Industrial Enterprises to Achieve Step Change Operational Improvements

The Open Process Automation Forum strives for a software-defined industrial control system where the hardware and software are dissociated. The specific reason is that upgrades become less expensive. Software must be upgraded more often than hardware in a control system. If the two are tied together as in all proprietary control systems, then upgrades run on a continuum from painful to impossibly expensive.

I’ve been puzzling out this press release from Schneider Electric about a new control software dubbed EcoStruxure Automation Expert. The company says, “it is the world’s first software-centric industrial automation system.” I’m not sure that claim would stand up exactly, but it seems to me that this is a step on that journey toward dissociating software and hardware in the control system. Executives have told me in the past few years that achieving this is an essential long-term strategy. 

Any comments you all have about this are welcome (as long as they’re civil and enlightening).

The press release is written in the tone of a challenge to the rest of the industry to write “apps” that will run on this standards-based (IEC-61499) system.

Schneider Electric promises to unleash a new wave of innovation by championing the widespread adoption of open automation standards unveiling its vision for universal automation with EcoStruxure Automation Expert, “a new category of software-centric industrial automation system.”

Claims closed and proprietary automation platforms restrict the adoption of best-of-breed technologies, present challenges to integrate third-party components, and are expensive to upgrade and maintain. Industry has suffered from a lack of adaptability, modularization and interoperability, which is stunting innovation.

Universal automation is the world of plug and produce automation software components based on the IEC61499 standard that solve specific customer problems in a proven way. Adoption of an IEC61499-based standardized automation layer, common across vendors, will provide limitless opportunities for growth and modernization across industry.

By greatly extending the capabilities of existing IEC61131-based systems and enabling an app-store-like model for automation software components, Schneider Electric believes that the advancements possible in the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be fully realized. As its benefits become visible, Schneider Electric believes other vendors will adopt the universal automation approach, and end users will soon begin to demand it from their automation suppliers and ecosystem.

“The IT world has realized the benefits of open operating platforms; now it’s industry’s turn,” said Peter Herweck, executive vice president industrial automation, Schneider Electric. “Industrial automation architectures have done a good job of advancing industry to where we are today, but they are not capable of providing the agility and resilience that are paramount for modern industrial operations. To fully realize the promise of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we need to reimagine our technology model by opening our platforms, decoupling software from hardware, and radically improving system agility and scalability.”

EcoStruxure Automation Expert is a new category of industrial automation system with IEC61499 at its core. EcoStruxure Automation Expert:

  1. Enables automation applications to be built using asset-centric, portable, proven-in-use software components, independent of the underlying hardware infrastructure.
  2. Allows the user to distribute applications to any system hardware architecture of choice —highly distributed, centralized, or both — with minimal to no additional programming effort.
  3. Supports established software best practices to simplify the creation of automation applications that interoperate with IT systems.

The first release of EcoStruxure Automation Expert supports traditional automation platforms, such as Modicon PLCs, and Altivar Variable Speed Drives and PCs. Completing the line-up, a virtualized software controller running in Docker-powered Linux containers supports distributed information and control systems across edge computing architectures.

Leveraging the object-oriented nature of IEC61499, software components known as Composite Automation Types (CATs) are used to model assets by combining real-time control functions with other facets, such as the human machine interface. This asset-centric approach delivers unprecedented cost and performance gains and frees engineers to innovate by automating low-value work and eliminating task duplication across tools. Benchmarking of EcoStruxure Automation Expert against today’s automation systems has demonstrated a 2 to 7X reduction in the time it takes to perform traditional automation tasks.

EcoStruxure Automation Expert’s support for mainstream IT best practices enables step-change improvements in asset and workforce efficiency using advanced technologies like predictive maintenance and digital twin. The system also reduces total cost of ownership by incorporating legacy systems with a wrap-and-reuse approach.

“EcoStruxure Automation Expert is the first step in the journey toward universal automation” said Fabrice Jadot, senior vice president, next generation automation, Schneider Electric. “To fully realize the potential of next-generation industries, we must embrace a new way of thinking. Working to common, open standards is vital to ensuring multivendor interoperability and seamless interfaces from supply chain through manufacturing and production to the end customer. Now is the time for all vendors to fully embrace open implementations with code and function portability to become more connected. Today is the first step in a new direction. We invite industrial developers everywhere to create their own software components and solutions based on the IEC61499 standard, which can easily interoperate with EcoStruxure Automation Expert.”

Universal Platform For The Edge

When there is a message for me on LinkedIn, it’s almost always a recruiter or SEO marketer trying to sell me something. So, there was a pleasant surprise the other day when it was a marketing person for a software company with a new take on the Edge, datacenters, and software. That company is NodeWeaver.

Here is a statement of the problem. Most of the software in the world runs outside of clouds or datacenters—it runs at the edge. But the edge is made of small systems deployed in tens of thousands of locations, in stores, inside industrial systems, on top of telecom towers. Places that may have limited connectivity, or be difficult to reach, all sharing the fact that they run critical systems, and if something stops, your users are not getting services, or production lines grind to a halt. What happens if something fails?

Existing solutions require manual interventions by skilled technicians to resolve problems. They are complex and difficult to manage. They are difficult to scale to thousands of locations. What is needed has the flexibility of the cloud, but the ability to run everywhere, even on the smallest devices, and run without requiring user intervention. 

That’s the idea behind NodeWeaver—a platform that runs any application and manages the distribution, control, and operation thanks to its intelligent autonomous system. Each system learns from what happens on all the others. It becomes smarter the more it expands and able to do more on its own.

NodeWeaver is a software defined operating platform that installs on the bare metal of nearly any x86 hardware and enables the deployment of highly resilient, agile and scalable compute clusters capable of running multiple virtual machines and container-based workloads, optimized for running workloads at the edge fully autonomously, integrating self-management, self-optimizing, self-healing features that dramatically reduces cost of ownership.

NodeWeaver nano clouds consist of 1 to 25 x86 compatible servers of any manufacturer/configuration, from very small to quite large. Connecting a new server to the nano cloud layer 2 switch automatically adds the server components to the virtual resource pool and relevels all applications across the updated server pool. 

NodeWeaver delivers full datacenter infrastructure/functionality, optimized for running workloads at the edge, taking less than 1.3GB of RAM to provide all services, leaving the maximum amount of system resources available for actual workloads. NodeWeaver integrates orchestration, software-defined storage, software-defined networking, multiple hypervisors all managed by the intelligent autonomous system. 

Customers who need to manage a large fleet of deployments already have their own monitoring framework in place. NodeWeaver has a full API that allows them to monitor (and manage) their edge systems using their existing monitoring framework. Tools like Ansible, Puppet, Chef, Terraform, and OneFlow Services are for operating system and application automation and management. NodeWeaver fully supports those as well, via a combination of pre-built Marketplace VMs (in the case of Terraform) or built-in services (OneFlow), or simply via API and network connection. 

The NodeWeaver marketplace enables users to quickly download complete, pre-configured application stacks [including operating system] and service templates, using any of the software products in the catalog, and deploy them with minimal effort; automatically load balanced across nodes in a highly resilient, agile and scalable compute cluster capable of running multiple virtual machines and container-based workloads.

Industrial control systems used to drive production equipment in factories and plants were installed more than 20 years ago and are now becoming outdated, presenting major business challenges. While this infrastructure has provided a stable platform for control systems for many years, it lacks flexibility, requires costly manual maintenance, and does not easily allow process information to be exported and analyzed. Virtualization overcomes the limitations of legacy control systems infrastructure and provides the foundation for the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

Control functions that were previously deployed across the network as dedicated hardware appliances can be virtualized and consolidated onto commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) servers, which not only leverages the most advanced silicon technology but also reduces capital expenditure, lowers operating costs, reduces risk, and improves ability to manage change and implement continuous improvement.

One of the leading providers of solutions for large-scale industrial laundry systems has been a NodeWeaver customer for over 2 years. They control and monitor all processes, provide predictive analytics, as well as automated deployment and management of all systems.

With no IT staff at these locations, system resiliency and the ability to autonomically address failures and maintain uptime is crucial. Additionally, the environments in these locations are characterized by high temperatures and humidity, thus requiring fanless, ruggedized hardware that can withstand these conditions.

NodeWeaver’s software-only approach provided the flexibility to choose the hardware necessary for the application, and its lightweight codebase enables it to run on smaller devices that competing solutions simply can’t support, equating to an unmatched combination of reliability, flexibility, and time to value.

Add Real-time Networks to the Smallest PC-based Devices

Compute platforms are achieving incredible power in very small form factors. I’ve been contemplating where we could go with industrial applications built on Raspberry Pi. Then I saw this note from Hilscher. This is the world where that company plays. Here is a complete industrial communications application on the new M.2 format for PCI Express that adds real-time communications to PC-based systems.

In just a few minutes, you can connect PC-based devices, such IPCs, HMIs and robotics, to Real-Time Ethernet and Fieldbus networks. The comprehensive package has all necessary hardware and software components, including protocol stacks, device drivers and network connectors. The M.2 card can be simply installed in new and existing devices to connect with industrial automation networks on the fly.

PCI Express M.2, briefly named M.2, is smaller than the Mini PCI Express format and was designed for very thin computing platforms like notebooks and tablets. Since its introduction, automation manufacturers of PC-based systems, such as Industrial PCs, vision systems, robotics, and human machine interfaces (HMIs), have integrated M.2 sockets into their devices for one simple reason. The tiny M.2 format allows many add-in functions to be included into their systems in very tight spaces. Now, with this Hilscher offering, M.2 cards can provide real-time automation network connectivity.

M.2 formats come in various widths, lengths, and socket keys. For this first M.2 card release, Hilscher is using the A+E key socket arrangement, as that is the PCI Express specification’s generic form factor for connectivity add-ins, such as WiFi and Bluetooth. The M.2 2230 Key A+E card, with Hilscher product name CIFX M223090AE, is part of Hilscher’s cifX family of PC Cards. cifX PC Cards are intended for easy integration of a network interface and fast time-to-market of the manufacturers’ products and features.

At the heart of the M.2 2230 card is Hilscher’s netX 90 multiprotocol communication chip. M.2 card users can choose among loadable firmware for PROFINET IO-Device, EtherNet/IP Adapter, EtherCAT Slave and OpenModbus/TCP. Available in Q4 2020 is firmware for CC-Link IE Field Basic and Ethernet POWERLINK Slave. The appropriate network connector is included with delivery. There are adapters available from third-party vendors for other key formats, if required by the application. Additional firmware options, more card and key formats, and OPC UA and MQTT functionality will be released in the future.

Other benefits of the netX 90 ASIC include its small size, low power draw, reduced heat waste and extended temperature range. These features make CIFX M223090AE the smallest multiprotocol card in the market, at 22 mm X 30 mm, and allow it to operate in conditions from -20 deg C to +70 deg C. With its low power consumption, the M.2 2230 is ideal for energy saving applications.

Choosing the Hilscher M.2 card allows users to future-proof their designs. Hilscher continuously provides new firmware for Real-Time Ethernet, traditional Fieldbus and IIoT protocols. Besides a wide range of industrial protocols, Hilscher also provides device drivers for all major operating systems used in the industrial environment, including Windows, Linux, INtime, RTX, and QNX, as well as a C Toolkit for custom device drivers.

Open Edge Software Platform for ‘Time-Critical’ IoT Systems

In brief: Edge XRT Provides Low Latency, Predictable Real-time Processing Capabilities, Suitable for High Performance IoT Edge Applications.

There are many incumbents with cash-cow platforms who are becoming ever more vulnerable. Whenever a market has experienced consolidation and incumbent products have become cash cows, then the market is ripe for disruption from a totally different direction.

For the sake of innovation and advancement of the state-of-the-art, I hope that today’s younger engineers and those coming into the field in the next few years are not shy about exploring open source and standards and new ways of approaching problems. I’m not predicting that this new product from IOTech will solve all the world’s problems, but this is a very interesting step into the future.

The news: IOTech announced general availability of Edge XRT, a software platform for time-critical and resource-constrained applications at the IoT Edge. It is integrated into IOTech’s implementation of the open source EdgeX Foundry.

Edge XRT greatly simplifies the development of time-critical IoT systems at the Edge and enables application portability, improved supportability and faster time-to-market for new IoT edge applications. XRT runs on commodity hardware, independent of silicon provider and operating system and has complete deployment flexibility, it can be deployed as a native application, containerized and/or into a virtualized environment.

Edge XRT is targeted at IoT applications with a need one or all of the following characteristics – small memory footprint (as low as 100KB); ultra-low latency (from < 100 microseconds); predictable real-time data processing. Written entirely in C, Edge XRT is also extremely portable and can support legacy “brownfield” systems based older hardware, operating systems and development environments.

Edge XRT is designed for high performance edge computing use cases such as industrial control and real-time signal processing applications across different vertical markets including factory automation, oil and gas, utilities, smart energy and renewables. It also enables integration between the real-time edge control systems and higher-level SCADA applications.

With its small memory footprint and efficient use of computing resources, Edge XRT also makes it suitable for microcontroller based IoT applications including instrumentation and equipment monitoring, automobile engine management systems, medical devices, home automation and consumer electronics.

Edge XRT can be deployed independently or as a Real-Time extension to any general purpose Edge Platform. For example, Edge XRT has been fully integrated with IOTech’s Edge Xpert, an industrial grade implementation of EdgeX Foundry the market leading open source edge platform.

The product suite positions the company to support the full spectrum of secure software and hard real-time IoT edge computing needs.

“The availability Edge XRT is the exciting result of over two years of intense development and close collaboration with a number of key partners”, said Keith Steele, CEO of IOTech. “For our customers looking to deploy the next generation of industrial system at the Edge, Edge XRT provides an intelligent and feature-rich IoT platform which can support the most demanding performance requirements while significantly reducing time-to-market for their projects.”