Automation Products Simplify Integration

Industrial automation vendors are developing products system integrators have been seeking for clients. Integrated architectures, common look and feel, and greater connectivity are features industrial automation system integrators want for clients, according to a survey of attendees at the Control System Integrator Conference this past spring.

By Vance J. VanDoren, Control Engineering December 15, 1998

Sidebars: Microsoft Technology Enables Integration

Industrial automation vendors are developing products system integrators have been seeking for clients. Integrated architectures, common look and feel, and greater connectivity are features industrial automation system integrators want for clients, according to a survey of attendees at the Control System Integrator Conference this past spring. Those needs are now being met.

Single look and feel

For example, Rockwell Automation (Milwaukee, Wis.) has recently announced a new Process Business that will focus on providing a range of solutions with a common architecture and the same “look and feel” across all applications, from process to discrete. Rockwell’s strategy is to provide simpler and faster system integration and improved information sharing between applications. The Process Business will offer both hardware and software-based control solutions built on products from Allen-Bradley (Mayfield Heights, O.) and Rockwell Software (West Allis, Wis.).

Similarly, Siemens Industrial Automation (Alpharetta, Ga.) offers “totally integrated automation.” Although this technology is by no means limited to system integrators, it does fulfill an integrator’s number one criterion—it all works together. All the hardware, software, networks, and databases in Siemens’ Simatic product line are designed to simplify the process of connecting an automated facility to its control system and the control system to the plant’s information network. Likewise, the “total plant” solutions offered by Honeywell Industrial Automation and Control (Phoenix, Ariz.) include many of the systems, software, and products that system integrators need to meet the specific needs of their clients—increasing throughput and yields, reducing operating costs, avoiding costly incidents and the like.

Schneider Automation (North Andover, Mass.) goes one step further with it’s “transparent factory” concept. Not only are Schneider’s software products designed to work together, they’re also designed to be integrated seamlessly with a host of partner products from software vendors such as Wonderware (Irvine, Calif.), Intellution (Norwood, Mass.), and Object Automation (Santa Ana, Calif.). Based on Internet technologies over Ethernet, the transparent factory provides communications between a variety of automation, manufacturing, and business systems.


Such connectivity, particularly the ability to exchange data among disparate programs and computing platforms, is the goal of many vendors’ development efforts. With improved connectivity tools, system integrators can give their clients information and control systems that provide more information about a plant’s operations and better control over the plant’s overall performance.

Leading this development effort is software giant Microsoft (Redmond, Wa.). Microsoft’s COM, DCOM, DDE, ODBC, and OPC technologies allow software products from different vendors to exchange data in standardized ways (see sidebar). These technologies have been incorporated into hundreds of automation products in recent years.

For example, every component of Wonderware’s FactorySuite 2000 software can function as an OPC client and can be used with any OPC server. Not only can the components talk to each other, they can talk to any OPC-compliant software with minimal custom coding. FactorySuite includes tools for plant floor data collection; process visualization, optimization and control; and data storage and analysis.

Similar tools are provided by the FIX family of products from Intellution (Norwood, Mass.). These too support OPC as well as DDE and ODBC. Intellution’s VisualBatch software uses ODBC to store recipes and batch journals in systems such as Microsoft SQL Server and Oracle. System integrators can use this feature to distribute batch processing information throughout a client’s organization.

Open systems

A welcome consequence of improved connectivity, say integrators, is a move towards software standards that are well documented and available for anyone to implement. So-called “open” systems are quickly replacing the traditional proprietary systems that were understood only by the original vendor. In the past, integration was limited to software and hardware from the same vendor. Interfacing proprietary programs from different vendors required integrators to invest in costly and time-consuming programming efforts that were specific to each client’s project.

System integrators see the same advantage to open hardware systems, especially products based on the “Wintel” standard—Microsoft Windows-based software running on Intel processors. Westinghouse Process Control (Pittsburgh, Pa.) has adopted the Wintel standard for their Ovation information and control system. All Ovation hardware components are commercially available products that “plug and play” in a PCI-bus architecture.

Ci Technologies’ (Charlotte, N.C.) Citect, a Wintel-based supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system, can collect and display data from thousands of I/O points residing in controllers throughout a user’s facility. Citect features a Universal Data Server expressly designed to make it easier for system integrators to interface Citect with third-party control systems. Ci Technologies’ Systems Engineering Division (Pymble, New South Wales, Australia), Australia’s largest system integrator, has influenced much of Citect’s design.


Open systems are especially important for system integrators who rely on clients’ expansion and upgrade projects for repeat business. An existing automation system built on open hardware and software standards is much easier to modify and expand than a proprietary system.

Expansion can be a particularly difficult problem if the proposed improvements exceed the capacity of the existing control system. Whereas most software can be readily reconfigured to expand a controller’s database, it’s not as easy to add horsepower to existing hardware.

The DeltaV controller from Fisher-Rosemount Systems (Austin, Tex.), however, is “scalable.” It can be implemented as a small system and expanded by adding optional hardware modules. DeltaV can be configured to handle continuous, batch, and sequential applications that require from eight to 500 I/O points. DeltaV enables users to measure, regulate, and manage their facilities and the equipment running them.

I/A Open Industrial Automation System from The Foxboro Co. (Foxboro, Mass.) is designed for “sensor to boardroom” integration. Its modular hardware and software design, and object-based communication, allow it to be scaled from a single station to a large station with as much as 40,000 I/O points. All I/A Series systems use the same UNIX-based application software, allowing users to expand their system according to their needs.

Conversely, some control products can be scaled up or down by changing the hardware while keeping the software in tact. The human-machine interface (HMI) product line offered by Dynapro (New Westminster, B.C., Canada) is one example. Dynapro Beacon software (more commonly known by its Rockwell Software brand name, RSView) is available on a variety of Wintel-based computing platforms. Running under Windows CE on Dynapro’s factory-hardened CE Terminal, Beacon serves as a machine-level operator station. Running under Windows NT, Beacon serves as a supervisory-level HMI for engineers and plant managers. Beacon also runs on Windows 95 as well. Using this “scalable architecture,” a system integrator could configure a single HMI system and run it on all three platforms without any recoding.


Other control products allow system integrators to add functionality as well as extra horsepower with optional hardware modules. Programmable logic controllers (PLCs) have offered such flexibility for years, but now there are several small-scale control products that offer similar as-needed functionality.

For example, Unidrive from Control Techniques (St. Louis, Mo.) can be endowed with several features for controlling ac electric motors. Not only does Unidrive come in several sizes from 0.75 kW to 1 MW, it can be configured to handle motor applications as diverse as sensorless vector, flux vector, servo, and regeneration. A selection of more than a dozen plug-in modules makes the difference. Modules are available to support extra I/O and feedback signals, custom control operations, serial communications, and a variety of networking options.

Elsag-Bailey Process Automation (Wickliffe, O.) developed its latest control system specifically for use by system integrators and other engineers for hire. Freelance 2000 includes integrated hardware and software to perform regulatory control, sequential control, and operator interface functions. Freelance 2000 can consist of between one and ten process stations that perform all loop and logic control functions, each of which can be extended with up to four I/O units. Modular plug-in input/output modules are used according to the type and quantity of process signals.

GE Fanuc Automation (Charlottesville, Va.) has recently introduced a modular controller of its own, called VersaMax. With minimal configuration, VersaMax can serve as an I/O subsystem for a PLC, a distributed control system (DCS), or a PC-based controller. Add a CPU module and it becomes a micro PLC. Connect multiple units over a network and VersaMax becomes a DCS itself.


There are, of course, dozens of other features system integrators look for in automation products. Some are simply a matter of cost and convenience—low price, ease-of-use, one-stop shopping, availability of technical support, etc. Total Control Products (Melrose Park, Ill.) is betting that all-in-one packaging will appeal to system integrators. Its GLC 100 Graphic Logic Controller includes a PLC-like controller, a touchscreen, software, I/O, and fieldbus connections all in one box. It’s designed to eliminate the cost and effort required to assemble these components from separate sources.

The federation of automation vendors lead by PLC Direct (Cumming, Ga.) also offers an all-in-one control system based on PLC Direct ‘s DL205 I/O rack and a WinPLC module from Host Engineering (Johnson City, Tenn.) that replaces the DL205’s regular CPU. Inside the WinPLC module, flowchart-based control software from Think & Do Software (Ann Arbor, Mich.) runs under the Windows CE operating system. Not counting the external Windows NT-based PC required to develop Think & Do programs, this combination, plus enough I/O modules to handle 32 DC inputs, 32 dc outputs, 4 analog inputs, and 4 analog outputs sells for less than $1,500.

Price helps

Price is also a selling point for the FactoryFloor software offered by Opto 22 (Temecula, Calif.). For just $349, system integrators can get a complete set of software tools for developing and running real-time control programs, creating HMI screens, exchanging data with third-party databases, and exporting data to any other OPC- or DDE-compliant application. For more about FactoryFloor see “Control Software Complements I/O Products” in Control Engineering , December 1998.

Several vendors also provide enhanced technical support to help system integrators make the most of vendors’ products. The Alliance Program sponsored by National Instruments (Austin, Tex.) is one of the largest of these partnership programs. Alliance members receive discounts on products and training courses to help them gain expertise with National Instruments’ systems. They also receive automatic software upgrades and priority technical support partnership program logos in the Integrators listings in this issue.

Microsoft Technology Enables Integration

COM (component object model) is the “plumbing” inside the OPC specification. It allows the creation of extendible connections between client and server programs running in a single PC. Vendors may add unique features to their COM-based products while retaining compatibility with other OPC compliant products.

DCOM —(distributed component object model) enables the use of OPC interfaces over a network of multiple PCs.

DDE —(dynamic data exchange) is an older mechanism for transferring data between Microsoft Windows-based programs from different vendors.

ODBC —(open database connectivity) tools give programs the ability to read data from and write data to ODBC-compatible databases such as Microsoft Access.

OPC —(object linking and embedding for process control) is a standard interface for industrial automation which allows software and hardware device drivers to simply ‘plug and play.’ It allows system integrators to mix-and-match devices and software components within a single system.