Control Engineering's E-News Letter for Embedded Control - February 2000


In this issue:



What is PC-based control?

Does PC-based control encompass hardware or software? Actually, I'll pass along information about the entire system. Look for discussion of many types of hardware from desktop PCs to embedded computers. On the software side, proponents of flow chart programming battle with traditional IEC programming editors with both now driving PC-based control. Development of open I/O systems and industrial field networks like Profibus and DeviceNet has spurred PC-based control growth by giving essential interface to the physical world.

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The future of PC hardware for industry

David Deans, president of Rockwell Automation' s Industrial Computer Business (Duluth, Ga.), in a recent conversation with me predicted PC-type platforms to encompass small, single-purpose, single board 'appliances;' familiar palm-size computers; diskless and sometimes monitor-less Windows CE computers; and full-size industrial computers. You will be able to pick an appropriate 'PC' for the task rather than forcing one PC to do the work of all.

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Control for e-manufacturing

Think & Do Software has three new products currently under development. Think & Do Live!, Think & Do Live! Pro, and Think & Do Release 6 are said to be the first in the industry to combine communications, information, and control technologies to provide 'e-control' capabilities supporting e-manufacturing infrastructure required for effective e-business implementation. A key feature of this new family is the ability to enhance productivity and reduce production variability through built-in monitoring and display of machine downtime and cycle time. This information can be linked directly to enterprise applications enhancing e-business ship-to-promise performance. The products support Microsoft Windows DNA for Manufacturing on Windows 2000, Windows NT Embedded, and Windows CE. Think & Do Live! is an OPC client, while Think & Do Live! Pro adds OPC server capabilities with drivers to draw data from many existing PLCs.

The announced Release 6 of Think & Do Software will incorporate Microsoft Visio 2000 industry standard user interface and drawing technology. Visio has over three million users in many areas of an enterprise. With this interface, Think & Do users will have a Unified Development Environment (UDE) throughout the entire enterprise. This UDE is expected to speed system development and reduce training requirements by incorporating system design, logic, HMI, and project documentation capabilities in a single graphical user interface.

Ken Spenser, Think & Do president and ceo, explains that e-manufacturing is a new approach to manufacturing implementation that provides full integration between manufacturing control systems and enterprise applications. It has come about because virtually all manufacturing and distribution companies implementing e-business strategies find traditional manufacturing infrastructure inadequate. These structures are multi-layer architectures with proprietary control devices (like PLCs and embedded controllers) at the bottom, manufacturing execution systems in the middle, and enterprise applications like Supply Chain Management and Customer Relationship Management on the top. This architecture has a top-down execution of pre-planned schedules.

The demands of e-business, that is, those companies doing most, if not all, business over the web, require both top-down and bottom-up scheduling and execution. Solutions are built on Microsoft Windows-powered controllers and Microsoft DNA technology. This is a cost effective method to unlock data in the controllers and link this real-time information directly to enterprise applications. The result is agile, re-configurable manufacturing that responds rapidly to changing demands and opportunities characteristic of e-business.

Think & Do Live! and Think & Do Live! Pro will be available for shipment in March with Release 6 expected to ship in the third quarter of 2000.

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Disruptive Change

The backbone of automation control systems for the better part of 20 years has been the programmable logic controller (PLC). These were essentially computers, but no one ever asked what the chip set was, or the operating system, or the physical backplane. Typically built on a modification of the VME bus, the system had a microprocessor, real-time operating system, and cards (or modules) that plugged into a rack. Each company had its system. Each system was different from those of competitors so that I/O modules or controller modules were not interchangeable.

While the PLC was invented to handle discrete inputs and outputs by programming 'bits,' equally proprietary distributed control systems (DCS) were built to supervise analog devices like single-loop controllers controlling such things as valves, pumps, and fans. Computer numerical control (CNC) applies the same proprietary computing power to complex motion control.

Meanwhile, personal computers have grown from hobbyist machines (remember the Timex-Sinclair from the late 1970's?) to powerful tools that handle large databases or control Hollywood animation. It is only logical to exploit this commercial technology for industrial automation. This is happening now. There are PCs masquerading as PLCs, DCSs, and CNCs. A PC can even be used as a robot controller. All of which are built on open, commercially available platforms. This use of technology leverages standards such as COM and DCOM for communications and dll's that allow different applications to work together. Commercial technologies typically have an attractive cost structure compared to proprietary ones. Many programmers are available who know Microsoft Windows interfaces, C, C++, and Visual Basic.

Will this new technology revolutionize controls? Will the market-leading companies of today lead the market in five years? Clayton M. Christensen, a professor at Harvard Business School, has studied technology changes in various markets. The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail (Harvard Business School Press, 1997) documents his studies of the computer hard drive and the mechanical excavator markets. He found two types of technological change in a detailed study of the hard disk industry, each with very different effects on industry leaders. The first change sustained the industry's rate of improvement in product performance. The industry's dominant firms always led in developing and adopting these technologies. Those changes that disrupted or redefined performance trajectories consistently resulted in the failure of the industry's leading firms.

One problem for leading companies is that disruptive changes are often not economical for a large company or their customers. Then the new technology achieves a critical mass, usually around a new end product or way of doing business, and suddenly customers want the new technology leaving their old vendors in the dust.

Another point Dr. Christensen makes is that these changes often work their way up from individual users. Is PC-based automation a disruptive or a sustaining technological change? That is a crucial strategic question-both for the market leaders and for the would-be usurpers. Will companies like Rockwell Automation, Siemens, GE Fanuc, Schneider, Mitsubishi, Fisher-Rosemount, Foxboro, and so on be able to economically adapt to this change? Or will the PC-based control companies such as Think & Do, Steeplechase, AlterSys, Cutler-Hammer, MDSI (in CNC), RWT (in robotics), and others suddenly achieve a critical mass as users reduce costs?

This definitely will be an interesting period of change for the controls industry. As General Electric ceo Jack Welch says, 'Any time there is change, there is opportunity. So it is paramount that an organization get energized rather than paralyzed.' What do you think? Will you be moving to PC-based control?

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Ethernet for control

Rich Timmony, vice president of the Fieldbus Foundation , spoke to the recent ARC Forum in Orlando, Fla. about the Foundation's High Speed Ethernet initiative. Standards are rapidly being drafted that will provide a basis for moving Ethernet even further into process control. Part of the effort is the development of a flexible function block designed to work with IEC 61131 function blocks and bring FOUNDATION Fieldbus into discrete and hybrid/batch manufacturing. Look for more on Ethernet in manufacturing in Control Engineering this spring. Do you think that Ethernet is the future for industrial networking? Let me know.

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How to succeed with open control

See my February article 'How to Succeed with Open Control' for some tips from those who have 'been there.' In March, my article takes a look at that 'other' technology-PLCs. I'll look at how Control Engineering readers are using them and how many are thinking of moving to PC-based control. See how PLCs are beginning to copy PCs.

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National Manufacturing Week 2000

The 10th annual National Manufacturing Week Conference and Exhibition, Mar. 13-16 at McCormick Place in Chicago, is a great place to gather ideas for increasing your plant's productivity. Actually there are multiple exhibitions and conferences under one 600,000 ft.2roof. The shows are National Industrial Automation, National Industrial Enterprise IT, National Plant Engineering MRO & Management, National Design Engineering, plus a Motion and a Quality Hall. Visit for more information.

If you can make it for the conferences, the Industrial Computing Society is sponsoring several worthwhile seminars and a forum during the week. Check these out:

  • Peter Bengtsson, P & L the Academy of Automation, 'Managing Staff Development'

  • Mike Klein, Steeplechase Software, 'Next Generation Automation System Manufacturing'

  • Bill Gough, Universal Dynamics, 'Advanced Model Based Control For Process Industries'

  • Marcos Taccolini, InduSoft, 'Web Based HMI/CE'

  • Richard Bailey, Ci Technologies, Inc., 'Internet Based Control/SCADA'

  • Steve Rourke, Intellution, 'Merging Automation Solutions'

  • J. Heardy Myers, MDT Software, '95% Uptime through Automation Software Change'

  • ICS FORUM featuring: Dick Morley of The Barn (inventor of the PLC); Robert Nottoli of Microsoft; and Mitchell Bunnell of Lynx Real-Time Systems

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Small panel mount computer

Need a small computer to fit in that tight space? (Oakville, Ontario, Canada) has packed an EBX style single board Pentium computer with two PC/104 slots into a 2.65 x 8.78 x 5.94-in. package. Configurations include DRAM up to 128 MB, SVGA/LCD video, Ethernet, four serial ports, keyboard/mouse ports, two USB ports, parallel port, 2GB hard drive (optional flash drive, and 16-bit Sound Blaster compatible audio. Operating system (DOS, Windows 95/98, Windows NT, or Windows CE) is installed and tested before shipment. For more information, visit .

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High storage without moving parts

White Electronic Designs (Westborough, Mass.) has a 192MB linear flash PCMCIA memory card. The product combines Intel's Multi Level Cell flash memory technology known as '3V Strata Flash' and White's 'Register Based Addressing' technology. It conforms to the PCMCIA Standard. For more information, visit .

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Screamin' machines

Xycom Automation's (Saline, Mich.) expanded 3500 series flat panel industrial computer line has Intel Celeron or Pentium II and III processors at up to 500 MHz and display resolutions up to 1,024 x 768 (XGA). For more information, visit .

VMIC (Huntsville, Ala.) has packaged an 800 MHz Pentium III on a VME bus single-board computer with flash memory, three 32-bit timers, and a software-programmable watchdog timer. The company's generic device driver now supports QNX real-time operating system. For more information, visit .

A CompactPCI computer from MEN Micro (Carrollton, Tex.) features a PowerPC cpu. The 'Kahlua' chip is capable of 375 million instructions per second (MIPS). For more information, visit .

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Buyer's Guide and Integrator Guide

Trying to locate a supplier for your control and automation needs? The 1999-2000 Control & Automation Buyer's Guide might be the only stop you need to make.

Looking for someone with automation integration experience? The 2000 Control Engineering Automation Integrator Guide provides more than 1,000 listings from integrators all over North America.

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