Countdown to Year 2000

Depending on your point of view, year 2000 brings images of computer-based chaos, futuristic societies, benevolent advancement of humanity, or the apocalypse.More than likely, despite a few computer-related glitches, year 2000 provides a launching pad for the potential of human imagination. Much of Control Engineering coverage in the past few years has focused on issues critical to auto...

By Mark T. Hoske, Control Engineering January 1, 1999


Software for control

Human-machine interface

Open control systems


Sidebars: New millennium cooperation and control on the International Space Station International Space Station Automation and controls beyond

Depending on your point of view, year 2000 brings images of computer-based chaos, futuristic societies, benevolent advancement of humanity, or the apocalypse.

More than likely, despite a few computer-related glitches, year 2000 provides a launching pad for the potential of human imagination. Much of Control Engineering coverage in the past few years has focused on issues critical to automation and controls well into the next millennium. Related topics in this issue include Y2K remediation efforts (second cover story), optimization efforts, and control terminology in “Back to Basics.”

Next 10 years

Among key trends over the next 10 years:

Continued shift to commercial technologies—such as PC-based hardware, software, and networks—leverages economies of scale and allows automation and controls vendors to add value in specific areas of expertise (Also see Control Engineering Online extra: “Machine Control Past Year 2000” by Gary Mintchell, senior editor, at );

Increased focus on advancing core competencies through partnerships gives customers options of one-stop shopping with pre-integrated systems, or going with an industry-specific integrator to combine best-of-breed applications;

Human-factors engineering, in efforts to improve relations between people and their tools, are pushing human-machine interfaces into three major categories—larger, cheaper flat-panels; wearable “glasses-like” head-gear for mobil interaction; and smaller, distributed web-based displays;

Integration of plants, processes, alarming, and maintenance promotes asset management; unplanned downtime nears extinction;

Smaller, faster, cheaper, and better product development goes on, but emphasis continues to move toward solving problems, and away from the latest, greatest widget;

More modular software use objects for quick and easy upgrades; major upgrades to middleware and operating systems become more seamless, preserving existing data, preferences, settings, and other intellectual investments;

Optimization and advanced control tools become widespread;

Internet technologies increase communication and connectivity of automation and controls, and enable electronic commerce; and

Manufacturing execution systems (and successors) facilitate seamless linking of business and control systems.

In the next few years, 15-in. flat-panel human-machine interfaces will look as small as 10-in. screens do now; 18-in. screens will become common, and 20-in. screens will see greater demand. “Lower-cost flat-panels will make the CRT obsolete on the plant floor in the next five years,” says Daniel Benson, vice president, Ann Arbor Technologies (Ann Arbor, Mich.) Proliferation of factory-floor networks including wireless installations, Inter/intranets, thirst for digital data, and usefulness of video will be additional drivers pushing the move to inherently digital flat-panel technologies, he adds.

Eye-mounted computing has begun with Honeywell Hi-Spec Solutions’ (Phoenix, Ariz.) Golden Eye—used to significantly speed process startup with its mobility.

Internet-based advancements continue. Schneider Automation (North Andover, Mass.) announced Nov. 23, 1998, that its web-based Transparent Factory “open automation framework” is built on the Microsoft Windows Distributed interNet Applications (DNA) architecture. DNA is based on Ethernet, TCP/IP networking protocol and common Microsoft-based technologies such as the COM-based (common object model) OPC (OLE for Process Control) standard. Such advancements allow seamless linking of legacy and newer systems within a Windows environment, explains Schneider Automation’s Mark Fondl, vp marketing.

Many automation and control system software modules and packages have taken on functionality of manufacturing execution systems software. Many also have linked to business systems to streamline information flow from the process to the business and back again. One example is Sequencia Corp. (Phoenix, Ariz.) and SAP (Walldorf, Germany), which announced on Dec. 1, 1998, a unique “transparent, bi-directional patch for a production order between SAP and the plant-floor control system.” (See more, .) Improving connections will eventually maker layers invisible.

10-20 years out

Developments possible and practical in 10-20 years include the following:

Disappearance of computers as we know them; embedded intelligence integrates completely into daily life, and in manufacturing;

Motor and drive miniaturization put motion technologies and microelectromechanical systems into many unlikely places;

“Paper” becomes a reusable human-machine interface, able to receive transmissions and update its ink-based semiconductors, regaining a foothold as a portable, changeable, video-capable media. MIT Media Labs, Cambridge, Mass., , is developing such an electronic paper;

Software recommends its own improvements, searching global networks for the most-optimal combination of object-based upgrades to maximize process efficiencies. Richard Morley—inventor of the PLC, in Nashua, N.H.—envisions software objects becoming free to users, with code-writers taking commissions from web-page owners based on the number of site visitors the software brings; and

Manufacturers figure ways to use automation to minimize environmental impacts and realize sustainable economic growth.

Stated visions among automation and controls companies and their customers for the early years of the next millenium are markedly similar. Watch each 1999 edition of Control Engineering to see how early visions match reality.

New millennium cooperation and control on the International Space Station

Think it’s difficult to build an entire manufacturing and research facility, including control and automation hardware and software? Try it in orbit, mostly by hand, wearing a spacesuit’s basically triple-thick hockey gloves.

That’s what U.S. and Russian astronauts did when they started connecting the initial modules, components, electronics, and other systems of the International Space Station (ISS). Launched from Kazakhstan on Nov. 20, 1998, Russia’s Zarya unit was followed by the U.S.’s Unity module, carried into space Dec. 4 by the Endeavor Space Shuttle. Initiating a five-year construction cycle, ISS’s two units were joined Dec. 8 by at least 24 pins and 40 electrical connections.

Much like ISS’s launch, guidance, construction, and eventual lab research, its control and automation systems are also a cooperative effort between its U.S., Russian, European, Japanese, Canadian, and other participants. For example, while Russia maintains spacecraft attitude and guidance during the first six of 44 flights needed to build ISS, the rest will be a more shared responsibility.

Million lines of code

Clarence Howard, chief space station program engineer at Boeing Co. (Houston, Tex.), says building ISS will put about 1 million lines of flight code in orbit—far more than has ever gone up before. Boeing holds ISS’s eight-year, $7.1 billion prime contract, which was increased Dec. 2, 1998, by $163.4 million for added engineering support and pre-launch testing. By comparison, the station’s on-ground flight and simulations software consists of about 2-3 million lines of code.

“This will give ISS a lot of flexibility,” says Mr. Howard. “On-board commanding will be done by the crew or from the ground using pretty much off-the-shelf IBM laptop PCs running essentially homegrown NASA software.”

The bulk of ISS’s on-board computing will be carried out by 46 Multiplexer De-Multiplexer (MDM) computers with 386 processors. Though they have less computing ability than most earthbound desktops, Mr. Howard says the 386s are highly robust, radiation-tolerant, and don’t experience outages as easily as computers with more calculating capacity.

The MDMs will run software developed by Boeing for the station’s U.S. components, as well as code created by Honeywell (Glendale, Ariz.) to carry out fundamental station functions, says Mr. Howard. Though the European modules will compute independently, ISS’s Japanese units will also use the MDM computers. Russia has developed software for its Zarya and other modules’ gridblock that drive their own control, guidance, and propulsion functions. Complete with its own 20-kW power system, Russia’s systems also include two MDM computers, so they can interface with the station’s U.S. systems.

“This assures compatibility. In fact, the MDMs are built on a common 15-53 bus architecture developed by the military years ago. So, we found it didn’t take a lot of time to get the computers to work together,” says Mr. Howard. “This also gave us the real boon of using a boxcar approach to moving data from one computer to another on the station. It also made interfacing simpler for developers building interface controls, and even makes it easier to move a vehicle as large as the station.”

Jim Montague, news editor

International Space Station

Participating nations: U.S., Russia, Japan, Canada, Brazil, and 11 European Space Agency members: Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and U.K.

Size: 356 × 290 ft; 108.6 × 79.9 m

Mass: 1.04 million lb; 455,865 kg

Cost: Approximately $63 billion

Expected completion: 2004

Laboratories: Six

Solar panel area: About 1 acre; 4,047 m

Electrical capacity: 110-kW average; (enough to power about 60 homes)

Orbit altitude and inclination: 250 miles (407 km) at 51.6° to equator, reachable by all partner launch vehicles; provides observation of 85% of globe and overflight of 95% of Earth population

Web sites:

Source: Control Engineering from NASA data

Automation and controls beyond

Peering far ahead stretches imaginations and may depart most from future reality, based on past radical changes (such as moveable type, semiconductors, and the Internet). Developments may include the following:

Widespread fabrication and use of biological computer-based intelligence emerges, altering views on robotics and biological life;

Space-based manufacturing, transportation, and colonization matures, challenging earth-based industries and economies to retool and refocus, perhaps on reconstructing original ecologies;

Advances in networks, communications, and bio/intelligence enable topical, plug-in collective consciousnesses, allowing ultra-rapid leaps in knowledge and technology, while redefining imagination, creativity, societies, and entertainment; and

Contact with more- and less-advanced extraterrestrial species leads to challenges of balancing cultural preservation with the continuing human thirst to obtain and share knowledge.