Integrated Controllers Grow in Power

Rapid technology advancements in hardware and software for panel PCs and related devices are improving equipment design and performance, bringing savings in time, space, and money while maintaining a stable, reliable, and familiar work platform. September 2010 cover story.

By Jeanine Katzel, Control Engineering September 20, 2010

Hardware and software advancements in panel PCs and the resulting saving in time, space, and money can be inspirational: When the Pointer Sisters sang “I’m so excited” many years ago, few thought the day would come when their words would apply to automation and control. Yet the word “excited” describes well the reaction of many to the increasingly sophisticated integrated control products and systems entering the market today.

What’s fueling this movement? Developments in hardware and software, in particular dramatic advancement in multi-core processors and virtualization software, are providing more options and functionality than ever before, improving OEM machine design and end-user operations and maintenance. Integrated products such as panel PCs and industrial controllers are smaller than ever today, occupying less space in the controls cabinet, generating less heat, requiring less energy, and most importantly offering significantly more functionality.

Some very exciting new technology is driving hardware integration, said Robert Jackson, industrial embedded products manager at National Instruments, citing Intel’s multi-core processors in general and its Atom processor in particular. But abundant capability does not come without concerns and cautions. Just how comfortable is manufacturing with such “advanced” components, and perhaps more to the point, how much can it truly afford? Should every possible bell and whistle be brought to the plant floor as soon as it becomes available? While it is necessary to keep up with the momentum of new technology, advancements in applications need to be considered within the context of the stability and reliability needs of industry overall, suggested Lawrence Liang, HMI product manager, industrial automation group, Advantech.

A review of what’s happening reveals that quite possibly industry is moving toward the best of all worlds. Although multi-core processors are more expensive, they offer some striking benefits, and they do so in an evolutionary way. Applying them does not require drastic change, either on the hardware or software side. And from the machine builder to the end user, products are being introduced that fit the comfort level of just about everyone.

Welcome to converging worlds

Integrated controller/operator interfaces have come a long way in a relatively short time. “Technological advances have allowed an endless number of improvements, such as fanless operation, solid state hard drives, and non-rotating media,” observed Sidney McLaurin Jr., marketing manager for industrial PCs and PC-based automation, Siemens Industry Inc. Today’s PC-based solutions let OEMs design machines in a smaller footprint. They allow end users to run PLC functionality on a PC, and eliminate the need for traditional hardware PCs.”

Stephan Stricker, product manager, B&R Automation, agreed. “A few years ago, systems were much simpler, but performance levels also were much lower. Now we have equipment that is much more powerful, putting the control function and the interface together through the incorporation of [Microsoft] Windows-based PCs.”

Integrating components reduces points of failure, said Corey McAtee, IPC product manager, Beckhoff Automation. “As little as 5 or 10 years ago, if you wanted an interface to interact with a traditional rack-mounted PLC solution, the interface had to be on a separate piece of hardware, use some sort of communication method, be equipped with all the right cabling, all at additional space and cost. Integrated devices generate savings by reducing all these things. It saves on inventory for serviceability, and with these new advanced processors adds speed to all functions.”

The smaller footprint in the control cabinet has been a major contribution of the integration trend, noted McLaurin. “Space costs money. Without hardware for the PLC, there is more space in the cabinet for other components. Further, a PC-based system is able to run user-developed programs and complex algorithms common to traditional PLC functionality, visualization, data processing, and more on a single PC, reducing the amount of hardware that needs to be purchased. This saves money as you implement the solution. If you compare the upfront investment with that of having to buy additional hardware every time you implement a new solution, the savings are significant.

The smaller space is a help to the integrator and to the OEM, added Liang. “Integration means fewer components, and few cabling requirements. The system is pre-qualified. It is essentially plug-and-play, one-stop shopping. Fewer components also mean fewer compatibility issues. The software drives the system. The user buys a whole package, a turnkey solution.”

Hardware factor

What’s behind all the improvements? Some very exciting new technology is driving hardware integration, said NI’s Jackson. The industrial Atom, intended for embedded applications and used heavily in touch panels, is similar to the processors found in the popular consumer Netbooks but can operate in a temperature range of –20 to 60+ oC. It is a response to industry’s need to run fanless and at extended temperatures. Jackson calls the Atom Intel’s first real foray into the industrial market, and said this component will “shake up how hardware works by its ability to run two separate operating systems on one multi-core chip set. When you talk about panel PCs and controllers merging, this is what you’re talking about.”

B&R’s Stricker agreed that merging controllers and interfaces is customer-driven and that the influence the Atom processor has had on integrated components has been significant. “These CPUs have very low power consumption, generate less heat, and offer the temperature range industry needs for its diverse environments. They are produced in huge quantity for the consumer market, which reduces the price to a level where it is getting very attractive for the automation vendor and embedded market. We’ll see lots more of them in the future.”

Most vendors are embracing the power of multi-core. Siemens has reconfigured its WinAC soft controller (which includes a PC-based controller) to run on a separate core from the Microsoft Windows 7 core. The design creates separate operations processes using dual-core processors, such as the Intel i-Series, that allow two applications to run at the same time and significantly increase capability and performance within one device. The system is intended for applications in which high data volumes and high-speed technological functions must be executed on a PC platform along with control and visualization tasks.

“If something happens with the Windows system,” explained McLaurin, “the PLC keeps running. And that was a big concern for a lot of users. They were reluctant to switch to a PC-based solution because they were concerned about Windows’ reliability. We eliminated the issue by running the soft controller separately from the Windows environment.”

Similarly, Beckhoff Automation advocates for off-the-shelf technology. The company is a member of the Intel Embedded Alliance, harnessing advanced processing capability to boost functionality in its systems. “Quad core PCs, for example,” said McAtee, “put considerably more functionality into one device. I can assign the HMI to run on one core, the PLC in another, the motion control in one core, and have one left over for expansion.”

Software connection

Hardware advancements may be grabbing the spotlight, but software is also playing a role in the integration scene. End users are demanding more from their integrated controls, in particular more functionality from their interfaces to compile statistical information about what individual machines and overall production are doing (see information on new Web-based user interface technology in this article).

Not too many years ago, said Casey Weltzin, LabVIEW real-time products manager, National Instruments, “you needed separate pieces of computing hardware to run a general-purpose OS for visualization and a real-time OS for deterministic logic. Virtualization is helping to solve this challenge, allowing the designer to use the capabilities of both classes of operating systems on the same controller—therefore reducing hardware cost and footprint.”

Manufacturers need interfaces that are easy to integrate into their systems, and that allow remote access for maintenance. “A facility may be running ten production lines, and then need to change the product running on one of them,” said Stricker. “If the machine operator doesn’t have the access rights to change the product configuration, the HMI can be configured for remote access so visualization of all lines is available from any office PC in the facility. A supervisor with access rights then can view and control the machine without having to go out to the shop floor.”

The panel PC manages many functions, bringing them together into one device. This will be the fixture on the plant floor of the future, said McAtee: “It will do more with less. Beckhoff takes the approach of off-loading as much as possible to the software to minimize the hardware requirements on the system. When looking at the cost of software versus hardware in terms of product life-cycle management, software is easier to support, costs less, and minimizes concern about component life cycles. Supportability is nearly infinite. If you need a change, you can modify the software. With hardware, it’s not as easy.”

Although most software issues have been resolved, hurdles do remain in the cost of and the need for development expertise, cautions NI’s Jackson. “A lot of software was built for specific hardware. Vertical HMI software packages will have trouble scaling to the broad range of applications available today making further development on the software side a necessity.”

Overcome limits, count benefits

Overcoming technology barriers is one thing; getting users to accept the benefits is another. And yet there are many. Space is critical on the plant floor; a smaller footprint due to integrated components is better. Fewer parts mean fewer failure points and easier service. From a design and development perspective, one environment reduces time to market, requires learning only one piece of software, and reduces inventory. Although advanced technology requires an investment, said B&R’s Stricker, a major benefit of integration is, in the long run, cost reduction. “Integrating two components eliminates interoperability concerns. And fewer components are involved.”

From an environmental perspective, the end user can build a “greener” cabinet because integrated systems require less power to cool, said Beckhoff’s McAtee. “New technologies are leading end users and OEMs to re-analyze how they design the control cabinet and extend their applications. Today, a PC the size of a paperback book can do all the motion control and interface functions an application needs while running at 55 or 60 degrees C. These kinds of capabilities positively impact life-cycle cost.”

An integrated controller keeps the operator interface close to the machine, said Advantech’s Liang. New generation touch panels have an operating range from –20 to 60 oC. They are more rugged and can function more easily in harsh environments. Devices operate in outdoor applications where they could not function before because of readability issues. And energy-saving features give integrated panel PCs a place in a green world.”

Further, advanced panel PCs and integrated industrial controllers offer security and diagnostics tools that decrease the need for reactive maintenance and increase the effectiveness of routine maintenance. Dual power supplies minimize the effects of a power supply failure. Hot-swappable hard drives enable a process to continue uninterrupted, limiting downtime in case of a hard drive crash. “The trend is to generate proactive information from an integrated industrial device that is not available from a commercial PC,” said McLaurin, “enabling maintenance or other service to be performed before production is interrupted.”

Lead a horse to water…

Who doesn’t want “faster” and “better”? Despite the hardware and software advantages being incorporated into modern integrated controllers, “new” and “exciting” may be outside the comfort zone for many. Manufacturers need systems that are reliable, stable, and for the most part long-lived. The industrial environment can’t be changing everything all the time, said Advantech’s Liang. “Improvements are wanted and needed, and new technology is good, but the rate of change cannot be too rapid. The industrial world necessarily lags behind the consumer world. It needs time to qualify, test, and apply new technologies. And new systems take time to develop. Most industrial products need to have a longer life cycle. Industry can’t be expected to change a product every 6 months or even every year as people do with consumer devices. Industrial systems need more stability and a longer life cycle.”

If there is a drawback to incorporating advancing technology, it is the age-old challenge of managing change. It causes concern for some, and some of the concern is valid. Vendors, however, are easing the transition by giving what is new a familiar look and feel.

“Normally Intel is not a name associated with long life,” said NI’s Jackson. “However, in the HMI market the touchscreen longevity is often a larger concern than the chipset for long-life deployments. An architecture where the HMI and PAC processor are physically integrated and a modular touchscreen is separate provides some unique benefits for system longevity and forward migration of display technology.”

Because real-time and Microsoft Windows cores can exist on the same chip, the visualization can be disconnected from the controller. The reluctant—or frugal—user can upgrade HMIs and visualization hardware but keep the same control hardware—or upgrade the controller and keep the same display. Manufacturers can replace the display or upgrade the technology but keep the same software or processor, smoothing the transition to advanced technologies with a less investment-intensive effort. Similarly, displays and touchscreens with the PC bolted on the back are making their way to market, bringing the advantages of integration to those who may not even know they have it. “In this sense,” added Jackson, “perhaps the panel PC market is actually moving away from a fully integrated solution to a kind of modular approach.”

The choice to integrate is purely personal, in the opinion of Beckhoff’s McAtee. “It’s up to the user to choose and boils down to what is more comfortable. Virtually everyone is concerned with throughput and uptime. Reliability is quite high in all cases. It comes down to comfort. Most prefer the easiest solution possible. They don’t want to dissect a problem; they just want to solve it.”

Despite exciting developments on a number of fronts, component integration remains in a state of flux today. Many facilities still use traditional Celeron or AMD processors. However, more new technology is in place than one might think, and the number of installations harnessing the power of the Atom is surprisingly large as early adopters jump on the bandwagon. “The economy is delaying adoption for some,” said NI’s Weltzin. “With the recession we’re in, a lot of manufacturers have problems beyond implementing new architectures. But activity is starting to pick up as machine builders design new equipment for advanced medical and renewable energy applications. Combining two hardware functions into one offers significant advantages.”

Technologies that offer unquestionable benefits cannot long be ignored. Slowly and steadily they are embraced by OEM and end user alike as industry grows more comfortable with integrated systems. Who can argue with “exciting”?

See also, below, "Taking interfaces to the next level, from the application into the cloud.

Jeanine Katzel is a contributing editor to Control Engineering. Reach her at

For more info, go to:

See the Control Engineering new product areas on HMIs and Operator Interfaces and PLCs and PACs. Link to related reading at the bottom of this article.

Taking interfaces to the next level, from the application into the cloud

Web-based user interfaces (UI) are the next leap forward in new technology, according to National Instruments. The Web-based UI enables remote access to interfaces through the power of Microsoft’s Silver Light and Adobe’s Flash technologies. “It allows visualization and remote Web services from a browser,” explained Robert Jackson, industrial embedded products manager at National Instruments,. “You just open a browser on a Netbook, ping a Website, and a Web UI automatically appears. You don’t need to build an application because the underlying software required to run the UI is already in place.”

The technology is particularly well suited for managers needing to see the status of a plant from anywhere. Or in the case of a wind farm, for example, it simplifies turbine inspections. Instead of putting an HMI at the top of each tower and having a technician climb to the top to check it, parameters can be viewed using a Netbook and a Web UI. “It is the g-mail of remote interfaces,” added Casey Weltzin, LabVIEW real-time products manager, National Instruments. “You can go to a URL and view what you need from anywhere in the world.” Although the technology allows read/write applications, NI stresses that for safety and security reasons, these applications should always be read-only.

Defining the interface

Interface terminology is often misapplied or inappropriately used interchangeably. Wikipedia offers this explanation:

  • User interface (UI)—the system by which users interact with a machine. It includes hardware (physical) and software (logical) components;
  • Human machine interface (HMI)—typically local to one machine or piece of equipment, it is the interface between the human and the equipment/machine;
  • Operator interface (OI)—interface method by which multiple pieces of equipment linked by a host control system is accessed or controlled; and
  • Web-based user interface (WUI)—a method for accepting input and providing output by generating Web pages which are then viewed by a user with a Web browser.

Related reading from Control Engineering includes:

How to Choose a Controller;

Control Engineering feature article: From Consumer Electronics to your HMI

What do you get when you cross a PC and PLC?

Hybrid control systems: Advances in simulation, tools predicted.

Top 10 Tips for Operator Interface Design