Ease of use: Programmable controllers

With “ease of use” blowing like wind through the branches of automation and control, standard programming has abstracted into configuration, as wizards become more intelligent, and libraries of code are embedded into intuitive objects. Controller hardware touts modularity, flexibility, and connectivity.

By Mark T. Hoske July 14, 2017

Programming someday may consist entirely of humans talking to computers, but since humans often misunderstand humans, this may take awhile. For now, however, many simple programs or common goals can be achieved through the use of abstraction, wizards, libraries of objects, and other intuitive tools, avoiding programming for simple functions. This comes as programmable controller hardware—whether in something that looks like a traditional programmable logic controller (PLC) or another form factor—becomes more powerful, more economical, and easier to integrate. This seems to apply for devices using traditional standards, such as IEC 61131-3 programming languages, or more IT-familiar languages, or both. 

Easier productivity

With programming, ease-of-use conventions help those with less formal computer education increase industrial productivity, even as shortages of those with appropriate skills in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields continue. Smarter software also makes contextualized help, documentation, and training available when and where needed, avoiding online searches, help desk calls, or, worse, paging through a paper manual.

The progression is natural. Jeff Kodosky, a National Instruments (NI) founder and business and technology fellow, and father of NI LabVIEW software, noted at 2017 NIWeek that when engineers draw something, it usually includes boxes and arrows. Software that uses those conventions naturally is more intuitive. For years, the NI software platform has encapsulated code inside object that can then be grouped into larger objects. The latest version was demonstrated in about four minutes, producing results without programming. In addition, Kodosky said, the new platform refreshes a 30-year-old code base that will enable NI programmers to innovate more quickly (CE June, p.28).

Another industrial control platform, Ignition, has rapidly expanded, according to Inductive Automation’s founder and CEO, Steve Hechtman, at the 2016 Ignition conference in September. One reason for double-digit annual growth, Hechtman said, is having industrial software that empowers customers to swiftly turn great ideas into reality by removing technological and economic obstacles. The software is said to install in four minutes, is scalable from a Raspberry Pi board-level controller to enterprise servers, is intuitive, and has a fixed (simpler, more economical) pricing structure. 

Automation benefits

These examples, while significant, are not unique. For more on these topics in this issue, also see pages 10, 18, and 30, 34 in the July issue as you think again about how programmable controllers are adapting for ease of use, greater flexibility, modularity, easier upgrades, greater safety and security, with wider and simpler interconnections with legacy and IT systems. The long-discussed benefits of optimal, ideal automation and controls have become the mantra of Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and Industrie 4.0 platforms. As we’ve said for years, don’t wait until it’s too late to integrate automation, controls, and instrumentation. Evaluate new technologies’ capabilities, redesign processes, and implement opportunities to augment better decisions, higher productivity, and more.

Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineeringmhoske@cfemedia.com.


"IIoT webcast series 2017: Sensing and control at the edge: microcontroller kits" offers RCEP credit. See the after-webcast Q&A and link to the webcast area. "Use of industrial microcontrollers: webcast questions answered." 

"Leave My Things Alone – Getting Ready for IIoT" is a sponsored webcast with content that includes an IIoT software platform. See the after-webcast Q&A and link to the webcast area: "Webcast on getting started with IIoT offers extra answers." 

PLC training is offered by CFE Media, the owner of Control Engineering.

Link to CE IIoT research.

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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.