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.

Quantum Intermediate Representation Alliance for Quantum Computing Development

Let’s mix open source, alliances, collaboration, and the future of computing—quantum—into a new Linux Foundation Alliance. This is more future than 5G and IoT, but this is something we need to pay attention to. It’ll be here before you know it. 

The Linux Foundation, the nonprofit organization enabling mass innovation through open source, today announced the new QIR Alliance, a joint effort to establish an intermediate representation with the goal to facilitate interoperability within the quantum ecosystem and provide a representation suitable for current and future heterogenous quantum processors. Founding members include Honeywell, Microsoft, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Quantum Circuits Inc. and Rigetti Computing.  

QIR, or Quantum Intermediate Representation, is based on the popular open source LLVM https://llvm.org/ compiler toolchain. QIR specifies a set of rules for representing quantum programs within the LLVM IR. Examples of QIR applications include using the standard LLVM  infrastructure to write quantum optimizers that operate on QIR and target it to specific hardware backends or linking it with classical high performance libraries for quantum simulation. 

“We expect there to be exciting advances in how classical and quantum computations can interact at the hardware level. The QIR Alliance will provide a single representation that can be used for both today’s restricted capabilities and the more powerful systems of the future,” said Bettina Heim, principal software engineering manager, Microsoft. “This will allow the community to experiment with and develop optimizations and code transformations that work in a variety of use cases.” 

Quantum development SDKs and languages appear and evolve at a fast pace, along with new quantum processors with unique and distinct capabilities from each other. To provide interoperability between new languages and new hardware capabilities and reduce development effort from all parties, it is imperative for the ecosystem to develop and share a forward-looking intermediate representation that works with present and future quantum hardware.

“Quantum technology is still quite nascent but the promise grows every day,” said Seth Newberry, executive director the Joint Development Foundation. “The QIR Alliance is poised to enable the open and technical development necessary to realize these promises. We’re very happy to provide a forum for this work.” 

Honeywell
“The Quantum-Intermediate Representation Alliance, also known as QIRA, is a key piece of the quantum computing ecosystem that enables quantum hardware suppliers and quantum software suppliers to reduce redundant efforts involved in implementing programming languages across quantum computer architectures,” said Alex Chernoguzov, Honeywell Quantum Chief Engineer, Honeywell. 

Oak Ridge National Laboratory
“ORNL is thrilled to be a part of the Quantum Intermediate Representation Alliance, which aims to develop a unified LLVM-based intermediate representation for quantum computing. A consistent IR of quantum programs will enable interoperability between quantum applications and hardware devices, making quantum computing more usable to researchers and developers. We look forward to contributing to the QIR specification and the associated compiler toolchain under this partnership,” said Thien Nguyen, Quantum Computer Science Researcher, Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Quantum Circuits Inc.
At QCI, we are very pleased to be participating in the QIR Alliance. The QIR approach represents a revolutionary advance in the representation of quantum circuits, enabling users to take full advantage of the unique capabilities of quantum computing systems across a variety of different hardware platforms,” said Tom Lubinski, Chief Software Architect of Quantum Circuits Inc. 

Rigetti
“Rigett has pioneered hybrid system architectures that are quickly becoming the predominant approach for cloud-based quantum computing” said David Rivas, SVP Systems & Services at Rigetti Computing. “The QIR Alliance is focusing on precisely the interface between quantum and classical compute, enabling rapid advances in quantum programming  language design and execution systems. We’re thrilled to be working closely with this community to design the necessary compiler technology and develop implementations for Rigetti hardware.”

About Joint Development Foundation
Launched in 2015, the Joint Development Foundation (the Joint Development Foundation) is an independent non-profit organization that provides the corporate and legal infrastructure to enable groups to quickly establish and operate standards and source code development collaborations. More information about the Joint Development Foundation is available at http://www.jointdevelopment.org/.

About the Linux Foundation
Founded in 2000, the Linux Foundation is supported by more than 1,000 members and is the world’s leading home for collaboration on open source software, open standards, open data, and open hardware. Linux Foundation’s projects are critical to the world’s infrastructure including Linux, Kubernetes, Node.js, and more.  The Linux Foundation’s methodology focuses on leveraging best practices and addressing the needs of contributors, users and solution providers to create sustainable models for open collaboration..

Zebra Technologies Introduces New Windows 12-inch Rugged Tablets

New generations of rugged computing devices are appearing at the end of the year. In this one, Zebra Technologies has two versions of 12-inch rugged tablets and 2-in-1s. Notable is WiFi 6E and 5G cellular. These two connectivity technologies are going to be important for industrial applications, not just for speed, but also for development of private networks.

Zebra Technologies Corporation introduced the ET80 and ET85 (ET8x series), a new series of Windows 12-inch rugged tablets and 2-in-1s. The ET8x series is designed to improve productivity and safety across multiple industries. These tablets are Zebra’s first tablets with support for WiFi 6E and 5G. 

The thin and light ET80 and ET85, which run on Intel 11th Generation processors, are a portable option in the field and can be purchased with a detached rugged keyboard featuring a friction hinge so front-line workers can experience a complete laptop-like experience on the go, in their vehicles or at their desks.

The ET8x series also supports workflows in field service and manufacturing. For field service and utility workers, the devices can be used for mobile work order management, safety inspection and compliance, and remote assistance applications. On the manufacturing plant floor, they help improve quality assurance and forklift operations, as well as maintenance and repair workflows.

Zebra’s new series of tablets and 2-in-1s can function as a standalone tablet or a true laptop replacement and provide support in even the most rugged environments. At less than 2.9 pounds and with an optional detachable rugged keyboard, the new ET8x series offers a flexible work option that can transform into a desktop in the office or a mobile workstation in a police car, truck, or forklift. The ET80 and ET85 also offer a longer battery life than previous models, reducing time spent recharging or switching to back up devices, further improving productivity and reducing downtime.

The new ET8x series offers a 12-inch screen, 13-megapixel rear-facing camera, optional integrated barcode scanner, and supports Windows Hello via a front-facing camera for facial recognition and optional fingerprint reader for multi-factor authentication. The ET80 and ET85 are also the first Zebra Windows 10 tablets equipped with select Zebra Mobility DNA software tools to optimize workflows, and improve communications and usability for mobile workers. These tools include Power Precision Plus, which provides visibility into device battery health and optional Workforce Connect Push to Talk features, which streamlines communications in one connected platform.

In addition, Zebra OneCare Maintenance Plans are available for the ET8x series to help users maximize device uptime and business performance, ensuring they get the most out of their investment. With Zebra OneCare plans, front-line workers can perform at peak levels while also reducing device vulnerabilities, unbudgeted repair expenses, and unexpected disruptions.

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.