It's the reliability, stupid!
Editors love to receive fan mail. But some of Control Engineering's recent coverage of Microsoft Corp. systems has elicited something closer to hate mail. Readers have e-mailed us complaining that Microsoft operating systems are not reliable or easy to use. In particular, readers have questioned the real-time capabilities of Windows CE.
Editors love to receive fan mail. But some of Control Engineering 's recent coverage of Microsoft Corp. systems has elicited something closer to hate mail. Readers have e-mailed us complaining that Microsoft operating systems are not reliable or easy to use. In particular, readers have questioned the real-time capabilities of Windows CE.
One frustrated reader says, "To paraphrase, it's the reliability, stupid. I rue the day that I have to allow Windows CE into a design. Not only will my servers, HMIs, and workstations be locking up, but now my field devices will too."
'Alarming' vendor support
At a recent automation strategies and technologies forum, sponsored by ARC Advisory Group (Dedham, Mass.), representatives from Rockwell Automation, Siemens, Microsoft, and Sun Microsystems discussed Windows CE and Java for real-time control. The folks from Sun were dismayed at the level of Windows CE commitment from leading vendors Rockwell and Siemens. One reader even called this trend "alarming," citing Allen-Bradley's leadership in PLCs as due to the "sturdiness" it brings to the market.
If you've ever had problems with your Windows-based desktop and office systems (and who hasn't), then it's easy to understand why potential Windows CE automation users are very nervous. So why are industry leading control and automation vendors jumping on the Windows CE bandwagon?
In a private meeting at last month's National Industrial Automation Show, we posed that question to Dr. Edward Krubasik, who heads Siemens' DM32 billion (almost $18 billion) industrial segment, and Tom Mallot, who runs Siemens Energy & Automation in Atlanta, Georgia.
Mr. Mallot responded, "Windows CE is one of the elements of the automation business that is highly evolving. It will boil down to who develops the first practical solution to be accepted by the marketplace. End-users shouldn't have to care about Windows CE. They just want something that works, is reliable, and economical."
Adds Dr. Krubasik, "Windows CE has lots of tools available and it leverages the PC environment. But it's important to remember that CE is a tool, not a philosophy. Technical and customer requirements force us to work in an integrated product fashion. I don't see the office- or private-user model of shrink-wrapped software being copied in the industrial segment. We can't tolerate breakdowns or shutdowns. We will provide integrated solutions with high software content."
The shrink-wrap model, however, has been employed in the industrial market with some very successful HMI software packages and is being tested with control logic packages. But if you've used any of these, you know that developing your application is not nearly as straightforward as applying a word processor or spreadsheet package. In addition to hardware selection and screen development, interfacing to your process can require specialized drivers and communication support.
With these challenges, most automation projects, and certainly the big-ticket ones, will implement integrated solutions, rather than pick-and-place pieces.
Maybe I'm a bit jaded, but there's nothing new about integrated solutions. Control users have employed them for the past four decades. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter how you feel about Microsoft or its systems. These choices should be transparent to the user. What counts is whether the automation products you purchase do their job. Do you hate Microsoft? Get over it. Instead, make sure your control suppliers understand your needs so you don't end up with an automation system you hate—not because it uses Windows, but because it doesn't work.
Jane S. Gerold, Editorial Director email@example.com