Lessons learned for new approaches in machine control

Movie rentals and automation? Digital assets create better customer experience, which applies to today’s open-automation advances, such as separating software from hardware, using open-source designs and easier to implement, more flexible automation.

By Allen Tubbs February 4, 2021


Learning Objectives

  • Digital innovation, better customer experience  
  • Better use of automation assets, separating hardware and software 
  • Open-source industrial automation advances. 

How is rewinding videotape related to industrial machine control? Consider the role hardware plays versus software. The machine has a controller (a piece of hardware) that controls the entire process. To recover from a hardware failure, an exact replacement is required to replace that controller. To get the hardware replacement, the customer must wait for a shipment or use valuable resources to keep an exact duplicate on hand, a duplicate that is only useful if it is needed in the future. Then, there is a multiplication factor according to the number of different controllers in any given facility. These sidelined assets have a name: “shelf-ware,” a paid-for, but unused, component of automation or other plant assets. Any maintenance repair and operations (MRO) manager knows this is not a desirable solution.

Digital innovation, better customer experience

“Be Kind, Rewind” was the polite suggestion labeled on the door, on the wall, on the tape and on the movie case at the Blockbuster video store (the signs were always friendlier than the glare of the store attendant if the VHS tape wasn’t completely rewound). Those were the bygone days of the local video rental, relegated to nostalgia by advancing technology. It was not just technology that scripted the end. A better customer experience came along, which spelled the video store’s doom. Netflix came to the market and told customers to forget about late fees, rewinding tapes and leaving home to rent a movie.

So, what happened here? First, a new business focused on the customer experience and started using technology to make it better. Netflix created a from-home digital store, making it more convenient for customers to rent a video. Second, they moved from hardware (plastic VHS tapes and DVD disks) to fully digital, online content. By eliminating hardware as a requirement to watch a movie, the customer experience was vastly improved while product availability simultaneously increased. Now, all Netflix customers can watch the newest or the oldest movie, instantly, with the tap of a button.

Make better use of automation assets

The idea of shelf-ware, unused assets for automation application always has been a problem because of the specialized nature of machine control. Machine control requires real-time processors, specialized communication hardware and a proprietary operating system software that often needed to be configured and designed for specific processors. All this added up to proprietary hardware and software that came in one package. Or, in the case of some automation suppliers’ PLC offerings today, more than 160 hardware types.

While maintaining a fleet of control hardware is expensive for an end user, it is much more expensive for the supplier as well. Additional costs are incurred in hardware development and maintenance, certification costs for UL and CE ratings, documentation development, lifecycle management and more. Obsolescence is a problem as well since the spare asset is aging too. Technology upgrades along the way are not possible with this model.

Industrial control is evolving to stay relevant

Netflix disrupted the norm in movie distribution, and the initial steps were not easy or obvious. Netflix stayed the course and paid attention to the customer experience, eventually developing into the industry’s leading streaming content service with more than 180 million subscribers today. Old models reach the limit of usefulness and new ones must be developed to reach new levels of efficiency and value. Some software technology changes, already popular on the IT side of software, are beginning to work their way into OT software as well.

Separate software, hardware; standards

The concept of “write once, run anywhere” was developed by Sun Microsystems in the ‘90s, and this represented a step change in creating hardware-independent software. The idea is that code should run on a PC, mobile and embedded devices or a server with minimal, if any, change being necessary. This step of freeing software from hardware opens the door to standardizing the hardware to simply have the processor and memory requirements necessary to run the software. Once this has become the case, the price of the hardware comes down drastically and availability greatly increases.

Containerized software is making hardware/software separation easier from a software perspective as well. It is no longer necessary to run a proprietary operating system to make a control system work. Containers hold application code and all the dependencies needed to run without requiring separate installations of supporting software. This starts to break software into manageable chunks and allows developers to focus on building their value instead of duplicating efforts to put system support code around it. Developers can leave the operating system to the operating system experts and instead use container systems like Docker, Kubernetes and Linux Containers to deploy the software relevant to them alone.

Open-source software lowers costs

Open-source software (OSS) is helping developers put together complex applications without the grassroots effort to develop from scratch. To borrow the Java concept, OSS could be described as “write once, use everywhere.” One OSS benefit is the code is written once and maintained by a large group of developers. An example would be the open-source message queuing telemetry transport (MQTT) broker, Mosquitto. It allows developers to use the MQTT broker functionality without the heavy lifting of developing a unique broker for the application. It is easy to see the savings in engineering time and the freedom for development teams to focus on their own value streams.

Streaming industrial control?

The collective benefit of these three software innovations is the value of the industrial controller is moving from the physical hardware to digital content. The Blockbuster model of branch stores is giving way to the Netflix model of focusing on digital value streams.

By not tying the value of the controller to specific hardware, the value of the industrial control is freed from the physical container. Like rows of VHS tapes or DVD discs, it is not necessary to leave valuable assets on the shelf, waiting to be used. Containerized software puts distance between the value of the system and the necessity of proprietary hardware. Direct interaction with the operating system and complex entanglement with hardware systems are not necessary anymore.

This brings more options to the table while simultaneously reducing cost. OSS plays a similar role to containerized software but is more related to focus. OSS removes the redundancy inherent in proprietary systems, allowing for concentration on true value streams.

The Blockbuster model required the customer to participate in delivery of content with multiple trips to a physical store. Netflix wanted the customer to focus on just viewing the content. There is more focus on the true value stream and less focus on redundant support features. This reduces the overall cost and enhances the quality of the end product.

Netflix approach in open industrial automation

Who is taking the lead with this model in manufacturing? A few organizations are helping to clear a path. The Open Source Automation Development Lab (OSADL), is an organization dedicated to shepherding the development of OSS for industrial automation. Membership is growing for good reason. The Eclipse Foundation is another open-source collaboration hub for open-source innovations.

Industrial automation suppliers are embracing open-source automation.

Control automation platforms can follow open industrial automation principles by building on a Linux operating system. An open automation architecture allows customers the maximum freedom to move their control systems in whatever direction they see fit.

Is streaming machine control a reality?

There is good reason to believe that streaming machine control will never get there. It’s one thing to wait for an internet connection to be restored to watch a movie. It is quite another to wait for a manufacturing plant to come back online. New technologies like time-sensitive networking (TSN), 5G (next-generation wireless communications) and blockchain will push us farther down the digital content path, but it is not necessary to follow the Netflix model to its conclusion in industrial manufacturing. What is clear is that the move from physical hardware to digital content is well on its way, and the focus on customer experience will be what drives it in the right direction.

Allen Tubbs is a product manager for Bosch Rexroth’s automation and electrification business unit. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology, mhoske@cfemedia.com.

KEYWORDS: Open-source industrial automation, open-source software


Are you implementing open-source industrial automation to lower development costs and advance ease of use and flexibility?

Author Bio: Allen Tubbs, Bosch Rexroth Corp.