Hans Beckhoff, owner and CEO of Beckhoff Automation in Verl, Germany, just gave us the most coherent explanation of his company’s PC-Based control technology that I’ve ever heard.
The key thought is totally different from the myriad of PC-based control suppliers that sprang up in the late 1990s in the US. It was the value proposition of the latter that used to drive me crazy (metaphorically speaking, I hope).
I have to say that every time the marketing and PR people from Beckhoff USA would pitch PC-based control, I would give them a rough time. All of the contemporary software companies are gone for all intents and purposes. Meanwhile Beckhoff grows stronger.
Listening to Beckhoff is much like listening to Dr. Truchard, CEO of National Instruments–and the two have much in common although they’ve never met. They should, by the way, but only if I could be there to listen to a couple of very smart entrepreneurs discuss technology and the market.
Beckhoff’s view is that by putting control in the software in a central PC you gain tremendous benefits of leveraging current computer technology, flexibility, ability to incorporate multiple disciplines into one application, and more. The vision of TwinCAT is not that different from LabView–although TwinCAT began in automation and is moving toward measurement, while LabView began in measurement and has grown into automation.
The difference from the other PC-based control people is that they all seemed to push the value proposition of cheap, commercial hardware. It was a drive to the bottom, so to speak. Beckhoff, as well as NI and Opto 22 for that matter, all touted the benefits of leveraging the benefits of software control along with their industrially hardened hardware computer and I/O platforms.
While the other guys argued publicly about whose real-time kernel was better, the companies that are still around and growing explained other benefits. That is the direction that won.
The latest version of TwinCAT (v. 3) leverages Microsoft Visual Studio and the power of C and C++ programming along with Simulink from Matlab. The potential benefits for machine builders when these are coupled with the roadmap for more powerful chips from Intel should leave engineers drooling with delight over possibilities.
This was a day well spent for my education–and hopefully I can write some more to make you think of possibilities of the future of computing for industrial automation. I’ve got to leave now. More later.
[Disclaimer: Beckhoff paid my way to Germany, although I gave up a weekend to be here (sound of small violins, I know). Interesting side note at least to me and some of my readers who live close to me in western Ohio is that two families from Verl left home in the 19th century and wound up founding two cities in northwestern Ohio near where I’m from–Delphos and Ottoville. No wonder most of the people here look just like back home, and the names are also similar or the same.]