Connected automation components ease plant floor pain points
Standardization, cross-platform communication, security, effective simulation, and other automation tools are more critical than ever to maintain efficient operations in the age of Industry 4.0. See 5 ways to alleviate pain points for automation hardware, software.
- Standardizing integrated software and hardware suites can help manufacturers gain data insights, reduce pain points and more with digital twin, cloud and virtual reality (VR) technology.
- Connecting PLC and HMI simulation with digital twin technology lets engineers visualize plant settings./li>
- A wastewater facility upgraded its automation hardware and software and gained visibility into the infrastructure.
As digital trends take hold across industrial automation markets, an increasing number of end users are questioning traditional limitations of automation equipment, and are seeking solutions to improve usability. Almost every programmable logic controller (PLC) programmer has experienced frustrating software and firmware version mismatch issues, confusing status bit indications and other headaches.
Incompatible communication protocols and programming libraries among vendors also continue to plague the industry. With an influx of data racing around industrial networks, and to and from the cloud, the need to simplify use and connectivity of automation devices is needed more than ever.
By standardizing with the right integrated software and hardware suites, organizations can gain benefits, such as:
- System and process diagnostics.
- Reusable logic libraries.
- Cross-device engineering toolsets.
- Long-term maintainability and version compatibility.
- Digitalization concepts.
In many automation systems, operators are skeptical of system diagnostics indicating basic equipment statuses like wire breaks, short circuits, power failures, communication faults and buffer overflows. This skepticism is not necessarily due to hardware unreliability, but more frequently because diagnostic alerts are misunderstood or not standardized across machines within a facility. These diagnostics are often manually programmed and vary by programmer.
Users can avoid this issue by implementing hardware and software with reliable and consistent system diagnostics off-the-shelf. This is a selling point for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), providing them the ability to guarantee simplified operation and reduced downtime for end users. Additionally, recent advancements in the OPC UA protocol support transferring system diagnostics across platforms, without the need for custom programming.
Beyond system diagnostics, it is important to integrate process diagnostics, which alert operations staff to issues in either process or equipment operations, into standard PLC code blocks. This increases reliability and makes equipment operation easier compared to piecemeal programming and tag mapping.
Reusable logic libraries for PLCs, HMIs
Many automation environments contain PLCs and human-machine interfaces (HMIs) of various capabilities and sizes. When implementing multiple vendors’ products, developers often run into library incompatibilities and end up rewriting similar blocks of code in multiple programming environments. Even within the same device manufacturer, vendors often provide disparate software for programming their different products. This makes exporting or reusing programmable function blocks difficult or impractical.
Even in cases where PLC and HMI programming templates can be reused, some software environments do not support online editing. This translates to downtime whenever updates, patches and other programming improvements are required, plus it places additional stress on programmers to make edits quickly with limited debugging time.
Working with programming and equipment standards through an integrated portfolio removes these restrictions, making it is easy to reuse work from one project to the next (Figure 1). Additionally, standards make scaling projects simpler.
In addition to quicker development, code reuse reduces the risk of logic errors once blocks are tested. Subsequent usage often only requires minimal testing, if any. Over time, organizations can build up complete libraries of PLC and HMI programming standards, simplifying and speeding up development, commissioning, and testing.
Cross-device engineering toolsets for automation
With numerous automation devices on the plant floor and control room, it can be difficult managing and updating programming routines due to the different software applications required to connect with and configure each device. Modern integrated automation software suites provide a central location to manage several types of compatible hardware, such as PLCs, HMIs, remote input/output (I/O), drive controllers, safety controllers and network switches.
Most seasoned programmers and maintenance personnel have at least one experience in which they hooked up a plant maintenance laptop to a problematic controller for troubleshooting, only to realize the required PC software was not installed. Downtime following a device outage can be reduced with a simplified software landscape, and by choosing to standardize on devices with a shared software ecosystem for all configuration and programming.
This unified approach—incorporating PLC, HMI, I/O, safety, motion, and networking components within a common software framework—makes automation system standardization more attainable, creating intuitive system-centric methodologies to replace complicated and device-specific training regimens.
Long-term maintainability and version compatibility for industrial software
Another device maintenance pitfall involves software and firmware version dependencies, which can cause confusion and prolonged downtime recovery. With complicated dependencies, developers are often distracted from process logic because of the focus they must place on fitting their programs into a compatible version framework to fit a vendor’s requirements.
Software and firmware versions sometimes limit the programming instructions they can use. Unexpected version incompatibilities are troublesome during device replacement because they drag out downtime.
To prevent these issues, users should consider automation devices that support cross-version compatibility out of the box, with configurable firmware and IP addressing to match the ecosystem (Figure 2). During software upgrades, this provides users the ability to continue using programming blocks from previous versions, reducing the need to reengineer and reprogram devices and code libraries.
This compatibility is valuable when handling a device that fails in service because the replacement comes online regardless of firmware and software version relative to the failed component. Additionally, some modern controllers support an in-device memory card that stores the latest program configuration, providing program recovery on a replacement device just by plugging in the card from the failed controller.
Digitalization concepts, PLC simulation software
Modern hardware and software iterations now come with greatly expanded simulation toolsets. Traditional project lifecycles required automation programming teams to order PLC hardware early and wait for equipment to arrive so they could begin significant development. They unboxed the automation components, hooked them up on their desks, and began programming.
Even when PLCs include simulation software, project teams still often follow this traditional route because simulation tools are often difficult to access, misunderstood or clunky. Modern controllers provide enhanced simulation experiences that link the virtual world with the real world, empowering engineers to design and experiment with automation devices well before parts show up.
By connecting PLC and HMI simulation with digital twin technology, engineers can visualize plant settings prior to and outside of physical commissioning and operation. They can also use these tools for proposals and mobile demos, or as an initial stage of operator training.
Users should also look for automation devices with communication protocol openness, providing the ability to natively integrate with other vendors’ products. Hardware at the edge of the plant floor plays an important role in modern data transmission and processing. These edge devices include a vast array of edge apps to perform data exchange and processing (Figure 3).
These apps can be managed through an on-premises central system, or through the cloud. In cloud deployments, edge apps can integrate with cloud apps for control, data exchange, data analysis, alerting, and other tasks, and bring AI to the plant floor for production optimization insights.
In today’s cyber landscape, automation device security must also measure up to modern standards. Many PLCs and other automation devices historically lacked security provisions or any intrinsic security functions were disabled by default and added by choice. Today, the narrative has flipped. These safeguards should be enabled by default. Cybersecurity layers can be removed if necessary, but automation vendors do not recommend this as operational technology (OT) attacks against manufacturers continue increasing.
Protecting digital enterprises from cyberattacks requires a comprehensive approach. A modern integrated automation suite can help administrators manage security capabilities and settings on devices throughout the enterprise. Organizations should ensure their devices’ security features comply with IEC 62443, the leading global industrial cybersecurity standard.
Results for a water/wastewater system HMIs, PLCs
A water/wastewater municipality with an outdated water delivery system lacked reliability, standardization, and operator visibility. Equipment could fail with hours passing before detection. By upgrading the automation hardware and software, and standardizing the integrated automation suite, the municipality gained visibility into the state of its infrastructure (Figure 4), bolstered operational efficiency using data analytics, and programmed a reliable process automation solution for water treatment and distribution.
The municipality installed HMIs, PLCs variable frequency drives (VFDs) and radio frequency (RF) communication devices. The central supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) software—in combination with built-in, web-based remote system diagnostics of components—improved operational visibility and aided in quicker issue resolution, and the programmer leveraged the software’s native components to create a dashboard for an at-a-glance view of the system’s state.
5 ways to alleviate pain points for automation hardware, software
Through a great deal of iterations and improvements, automation components are quicker to deploy and easier to maintain than in the past. But organizations can improve their overall equipment effectiveness by evaluating and standardizing on components that help alleviate or reduce the common pain points discussed throughout this article.
Automation hardware and software should:
- Ensure uniform and reliable system and process diagnostics.
- Leverage reusable function blocks for consistent programming practices that also encapsulate the diagnostics.
- Consolidate cross-device engineering toolsets as much as possible.
- Improve equipment maintenance over time with version compatibility to support easy program migration and quick downtime recovery.
- Provide modern digital functionality—such as simulation and virtual commissioning, built-in device security, edge and cloud connectivity, and data-driven performance insights.
These important building blocks provide facilities with fundamental tools to run their automation efficiently and profitably for years into the future.
Keywords: programmable logic controllers, PLCs, automation hardware
How could simulation and digital twin technology help improve operations at your facility?