design by machine
builders, The MathWorks, which has
traditionally supported C code (for DSPs and microcontrollers) and HDL (for FPGAs
and ASICs) generation, has also released Simulink PLC Coder that adds IEC 61131
structured text generation capabilities for PLC systems.