Open Source Hardware for Industrial Control

 I’m on my way to Dallas and the Schneider Electric Automation conference. This would be the re-make of Foxboro user group–and it appears that the famous old Boston-area name that we seldom hear anymore, Modicon, will make an appearance, too.

The most interesting information will be what Schneider has done to Foxboro/Triconex. The company has pushed automation to the back seat over the past few years trying to position itself solely as a power company. Interestingly, the person responsible for that strategy is the new executive director of the Control Systems Integrator Association. 

So, I wonder…is Schneider a precursor of the future. Will the questions and problems of what automation can solve take precedence over the mere discussion of automation itself? Time will tell.

Open Source and Control

Meanwhile, I remain interested in what open source is doing these days. The few open source projects–such as the Linux PLC on SourceForge–seem to have fizzled. Yet, there are new movements. I’ve written about some open-source SCADA and OPC recently. Here is an introducion to Pinoccio, now known as Tap by the company now known as Filament. Here is the Weblink and following are some quotes from the Website. I think this is all very interesting. Check it out.

The following is all quoted material: 
Many of you in our community have been asking about availability of Pinoccio Scouts, and also about the future of Pinoccio as a company. This post intends to answer those questions.

When Sally and I first founded Pinoccio, we had a strong ethos in the fundamentals of open source principles and decentralized concepts such as mesh networking. We also had some hunches around how we could help people easily develop connected devices with a simple, Arduino-like, wireless platform.

The year was 2012, before the explosion of the term Internet of Things. We loved what the Arduino community had brought to the world of makers and DIY enthusiasts. Making microcontroller development easy was–and still is–Arduino’s greatest contribution to the world. Unfortunately, we didn’t like how hard it was to make these microcontrollers communicate wirelessly with each other. That was still difficult, and we wanted it easy.

So, we set out to build the wireless, battery-powered product we wish already existed. The result was the Pinoccio Scout: a 1″ x 2″ wireless Arduino-compatible microcontroller. We talked to a lot of people in the community, successfully crowdfunded the product, and then built and shipped the first batch.

An Interesting Turn of Events

Interestingly enough, after we began selling Scouts direct from our web site, something really unexpected happened. We started getting in-bound interest from many very large industrial companies. These groups were buying Scouts at a much higher volume than we anticipated. As we began to dig into why they wanted our product so badly, it became clear that they also needed a simple, wireless platform for their industrial needs.

However, it became evident fairly quickly that our current Scout features were insufficient for solving the needs of our industrial customers. The biggest request was for much larger range for radio communications, as well as more built-in sensors.

And that put us at a conundrum. We are a small team, and designing and supporting hardware products is a significant commitment for any company.  Do we try to shoehorn the current Scout product to support these new needs, or do we design a proper hardware product again?

As a company, we have decided to focus exclusively on this industrial internet need, and to design a new product directly addressing its requirements. We are stopping the production of the Scout hardware in-house and will focus on this new product for industrial uses. The new product is called a “Tap”, and is a combination of the best parts of a Scout–both hardware and firmware–and the best available radio technology available today.

We have also rebranded the company name to “Filament”, as Pinoccio is an amazing brand, but not quite appropriate for our new customer base. Previously when you heard about Pinoccio Scouts, you’ll now hear talk of Filament Taps.

Without digressing too much, a quick rundown of the new Filament Tap: It’s a two inch diameter device, fully enclosed (no exposed circuit boards!), that is easier to use than the Pinoccio Scout was. It has multiple built-in sensors, and is still Lipo battery powered. Most importantly, it has a new radio that has a line-of-sight range of up to 9 miles between devices. That’s over 150 times longer range than the Pinoccio Scout’s radio! Up to 5,000 Filament Taps can communicate within a square kilometer. So very long-range, very high-density networks are now possible–that were simply impossible to do with Scouts.  This was, by far, our biggest feature request, and I am confident we’ve addressed it in spades.  Taps also have a built-in USB host, so you can add pretty much any type of USB peripheral to it and it’ll instantly bring that sensor info online.

And in the spirit of decentralization, we’ll be leveraging recent developments in distributed consensus algorithms to provide a permanent, verifiable identifier for each of our Taps.  Each Tap will support identity registration in the Bitcoin Blockchain, micro-transactions, and secure mesh communications.  We have a lot of extremely exciting news around building a decentralized IoT stack that we can’t wait to share, and will do so soon.

Invensys Updated Advanced Process Control Shrinks Testing, Commissioning

Invensys Updated Advanced Process Control Shrinks Testing, Commissioning

Last week many meetings in cold and snowy Chicago. This week is sunny Orlando and my 17th trip to the ARC Forum. Today is the “press conference marathon.” Right now, Tom Kinney of Invensys is speaking. Much more news coming this week.

Tom Kinney, Invensys VP Optimization

Tom Kinney, Invensys VP Optimization

Invensys unveiled a new version of its SimSci advanced process control software Feb. 10 at the ARC Forum in Orlando. To be released this spring, SimSci APC 2014 will enable customers to shorten their plant testing and commissioning schedules, as well as improve plant operations and personnel performance.

This innovative offering has been built from the ground up to emphasize ease of use. It modernizes the graphical user interface while retaining the rigorous and robust calculation engine from the company’s successful Connoisseur APC offering. The new SimSci APC 2014 software is structured around an enhanced, natural workflow that includes full support for model case file development and a connection wizard for faster integration to any distributed control system and programmable logic controller, including the company’s Foxboro I/A Series DCS and its new Foxboro Evo process automation system. The software will be even more tightly integrated in future releases of the Foxboro Evo system as well, providing enhanced simulation capability.

“Advanced process control can result in tremendous improvements in plant efficiency and performance, but it is largely underutilized, in part because some potential users find it too much of a challenge,” said Peter Reynolds, senior consultant with the ARC Advisory Group. “Invensys addresses this issue head on, with new graphical interfaces, intuitive workflows and custom calculation engines. Making optimization easier will empower both seasoned APC users and the next generation of engineers and operators to address a wider range of process conditions and business challenges.”

SimSci APC 2014 software extends the capabilities of traditional APC offerings to garner more control over the process. Director, a powerful new feature, allows the control engineer to build custom calculations or add custom supporting controller functions that augment the user’s experience. Natural workflows speed up model building, configuration and deployment, and additional features make the software suitable for a complete APC project implementation. These advancements help the transitioning workforce more easily build and maintain APC applications, and can cut implementation and commissioning time by up to 50 percent.

“We are excited about our new APC offering, which builds on our market-leading Connoisseur APC software to help our customers enhance quality, increase throughput and reduce energy usage,” said Tom Kinney, vice president of Invensys’ optimization business. “The software was developed with the end user in mind, and it includes several well-thought-out features that help achieve better and more sustainable control of the process. A built-in auto-discovery wizard captures the specific syntax of any DCS for even faster buildup of tag connections; its automated testing feature means faster, more flexible configuration; its new, tablet ready click-and-drag functionality allows users to select the best models from many scenarios, and customizable user-defined functions improve how users can cope with changing process conditions. The end result is that SimSci APC 2014 provides a better, friendlier and more flexible user experience than traditional APC applications, making operators and engineers far more effective and productive.”

Engineer vs Designer is back

I met Josh and Adam at a PLM conference last year. Interesting guys. One is an engineer and the other a designer–and they bicker about the difference in the disciplines on their podcast. You can subscribe to EvD on iTunes.

I’ve enclosed the latest one here. Carl Bass, CEO of AutoDesk, is the guest. I’m not a follower of “CAD” but the whole design to manufacture system intrigues me. In this episode, Bass says something I consider significant by noting that heterogeneous tools are here to stay. Any supplier who thinks it can lock in customers to only its tools is dreaming. I think this applies in automation as well.


The Missing Link For Wind, Solar Usability

Another great TED Talk. Once again, something for you all to think about. Maybe you can come up with a cool invention within your industry. From the TED Website–What’s the key to using alternative energy, like solar and wind? Storage — so we can have power on tap even when the sun’s not out and the wind’s not blowing. In this accessible, inspiring talk, Donald Sadoway takes to the blackboard to show us the future of large-scale batteries that store renewable energy. As he says: “We need to think about the problem differently. We need to think big. We need to think cheap.”

Back in the Podcast Business

After a 6-month hiatus for various personal reasons, I’ve decided to go back to podcasts. Hopefully a little more regularly now. Even in the 6 months of no new material, my site still averaged over 300 downloads–and someone bought the app. Thank you.

This one recaps my experiences at the MARTS Conference this week.


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