Software Emerges as Key Link in Automation and Control

Software has become the critical, value-added link within plant operations and control and throughout the enterprise. By its nature, software is rapidly changing. Hundreds of upgrades are underway in the 35 software categories Control Engineering covers across more than 65 industries. (See "Many Vendors.




  • Software and information integration

  • Human-machine interface (HMI)

  • Motors, drives and motion control

  • Process and advanced control

  • Object technology

Software has become the critical, value-added link within plant operations and control and throughout the enterprise. By its nature, software is rapidly changing. Hundreds of upgrades are underway in the 35 software categories Control Engineering covers across more than 65 industries. (See "Many Vendors..." table.)

Some of the hottest areas include object technologies, PC-based control, real-time control software, unification of programming and configuration environments, web-based human-machine interface (HMI) and monitoring and control, cross-platform tools, artificial intelligence, enterprise-wide information unity, and predictive maintenance software.

Strong Microsoft-based influences include emergence of BizTalk as an XML framework, OPC, Windows NT Embedded, and Windows CE.

The OPC Foundation (Boca Raton, Fla.)provides unification within Windows applications, but in October the foundation announced it would embrace Microsoft BizTalk as a standard manufacturing framework to communicate with XML (extensible markup language—a committee-based, nonproprietary standard used widely on the web. XML can communicate across platforms. See more in "News" in this issue.)

Just as OPC is reaching beyond a single platform, so has Object Management Group (OMG), which began with vendors with traditional strengths in UNIX platforms. OMG's (Framingham, Mass.) 500-company consortium is extending CORBA, Common Object Request Brokerage Architecture to incorporate XML (more in "News").

How suite it is

Organizations and vendor partner, logo, certification, and testing programs seek to provide users with some measure of product interoperability. These programs, mergers, and acquisitions continue to broaden the software suite offerings, while adherence to standards allows users to plug-in other vendors' best-in-class software as needed.

Embed the Internet Alliance (ETI), founded by emWare Inc. (Salt Lake City, Utah), is a group of 21 microcontroller manufacturers that aims to integrate information from microcontroller-equipped devices into the factory automation process. ETI companies deliver hardware and software to create complete, sophisticated management solutions for any intelligent device communicating over any network with any user or application.

A recent Windows CE vendor-partner program announced mid-October aims to make it easier to develop, market, and use Windows CE software (more in "News"). The program—by Total Control (Melrose Park, Ill.) subsidiary of GE Fanuc—seems likely to increase the rapid pace of Windows CE products developed for use in embedded HMI, handheld computers for configuration, maintenance, alarming, control, optimization, and a variety of other applications.

Automation and control vendors and others have responded to user needs to connect applications, cross platforms, and connect software and its information across all levels of the enterprise. To various degrees, users can view, monitor, analyze data, and interact with software systems from anywhere. Web-based technologies are among the enabling tools. Mergers and acquisitions among users have increased the need for cross-vendor, cross-platform data exchange and viewing. In some cases, applications developed can be scaled within an architecture, using different hardware, silicon, and libraries of reusable objects (small programs), reducing user development and training time. Object-based programming preserves code and minimizes upgrade time, allowing drag and drop changes to only what's needed.

Chips with embedded software aid communications across multiple protocols. Transparency in configuration includes automated IP addressing, auto-filling of information, and information integration in whatever location it resides.

Simulation software, using various artificial intelligence technologies, helps configure and optimize offline, resulting in "instant" startup and zero downtime for installation.

Other software has devolved into "light" versions to appeal to more users, and is sometimes available for trial or use from the web.

Software itself is blending, in some cases combining or resisting classification. For example, software for concept, design, HMI, and production—once separate—are combining.

Software across areas

Items that follow describe how software:

  • Expands Java's industrial roles;

  • Differs in Windows NT Embedded with Windows CE;

  • Increases its influence in motion control;

  • Is blending into the surroundings in human-machine interfaces;

  • Tells what "zero latency" software does for the supply chain.

Adjacent articles in this issue look at grand-scale object technologies application; and programming languages—also among critical links for software in automation and control.

Java gets real for industrial automation

Java made a big splash in the popular press and with programmers a few years ago when Sun Microsystems (Palo Alto, Calif.) introduced it as a platform-independent language. It showed much promise for embedded control systems, but the initial real strength has been in areas like automated graphical user interfaces (guis), human-machine interface, and bringing information to operators and engineers.

The second big use for Java has been as an object-oriented way to transport information from one environment to another. It is useful for presenting control data to an enterprise database like Oracle, SAP, or Baan.

A drawback for further exploitation of this technology was that it turned out to be relatively slow in execution. It is very good at memory management through a technology known as garbage collection. However, garbage collection was not deterministic. A programmer could not be sure when it would occur, so that something could be executing, and then be forced to wait a few milliseconds for garbage collection before continuing. This is just fine for many applications, but not for industrial control. (An analogy is the Microsoft Windows system interrupt, where the operating system may interrupt a running application briefly to do housekeeping without notification, see below.)

Kevyn Renner, Sun Microsystems' group manager for worldwide industrial automation markets, says work is in process to extend Java into industrial control markets. Hot Spot technology has enhanced the execution speed of the language. A version known as Picojava has been embedded in a chip. Now the Real-time Expert group operating within the open-source Sun community has released a draft specification of Real-time Java.

Consistent development platform

The Real-time Specification will provide developers a clear set of programming interfaces to enhance development of real-time applications in the Java programming language. "By working together, the Real Time Expert Group is bringing Java platform advantages—portability, dynamic code loading, tool support, safety, security, and simplicity—to an important industry segment." says James Gosling, one of the creators of Java technology from Sun Microsystems. "Developers will have a single consistent platform to develop real-time products, shortening time to market."

Another working group is writing APIs to extend Java to distributed real-time control of automation processes. It is about four to seven months behind the Real-time group.

Jini, a Java-based device-networking environment, is considered to be a web-enabling technology. Originally targeting the consumer market, industrial applications are coming. Picojava chips to implement this strategy are now cost effective to embed in $500 transmitters, connected to Fast Ethernet (100 Mb/sec). The beauty of Jini is that it encapsulates data within a Java Bean, which is a pure Java object. This makes it accessible to the network through a browser. Gary Mintchell, senior editor,

Microsoft Windows CE, NT Embedded fill different control needs

Microsoft (Redmond, Wa.) has two operating systems designed for embedded applications. Its move into embedded computing leverages common APIs and user interfaces from the PC world into a widening range of devices from smart objects to intelligent appliances. Windows CE and Windows NT Embedded (NTE) share many attributes, but there are applications where each has strengths. Developers need to define the target application carefully to determine which operating system is appropriate.

Both systems target applications like consumer devices, retail terminals, test and measurement, transportation, data communications, and manufacturing. They support Intel's x86 microprocessor technology and use two-tiered ISR/IST interrupt servicing. Programmers familiar with Win32 tools and programming software will be quickly productive on these platforms. Communications capabilities such as serial and Ethernet are built in. Each package is available in modules so developers can target applications in a cost-effective manner.

Simple, dedicated, portable Windows CE is best for simpler, dedicated, and portable applications. It supports MIPS, PowerPC, ARM/StrongARM, and Hitachi SH 3/4 architectures. The smaller footprint starts at 256 KB ROM and 40 KB RAM. The operating system is "ROMable," meaning that it does not need to be loaded into RAM at start-up to operate. Its power management enhances device battery life and is instant-on, requiring no boot time. It also supports real-time control applications due to its deterministic response to interrupts. Win32 applications can be altered and ported to run on Windows CE providing some code reuse.

To developers awaiting version 3.0 of Windows CE—the wait continues. Work continues on APIs designed to provide user-requested features. Meanwhile, version 2.12 was introduced Sept. 28 at the Embedded Systems Conference in San Jose, Calif. This version adds a Windows-style shell with pocket Internet Explorer, IE4 control, pocket Word, and an e-mail client. It also supports MSMQ (Microsoft message queue). The pocket browser supports ActiveX and DHTML allowing interactive web pages. An improved development environment and documentation, along with starter kits and reduced runtime license pricing, will be attractive to developers. Version 2.12 is designed to be both a technical and upgrade springboard to version 3.0.

Better without batteries

Windows NTE is the better solution for medium- to high-end applications that don't require battery power for extended periods of time. This operating system will run thousands of existing applications including Microsoft Back Office packages such as SQL Server and Exchange. The footprint starts at 20 MB ROM and 16 MB RAM. The operating system must be loaded into RAM at boot up. It can support multi-CPU designs in an SMP architecture and NTFS file system. Communications services available include RAS server, DCE/RPC, DCOM, IIS Web server, file and print sharing, and network routing. Gary Mintchell, senior editor,

Software in motion

A growing software presence continues to influence motor drive and motion control systems. Software affects a gamut of functions like setup, operation, and diagnostics—as well as more advanced control methods. Specific motor and motion related areas of software tools include motor/actuator sizing, drive system design, and performance simulation, and tuning of servo systems

Software allows embedding of sophisticated functions in the latest motor drives or controllers. For example it made possible the "universal drive" offered by some manufacturers for controlling servo, induction, and step motors from one package. Advanced control algorithms, such as flux vector control, direct torque control, etc., have also become practical to apply only through software developments.

Multiple control algorithms can also be built into a particular servo drive (amplifier) via software. The different control methods are accessed through special startup software. Users can then "test" various types of servo control algorithms for best fit in a specific machine or application.

Graphical and visual features of software—including the visual development environment—represent increased productivity for the user.

Hardware independent

PC-based motion controllers are emerging as part of the overall "open systems" trend in automation. What's really exciting is that software will offer truly hardware-independent solutions. This does not mean more interfaces or better connections to various motion cards, but motion control software that integrates directly with PCs. Ultimate aim is to incorporate soft logic plus HMI capabilities in one software entity. The transition will not be a quick one, especially in general motion control, because many applications use traditional motion control solutions. PC-based motion control in significant numbers is 4-5 years ahead, perhaps. More defined applications such as CNCs could see this movement much earlier.

Although these emerging trends are software based, they could not become possible without new DSPs and motion processor chips executing the latest motion algorithms.

The real question is: How far can software go to replace motion control hardware? Frank Bartos, executive editor,

The world is your interface

What if someone said you could discard your computer's mouse or keyboard, and replace them with...your shirt or the armrest on your office chair? No way, not in your lifetime, right?

This isn't fiction, according to Dr. Neil Gershenfeld of the MIT Media Lab (Boston, Mass.), who recently spoke at NI Week (National Instruments, Austin, Tex.). It's an effort to meld the "bits and the atoms," making natural and physical phenomena a source of computing. These and many other revolutionary computing advancements are in sponsored development right now, and before long, we'll start seeing it all around us.

One reason for these developments is to increase the number and type of interfaces with which we can access information. Scientists are looking at developing different ways of accessing computerized information without chaining people to a computer.

One such interface, wearable computers, could be considered heavy and cumbersome compared to what's to come. Students at MIT have developed a process to weave conductive threads into clothing and micro spot weld them to computer chips and sensors. They've made clothing with interface devices sown right in, such as akeyboard with integrated radio antenna. The clothing item is light, the devices are inconspicuous, and it all survives the washing machine. The only problem is they still have wires.

So the MIT students started to work on wireless methods of information exchange. They've installed special electrodes into furniture that send out a small charge to sense nearby objects and record nano and displacement currents. If the sensed object were a hand, the sensor would read the hand's physical geometry. A person can then reach over to an arm of a chair and act as a mouse in 2D or as a data glove in 3D. No more cluttering up workspaces with peripherals.

Real-world objects

Icons on a computer desktop are endowed with data and perform specific, logical functions. Why not make objects in the physical world do the same? The simple way to do it would be to embed objects with electromagnetically resonant materials and access their information on a radio frequency channel. But Dr. Gershenfeld says there needs to be a more direct method than RF channels to access information from nearby objects. The object needs to give a nonlinear response. But the possibilities of endowing ordinary objects with intelligence are exciting. Imagine getting a business card that automatically calls up a web page when it's near a computer, or when a tire tread wears down, a signal automatically goes out to the tire store and reorders them.

The biggest obstacle science needs to overcome is to develop a way of giving objects an identity that contains data, but only costs a penny. Electronic package parts have always cost a dime, no matter how hard manufacturers have tried to reduce cost. So conventional silicon fab may be ruled out in favor of experiments with quantum computing to achieve the nonlinearity needed to get a response from a nonelectrical object, and to keep cost down.

Dr. Gershenfeld is understandably excited by all the research, what he says is his attempt to blur the distinction between physical and virtual. He says this is the future of commerce, the future of machine intelligence, and "the future of finally understanding how to cohabit with these machines."

For more information, visit MIT's Media Lab website at . Michael Drakulich, assistant editor,

Enterprise resource planning software connections aim for 'zero latency'

With the 21st century just around the corner, now is an appropriate time to evaluate some of the emerging process industry technologies.

The new century will usher in the "zero-latency enterprise," an organization able to respond instantly to product demand fluctuations. These demands may come from customers via checkout scanners, and/or from sales tracked by available-to-promise modules in enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. Zero-latency enterprises will use optimized supply chains capable of continually adjusting to daily or hourly demands and changes in product options. A transition to web-enabled product definition and collaboration will create flexible and responsive manufacturing environments required for rapid response to downstream needs.

Previous improvements in manufacturing and operator efficiency will be further improved by web-based technology's ability to exchange and share information. Two particular trends will have increasing near-term influence.

First, increasing specialization in process industries will drive more businesses to outsource manufacturing than ever before.

Emerging web technologies enable a focus on rapid and secure exchange of information with limited concern about underlying platforms.

Total information access

Second, the concept of information-enabled operators will raise productivity to new heights. Operators will have near instant electronic access to all manufacturing information, including operating procedures, work instructions, material safety data sheets, and emergency procedures. Agile manufacturing systems will collaborate with operators by providing predictions, information, instructions, and suggestions when and where they're needed. Wearable computers and wireless networks will replace traditional paper-based batch sheets and operational instructions, allowing operators a broader scope of control.

Zero latency enterprises; companies focused on being excellent at either product or process; and empowered and mobile operators—they're all just ahead. Michael F. Saucier, Sequencia chairman, founder, and Microsoft-certified engineer

Many Software Vendors Supply Industrial Control and Automation Users

Source: Control Engineering 1999-2000 Control & Automation Buyer's Guide

Many automation and control software vendors vie for user business, which increases product innovation and lowers prices. Among 35 software subcategories covered in the Control Engineering 1999-2000 Control & Automation Buyer's Guide, 28 show 20 or more vendors; 9 had more than 50—examples of the depth of competition. For detail about suppliers, go to .

Number of suppliers

Control & automation software type


Advanced Control


Artificial intelligence


CAD/CAM software related to control/automation




Chip/board design


Control product maintenance/lifecycle


Control system design


Data acquisition




Digital network configuration


Distributed control/process control system


Expert Systems


Flow chart/symbol-based


Fuzzy Logic


Human-machine/operator interface


Instrumentation/test instrument


Internet (browser, firewall security, server)


Look tuning


Manufacturing design/process design


Manufacturing execution systems




Motor/drive configuration


Neural networks


PC-based control


PID tuning


PLC programming IEC 61131-3


Product selection/specification








Software development/version tracking


Motion control/robotic control


Workflow/resource management

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