Beckhoff Automation: Use PC-based control, not PLCs; here’s why

Machine builders and end-user specifications need to forget PLCs; PC-based controls are smaller, faster, more flexible, and more economical, Beckhoff Automation says.

By Mark T. Hoske January 30, 2010
Below: Chart compares network performance, Beckhoff Automation Scientific Automation products, sidebars describe benefits, links to related stories

Beckhoff Automation representatives show editors a small part of the Scientific Automation line. Joe Martin holds a C6915 Beckhoff Industrial PC with Intel Atom processor; Shane Novacek has an EtherCAT I/O Terminal. Photo by Mark T. Hoske

There’s no good technology-based reason to use programmable logic controllers (PLCs), says Joe Martin, Beckhoff packaging and converting sales manager.

The next logical evolution is PC-based control. Beckhoff offers industrial PCs with multi-core processors and the energy-saving Intel Atom, connected with EtherCAT industrial Ethernet protocol. Beckhoff PC-based "Scientific Automation" offers a game-changing "all-in-one" approach, integrating automation, PLC, motion control, I/O modules, and human-machine interface (HMI) into one low-cost, centralized system, Martin says.

"Technology evolves to adapt to the industrial environment , where only the strong will survive in an increasingly competitive global marketplace," Martin told editors of Control Engineering and Packaging Digest on Jan. 28. Just as PLCs moved the industry beyond relays for most logic-based applications, now the world needs to transition to PC-based control and leave PLCs behind, he says. Why?

– Savings in machine control applications regularly amount to 30% or more in cost and 50% or more in panel space;

Beckhoff Automation IPCs have high-performance processors: Intel Core Duo, Intel Core 2 Duo, Intel Core 2 Quad, energy-saving Intel Atom, and industrialized processors and components follow the latest in PC technology. These IPCs have long-term availability and replacement parts; Beckhoff makes its own motherboards.

– Quad core processor can deliver 10 GHz speed, handling 4,000 I/O points with 400 scans per second from one small box, in one application;

– Beckhoff makes its own PCs with no risk of obsolescence, often working with OEMs to private label the machine, easing end-user hesitation;

– Upgrades are downloaded without cost or annual licensing fees;

– Machines are higher performing, lower cost, more flexible, and more easily connected to supervisory, ERP, and MES systems;

– Businesses are more responsive to customer driven changes, more profitable, and more sustainable;

– Translations services are available to carry over programming investments; and

– EtherCAT Technology Group membership is free.

If PCs are such a good investment for industrial automation, then why do people still buy PLCs?

"Resistance to change is massive," Martin says, and market leaders, such as Rockwell Automation, Siemens, and Mitsubishi, reinforce people’s fears of change.

However, rather than enforcing specifications that require that OEMs use PLCs, end-users more often are allowing OEMs to supply best-in-class machines, which opens the door for PC-based control, Martin says.

By overcoming irrational fears, and enticement from the nice distributor down the road, business owners and machine builders are realizing huge up-front capital cost savings and continuing lifecycle advantages with one piece of hardware and one software for I/O measurements, condition monitoring, robotics, vision, motion control, predictive maintenance, data collection, HMIs, and next-level capabilities not thought of yet.

PC-based control: The better choice

Choice 1 : Sometimes people continue to being loyal to an automaker because the service department is very good and friendly, readily takes care of any problems, and always is sensitive to a customer’s schedule. The dealer always offers a good trade in and rebates.
Choice 2 : What if another make of car didn’t have to go back to the dealer regularly to fix this or that? What if the automaker didn’t offer a rebate but had a lower base price, with many more trouble-free features, standard?
Despite long-standing loyalty to the first automaker, who wouldn’t choose the second? Joe Martin, Beckhoff packaging and converting sales manager, asks people to think with as much logic when choosing between PLCs and PC-based controls.

Beckhoff Scientific Automation advantages

Scientific Automation from Beckhoff Automation offers:
– User programming in any of the IEC 61131-3 languages. PackML and OMAC standards are also available;
– OEE calculations can be made without any added hardware. Data can be obtained in any format or even just a standard Microsoft program format (such as Excel, Word, etc…..);
– Condition monitoring can be incorporated into standard I/O modules, measuring things like vibration, power consumption, heat, etc….
– True scalability: All machines programmed with same software, making them immune to changes in control size. Processor size can be determined based on application need and not commonality with the largest machine in the family;
– Less control components makes a more reliable system;
– Remote diagnostics via the Internet; and
– No external Ethernet switches are needed.

Beckhoff Automation’s Scientific Automation integrates many products and functions.

While a technology roadmap comforts some, Martin says roadmaps are needed so customers don’t buy anything that has the potential to go obsolete. Beckhoff Automation doesn’t get obsolete, he says.

Also, end-users sometime argue against PCs because maintenance people have to be able to maintain the technology. PC-based controls so rarely need maintenance, that’s just a non-issue, he suggests.

"Innovation will get this country back on its feet. Buy something that doesn’t need service," Martin advises. The tide is turning, he says; don’t get swamped by buying PLCs.

Scientific Automation products, a collection of next generation automation products from Beckhoff Automation, includes multi-core industrial PCs, fast EtherCAT network, advanced I/O modules, and one multiple function software platform, TwinCAT.

EtherCAT performance: Application example

Without use of switches, EtherCAT performs better than the networks shown (including EtherNet/IP, not shown, because it’s off the bottom of the chart), says Beckhoff Automation.

Read more about Beckhoff products, real-time Ethernet applications, and controller selection tips from Control Engineering :
– EtherCAT interface for RTD temperature sensors: Beckhoff Automation I/O terminal connects directly to sensor ;
– Beckhoff Automation XFC EtherCAT Box, IP67-rated I/O modules ;
– Industrial Ethernet applications in real time ; and
– How to choose a controller .

– Mark T. Hoske editor in chief, Control Engineering ,

Author Bio: Mark Hoske has been Control Engineering editor/content manager since 1994 and in a leadership role since 1999, covering all major areas: control systems, networking and information systems, control equipment and energy, and system integration, everything that comprises or facilitates the control loop. He has been writing about technology since 1987, writing professionally since 1982, and has a Bachelor of Science in Journalism degree from UW-Madison.