Another lull in posting due to another trip to the office in Chicago. The February issue on control is just about put to bed, so I can think about other things.

The main reason for a trip to the office was a visit from Joe Martin and Shane Novacek of Beckhoff Automation. They wanted to talk about a concept formulated by the guy with his name on the company–Hans Beckhoff. First–some background. In the last half of the 1990s, some engineers began to rebel against what they saw as prices to high and complexity too great in existing control systems. Why not take control software and put it in a cheap(er) personal computer–and thus was born PC-based control. The idea was to leverage commercial technologies (where money invested in product development was greater than money spent on industrial controllers) in order to reduce expense, open up the platforms to greater innovation and reduce the number of components of a system.

The PC-based control market took off quickly and then pretty much disappeared by 2003 or so. However, there were a few companies, Beckhoff being one, that continued to use the term. The power of “PC” technology has continued to grow tremendously, so the term doesn’t really do justice to the technology. Your iPhone, for example, is really a pretty powerful computer. Beckhoff is now touting the term “scientific automation” for this use of PC technology in an industrial form factor.

A brief description would go something like this–microprocessors are now so powerful and robust that one in a controller can control multiple control disciplines. A single Beckhoff controller can handle logic, motion, HMI, measurement and communication. The system architecture requires only one control module–there is no need of a separate motion module (occupying a slot in the chassis) or a separate communication module. The resulting architecture is smaller, less complex and (so they say) less expensive–by a factor in some cases. Think PC-based control in a robust, industrial form factor.

We’re still leveraging commercial technologies where possible, helping drive costs down. Ubiquitous use of Ethernet is a prime example.

Anyway, I love these presentations where I can try to poke holes in the argument and get a great discussion going. Worth a trip. My next stop is Orlando the week of Feb. 8. If any of you are coming down, send a note and let’s try to meet up.

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