Software Defined Control Architecture

A couple of years ago, I was amazed to discover a conversation in Germany regarding PC-based control versus “old, proprietary PLCs”. Seeing that the conversation was in Germany, I assumed the “old” one to be Siemens and the new one was relative to CODESYS and companies such as Wago and perhaps Beckhoff. Then I just saw a conversation on LinkedIn where an American magazine evidently re-ran an old programmable automation controller (PAC) versus programmable logic controller (PLC). In both cases, the “old” PLC vendor rendered much of the argument moot by adopting PC-based technologies into their products.

The Open Process Automation Forum opened a new branch to the argument with the push for Software Defined Control Architecture. This is interesting. OPAF has progressed through definitions and standards—more on that in my next post. For this post, I’m reporting some news from, well, Germany, about an advance by a new company called Software Defined Automation. I wonder where this will lead us. It will be interesting. I have yet to see anything push Siemens and Rockwell off their thrones on the factory side or Emerson/Honeywell/Yokogawa/ABB on the process side. But, you never know. 

Munich-Based Software Defined Automation (SDA) and VMware Implement Real-Time Virtual Programmable Logic Controllers (vPLCs)

The execution of deterministic real-time control on virtualized edge servers in combination with a comprehensive vPLC management interface in the cloud is aimed to be a unique solution, enabling customers to improve productivity, utilization, and security while at the same time gain independence from vendor-specific hardware and silicon.

The SDA solution will help improve industrial automation with the full virtualization of PLC controls on the VMware Edge Compute Stack that supports virtual machines (VM) and containers running on conventional IT servers at the edge. The real-time control on a VM will commission, monitor and manage vPLC instances on servers located in factories. The virtual real-time controllers, which will be installed and managed by SDA at the edge, have already been shown to achieve deterministic control cycle times of <10ms.

Many recent innovations developed by the IT industry have not been adopted in the area of PLCs. Traditional PLC implementations in hardware are costly and lack scalability. Since the emergence of the standard IEC 61131-3 in the 1980s, PLC technology has advanced very gradually. Current trends improve the PLC’s memory and processing power while shrinking their size. Yet, the technology still relies on on-site monitored and individually programmed PLCs that must be taken out of operation in order to change the code – leading to operational downtime and reliability risks. This common practice is due to the lack of alternative technologies and tools that could reduce the software limitations of PLCs and free them from the need to being manually managed on-site by automation engineers.

Virtual machines and containers transform hardware systems into software systems, in which all elements run on local off-the-shelf IT infrastructure. The VMware Edge Compute Stack in combination with SDA’s vPLC management and monitoring services will enable improved security, reliability and resilience while allowing for intelligent and deterministic real-time responsiveness.

The vPLC solution aims to bring the benefits of cloud systems to the shopfloor, increase resilience and security, while preserving real-time capabilities.

The solution is based on a hybrid architecture between a cloud system and an industrial workload on the edge. The hardware resources located at the edge will be efficiently used with VMware’s Edge Compute Stack, which manages the resources according to each vPLC’s needs. SDA is working on extending this technology stack with a management system for fully virtualized PLCs based on CodeSys technology to incorporate the industrial control layer as a software. The management system will simultaneously hold virtual PLC twins in the cloud.

The offering can then help to generate value for all sorts of industry processes controlled by PLCs. Software-based PLC implementations will end up being more flexible, simplifying the delivery logistics and reducing software commissioning time. The vPLC’s runtime at the edge can be updated over the cloud via the SDA management console. vPLCs will be handled as IT workloads and state-of-the-art IT best practices are applied to bolster automation IT security. Furthermore, the integrated monitoring service ensures that allowed vPLC response time thresholds are not exceeded. 

Dr. Josef Waltl, CEO and co-founder of SDA, stated, “Today’s technological advances in software and cloud computing allow management of real-time control systems in a pure software fashion. The SDA vPLC service is able to meet sub 10ms performance, required for the many of industrial applications currently controlled by conventional PLCs.” 

Muneyb Minhazuddin, vice president of edge computing, VMware, notes, “The pandemic has shown how vulnerable manufacturers still are at the edge despite having implemented latest industry 4.0 and cloud technologies. It’s the last mile that is still dependent on human intervention and vendor hardware, yet it is a vital part of production process controls that needs to be addressed. Together with SDA, VMware Edge Compute Stack will help manufacturers optimize PLCs in a time of semiconductor shortages, enabling resiliency, flexibility and effectivity at the very heart of their edge operations.”

TwinCAT Automation Software from Beckhoff Turns 25

A fervent issue for discussion in German automation circles, especially for those who wish to displace Siemens from its leading position, is software-based control. An early leader in this technology is Beckhoff Automation. This press release made public this week gives some of the technology historical foundation. Yes, it’s commercial. But, yes, it’s interesting to see where we’ve been in order to speculate on where we’re heading.

The TwinCAT automation software suite from Beckhoff has reached its 25th anniversary in the market. Ubiquitous in automation today, TwinCAT has served as a powerful resource for engineers since 1996 – a quarter of a century. In addition, the underlying PC-based control technology from Beckhoff has been going strong since 1986, marking 35 years in the industry. TwinCAT, short for The Windows Control and Automation Technology, provides numerous benefits from its robust software functionality. The advantages of TwinCAT stem from its modular expandability extending to support for innovations such as integrated machine vision and artificial intelligence.

Since the 1996 introduction of the first software generation, TwinCAT 2, this product is still available and maintained, which is proof of its continuity and compatibility with current systems. Windows served as the operating system and the PLC programming was adapted to meet the requirements of the IEC 61131-3 standard. This introduced the ability to implement an industrial control system on a “regular” PC with a standard operating system.

Another milestone was the decision to align the TwinCAT programming environment with the world’s predominant IT programming environment. Microsoft Visual Studio is used for all major IT software developments, and Beckhoff also used this tool to develop TwinCAT 2 software. So why not develop PLC software applications with Visual Studio as well? The subsequent TwinCAT 3 software generation was introduced in 2010 and delivered to customers from 2011 on – which makes for another 10-year anniversary and another track record of success in the field.

The integration of the TwinCAT automation tools into Visual Studio established a completely new type of engineering environment. With the availability to use additional programming standards such as C/C++ and MATLAB/Simulink, further possibilities emerged for more efficient code generation for machines and systems. This has also gained widespread acceptance in the automation industry.

In addition to programming, TwinCAT offers an I/O configuration interface for a wide variety of fieldbus systems – first and foremost EtherCAT as well as more than 30 other communication protocols. Motion control applications from simple PTP movements to sophisticated CNC and robot kinematics are just as much part of the ongoing evolution as safety functions, image processing for machine vision and machine learning. With the advent of Industrie 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), it quickly became clear that the cloud, long established in IT, would also become a major factor in the automation market. To provide this functionality for customers, Beckhoff launched hardware and software solutions for IoT and cloud connectivity in 2015, followed by data analytics tools in 2018.

Phoenix Contact News From SPS Show

Phoenix Contact sent an executive report meant for the SPS show in Nuremberg. I have not heard much from that company for several years. That’s a shame. The company has been active, investing, growing, and pushing technology forward. I’ve summarized the high points from an extensive letter detailing achievements of 2021.

In addition to the situation surrounding the pandemic, the biggest challenges we faced in 2021 were on the material supply side. It started with one of the coldest winters in Texas history. The location experienced system downtimes and significant production outages for key components in plastic manufacturing. Storerooms gradually ran empty along the downstream production chains, resulting in significant malfunctions and additional expenses on the purchasing side in large segments of our industry, in particular in the first six months of the year.

Despite the tense situation on the raw materials markets and challenges related to the pandemic, it currently appears that Phoenix Contact will conclude the 2021 fiscal year with revenue growth of approx. 25 percent, and total revenues of € 2.95 billion. Growth in all of our key regions (Germany, Europe, the Americas and Asia) has been unusually uniform, and is over 20 percent everywhere. The same applies to the business units. This growth is also reflected in the significant growth of our workforce of almost 20,000 employees worldwide. In light of the overall very difficult circumstances, this is an outstanding result.

Phoenix Contact continued to invest and expand during the pandemic totaling around 180 million euros. It said the investment could have been higher except for delivery bottlenecks for machines and plants. These investments focused on further developing the location in Blomberg and China and on expanding production capacities of Phoenix Contact E-Mobility in Poland. Phoenix Contact has also invested in Russia and is now part of Europe’s largest technology park in Skolkovo, with 2.6 million m² of space. Here, industrial companies, research laboratories, start-ups, and a university offer a unique high-tech combination. In addition to investing in systems and buildings, over 10 percent of the total investment was in intangible assets. This percentage will increase in 2022 by more than 25 percent, a disproportionate investment compared to this year. This is a trend that we expect to continue seeing in coming years, as a consequence of increasing digitization.

Sustainability: A challenge and driver of growth

While politicians bicker and posture, companies lead the way toward sustainable growth. “The aspect of sustainability is a top priority in the investments in our new Building 60. However, sustainability is becoming an ever more important focus not only when constructing new buildings, but in many other activities as well, since climate change is one of the most urgent challenges of our time. We have already achieved many milestones on our journey towards sustainable business practices, focusing on our ecological footprint throughout our entire supply chain, as well as the impacts on social factors.”

We continue to work on achieving the goal we have set for ourselves, of global CO2 neutrality throughout the entire company. Currently, we are addressing Scope 1 and Scope 2 within the power supply. Scope 1 deals with our emissions at our locations directly within the company. Scope 2 mainly includes the electricity that we purchase. We are already CO2 neutral in Germany as of the beginning of the year 2021 for Scope 1 and Scope 2, and we have been neutral for both in Europe since July. It should be noted that, in addition to converting to green power by purchasing electricity made from renewable energy, as well as implementing energy-saving measures, we are also investing in global climate protection projects, such as in wind turbine generators in India or in Turkey. In the long-term, we will compensate for these volumes by further increasing our energy efficiency and expanding our own renewable energies.

Sustainability as the engine of the economy

From the standpoint of automation technology, however, the goal of sustainability also represents a tremendous economic opportunity. Extraordinarily high investments will be required in order to provide more people access to more sustainable well-being. All areas of our lives must be electrified, networked, and automated if we want to achieve full electric mobility in all sectors. From regenerative power generation to different stages of energy storage, we need major changes in transportation networks and distribution grids, even down to intelligent secondary substations. Once we have achieved this energy supply, however, we also need to make much better use of energy efficiency potentials and intelligent controllable consumers, such as intelligent home chargers, air heating pumps, or decentralized storage devices. Factories must be digitized, sectors must be linked, and energy must be converted and stored if sustainability is the goal. And electrical and automation technology will be used in all of these areas. We are facing an era that offers an extraordinary potential for growth to our entire industry. Phoenix Contact has begun aligning its entire product and service range towards this goal, with its perspective of an “All Electric Society.” In the dimensions of “electrification, networking, and automation,” we want to provide our customers with specific technologies that facilitate or simplify solutions for an “All Electric Society.” In the electrification area, we offer new products under “Power” such as the intelligent CHARX power supply for high system availability, or the new and modular overvoltage and surge protection device CAPAROC under “Protect.” We deliver each of these products with a clear goal of meeting the grid requirements of the future today. In light of future DC (or direct current) grids, we are already developing network technologies under the point “Electrification” to serve all needs of the market and of customers in this area as well. In the “Networking” area, the first industrial Single Pair Ethernet Switches and associated IP20 and IP6X plugs stand for the next generation of network communication in factory and process automation. These are flanked by special services in the network security area, which delivers not only independent security devices such as our MGuard series, but also benefits all network-based devices as a technological platform.

Future Automation Technology

Through my work with the Germany-based analyst firm IoT Analytics, I’ve been introduced to the German passion for a newer PLC technology. I read this as a reaction to Siemens’ PLC technology. A number of companies have been pushing what they call “PC-based” PLCs. Phoenix Contact is one of them, and I could count Beckhoff Automation, B+R (now ABB), and Wago among the crowd. American companies seem not so impacted by the movement overall. I’ve seen pockets of alternative control technologies over here. What the future holds is up in the air. I think it is possible that the growth of Internet of Things installations could spur growth for the PC-based technology perhaps with Siemens (Europe) and Rockwell Automation (US) still dominant in machine control. We’ll see how it plays. Here is more from Phoenix Contact’s point of view.

Openness and replacing proprietary systems are the keys to success. Phoenix Contact has already been demonstrating the value of openness consistently since 2016 with the PLCnext Technology Ecosystem.

Classic partnerships replaced by communities

Partnerships morphing into ecosystems and communities pop up everywhere. Phoenix Contact contributes to the trend. “Openness also means a new way of thinking about partnerships and collaboration. In order to best utilize available potentials within the industry and drive innovations forward, new opportunities must be created to exchange knowledge and trade in existing software solutions. There are many partnerships with a generally exclusive character in the industry. The idea of bringing together as many experts as possible from the fields of IT and automation in a global network of relationships, thereby providing access to expertise from throughout the entire industry, is a new one. The PLCnext Technology Ecosystem turns exclusivity into openness.”

Phoenix Contact has been promoting networking among international experts in the industry since 2017 with our own website to serve as a central platform of exchange for the PLCnext Community. (  Phoenix Contact revised and further optimized the platform for the Community in November 2021. It offers better functions for digital networking and information. In addition to exchanging ideas and information via established platforms such as GitHub, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and LinkedIn, the PLCnext Community can also network here. This allows users, potential users, and software providers to become part of the global network of relationships between experts in the IT and automation fields in many different ways.

The hardware portfolio of the PLCnext Technology Ecosystem also continues to grow. Controllers are available in various performance classes within the PLCnext Control family – from devices optimized for edge use cases to modules for additional controller functions. PLCnext Extension Modules can be used to expand a PLCnext Control controller to the left. This makes it possible, for instance, to add further Ethernet interfaces or extend the system with Interbus or Profibus. Applications that require functional safety can also be retrofitted with an extension module.

Phoenix Contact Smart Business continues to develop its product portfolio, and will be offering new services in e-mobility and energy management starting in 2022. In the coming year, it will begin by offering a solution for billing charging processes for company electric vehicles in the private sector. The service is developed so that any home charger is taken into consideration, even home power generation with a photovoltaic system. By doing so, this service offers a universal, complete solution to companies and employees that can be used to significantly increase the attractiveness of electric mobility within the company. In addition, companies can achieve significant cost savings compared to charging an electric company car from the public grid, thereby significantly reducing fleet emissions.

Additional news and detail can be found at the Phoenix Contact website.

Open Automation Platform Becomes an Industrial Ecosystem

This is a story of what some believe is disruptive technology in the industrial control world emanating from Germany. They call it PC-based control or soft-control. This version concerns a control and automation platform introduced a bit over a year ago from Bosch Rexroth.

I introduced the new platform last December and moderated a webcast last March. This is an interesting concept. As I often tell executives who come to me with a new idea—especially one that they think will disrupt the market and dethrone the incumbent (e.g., Siemens or Rockwell Automation), how will you sell it? Sometimes “good enough” is enough to maintain market share especially if the incumbent has marketing and service muscle. Back in the 80s I learned that the hard way by going out of business—twice.

I began working with IoT Analytics, a German analytics firm, a couple of years ago in an advisory capacity immediately after it had published a study on this German concept of a dichotomy between PC-based control and traditional PLC-based control. At first, it drank the colored-sugar-water but later research puts a more realistic spin on the topic. 

As we discussed in 2020, Software based PLCs (programmable logic controllers) may pose an innovator’s dilemma to the incumbents of the industrial automation world and threaten their hard-PLC business.

Our most recent research report on “Virtualization in Industrial Automation” shows, among other things, that the threat of disruption for incumbent vendors is lower than previously assumed.  

Check Out This New Tech

However, I think it is worthwhile to check out this new platform from Bosch Rexroth. I’m not sure that its marketing muscle is enough to displace other incumbents, but this surely does push the envelope. 

Tell me what you think. The BR release is pasted below.

Travel the world of automation via app technology – this was Bosch Rexroth’s vision when it launched the ctrlX AUTOMATION platform in 2019. More than 300 companies are currently implementing the solution in their applications and the step from an open platform to an industrial ecosystem has now been taken with the launch of ctrlX World in 2021. Significant enhancements to the solution were also made this year – and further enhancements are planned.

“Industrial automation is increasingly dominated by software. We therefore need automation solutions which are geared to increasingly digitalized industry. Among other things, they should support various programming languages, offer data communication systems and allow IT and OT to be connected in a straightforward but secure manner. Today, we know that ctrlX AUTOMATION meets the automation challenges not only in mechanical engineering but also in numerous other areas such as energy, mobility and building automation”, explained Steffen Winkler, CSO of the Automation & Electrification Solutions Business Unit at Bosch Rexroth.

Since it was launched, the solution from Bosch Rexroth has evolved from an open automation platform into an industrial ecosystem. The partner network is growing all the time, adding hardware to the ctrlX AUTOMATION ecosystem and an increasing number of apps which are available for download from the ctrlX Store. In 2021, Bosch Rexroth also significantly expanded the range of services for the automation platform. The increasing demand for its products means that the company is now investing in its electronics production facilities, warehousing systems and logistics.

ctrlX CORE was designed to be an open system, using open-source Linux as an operating system and moving away from proprietary hardware requirements. This design feature makes it very easy to expand hardware functions and capabilities based on market feedback and customer requirements. Throughout 2022, we will have continued hardware performance expansion and introduce our own ctrlX IO portfolio.

With ctrlX WORKS, Bosch Rexroth makes it easy to create, provide and use functions. In addition to simplicity, the priority here is the rigorous use of web technology. With ctrlX WORKS, engineering can be carried out on ctrlX CORE using a web browser. A comprehensive portfolio of libraries and components for typical automation applications is also available.

In 2021, a wide range of new functions for even more efficient engineering processes were added. For example, ctrlX CORE can now handle Docker images too. With the Software Development Kit (SDK), which is available to all developers on GitHub, users can now develop their own apps even more easily. A development environment for Python and Google Blockly which is integrated into ctrlX CORE is another highlight. As a result, users can now carry out development directly on the ctrlX CORE hardware.

When it comes to automating engineering processes, ctrlX WORKS now offers a simple, clearly structured script interface, the Automation Interface. Recurrent engineering processes can be automated using simple scripts. This reduces the work involved by 80-90 %.

Steffen Winkler said: “With the improvements made to ctrlX WORKS, we have once again reduced the engineering outlay, significantly increased the possibilities for users and raised virtual engineering to a new level.”

To ensure that users can solve their automation problems in the best way possible, Bosch Rexroth paid particular attention to accompanying services in 2021. With ctrlX SERVICES, which was introduced last year and is being gradually expanded, users are offered support over the entire product lifecycle.

This year, the focus was on the ctrlX Store that was unveiled recently. Here, users can download numerous apps from Bosch Rexroth and third-party providers. The ctrlX Store offers online access to all available apps and libraries for creating applications. The ctrlX AUTOMATION ecosystem – and thus the scope of functions – can be expanded easily by downloading additional apps or integrating partner applications.

The ctrlX Store will provide customers with a self-serve option for downloading and purchasing apps for ctrlX CORE. Many of these systems are working manually now and by the end of the year our back-end systems will be fully automated to allow customers to implement desired features on their own.

Bosch Rexroth offers the ctrlX Device Portal for launching new software functions, centrally managing and maintaining device settings or remote maintenance. The solution allows a complete service – from remote maintenance and backup/restore to the private software repository.

Cloud-Capable PLCs Enable More IIoT Applications

When AutomationDirect was PLCDirect and control platforms were developing with much technical development and innovation, I visited the company and its control developer in Knoxville, TN frequently. They were adding Ethernet and IT technologies. Great times. Then that part of the industry matured and AutomationDirect became a master electrical and automation distributor, while still keeping a foot in the automation development door.

This information came to me last week. Given all the interest in automation and sensor and OPC to the cloud, I thought this was interesting. AutomationDirect here discusses the PLC as an integral part of a cloud-based system. Good for them.

PLCs can now be directly integrated with cloud-based computing platforms, empowering end users and OEMs to quickly and easily add IIoT functionality to their systems.

Damon Purvis, PLC Product Manager at AutomationDirect, wrote an article for the August 2021 edition of Machine Design. The article is titled Modern PLCs Simplify Cloud-Based IIoT and it talks about how the newest BRX PLCs can securely connect directly to the leading cloud platforms from AWS, Microsoft, and others.

Industrial automation systems created by end users and OEMs have long had some IIoT data connectivity capabilities—but getting to this data and working with it has often been a chore, prohibitively expensive, or both.

Cloud computing options have eliminated many of these barriers, providing a cost-effective way to deploy and scale up IIoT projects. This is especially the case now that the BRX PLC can connect natively to cloud services, without requiring intermediate layers of processing.

Bedrock ICS Proxy Solution Helping Utility Transition to Cyber Secure Automation

Cybersecurity has been a frequent topic lately at The Manufacturing Connection. Bedrock Automation founders built on a secure chip set as a foundation for an Industrial Control System (ICS) that is secure in many ways. Founder and CEO Albert Rooyakkers has devoted hours explaining the details and nuances of the many ways the product is nearly invincible. (He would take issue with my qualifying word.) This case study offers a few details about a utility bolstering its defense with an upgrade to Bedrock control platform.

A Colorado utility is transitioning legacy PLCs and RTUs to the intrinsically secure Bedrock OSA (Open Secure Automation) platform. The transition is part of a multi-year automation upgrade plan, which utility management saw as an opportunity to deepen its cyber security protection while also modernizing its controls. 

“Like most other public utilities, we must adapt to an ever-changing world and that includes cyber security. We’ve always had robust physical security and required usernames and passwords for access to critical systems and controls, but we saw the world around us changing quickly. Many of today’s automation technologies are not as secure as they could be because they were developed long before security was a major issue in the industry. Most of the security added to them was an afterthought,” said Shay Geisler, I&C Administrator for Colorado’s East Cherry Creek Valley (ECCV) Water & Sanitation District.

ECCV’s legacy control architecture involved SCADA software that is housed on a dedicated Windows desktop or server along with a communications driver, in this case, an OPC Server that speaks to the PLCs via legacy protocols. Each ECCV upgrade target was using two PLCs to concentrate field data for use by the plant SCADA system, which had also been upgraded to a more secure version. 

“We knew security could not be limited to the SCADA software only. There were too many downstream systems and assets that, if left untouched, would present a huge vulnerability. We determined that the vast majority of these potential vulnerabilities could be solved by addressing the PLC and SCADA communications system,” said Geisler. 

Securing SCADA and control networks

Geisler and his team concluded that the most secure and cost-effective approach would be to connect the SCADA network and control networks with a secure communications channel. Fully implementing this, however, would have required ripping and replacing their entire system immediately, which would have been costly and required significant disruption. Instead, working with automation supplier Process Control Dynamics and system consultant RSI Company, they adopted a phased-in approach using secure Bedrock OSA Remote control units as proxy servers to enable transition ultimately to a full Bedrock platform.

“We are slowly upgrading the remote sites that have been serviced by legacy data concentrators, one-by-one as we convert each to use the secure Bedrock controller. The new controllers at the remote sites bypass the legacy concentrators and now report directly to the Bedrock proxy.  Once all sites are converted, we will remove the legacy concentrators,” said Russ Ropken, with RSI Company, the system integrator who developed the architecture that enabled the seamless transition.

The ultimate result is secure, certificated communications from the SCADA software down to the Remote PLCs/RTU. The Bedrock OSA Remote proxy units will switch over to a peer-to-peer network of infinitely scalable secure Bedrock control units connected by an encrypted radio network. 

ECCV already has field data running through 12 of its target sites, with some 74 left to go.  For more details, including the architecture of each phase, download the case history here.