New products for next-generation, open automation infrastructure controller

Schneider Electric delivers next-generation, open automation infrastructure, distributed control node (DCN) with independent software-defined controller, in collaboration with Intel and Red Hat, as announced at the 2024 ARC Industry Forum.

By Mark T. Hoske February 12, 2024
Courtesy: Mark T. Hoske, Control Engineering

 

Learning Objectives

  • Schneider Electric, working with Red Hat and Intel, announced the Distributed Control Node (DCN) software framework at 2024 ARC Industry Forum.
  • Intel is helping to make automation products suitable for industrial use; mission critical applications such as automotive industry over-the-air software updates could be adaption for controls industries.

Interoperable automation infrastructure insights

  • Schneider Electric announced new Distributed Control Node (DCN) software framework to help drive open automation at the 2024 ARC Industry Forum.
  • The DCN, in collaboration with Intel and Red Hat, helps replace vendor-specific hardware with plug-and-produce software.
  • Interoperability and portability support industrial innovation, reduce obsolescence, companies said.

Schneider Electric, in collaboration with Intel and Red Hat, announced the release of a Distributed Control Node (DCN) software framework Feb. 6, after a Feb. 5 preview to media and analysts at the 2024 ARC Leadership Forum in Orlando. See additional insights from the preview below. Schneider Electric, with U.S. headquarters in Boston, provides digital transformation, energy management and automation software and hardware.

An extension of Schneider Electric’s EcoStruxure Automation Expert software, the new framework enables industrial companies to move to a software-defined, plug-and-produce automation architecture, aiming to enhance operations, ensure quality, reduce complexity and optimize costs.

Figure 1: An advanced computer platform (ACP), which supervises the control workload by providing the content control and automation capabilities needed to deploy workloads securely and programmatically, along with virtualization and monitoring functionalities, was part of the Schneider Electric open interoperable automation discussion during the 2024 ARC Industry Leadership Forum by ARC Advisory Group.

Figure 1: An advanced computer platform (ACP), which supervises the control workload by providing the content control and automation capabilities needed to deploy workloads securely and programmatically, along with virtualization and monitoring functionalities, was part of the Schneider Electric open interoperable automation discussion during the 2024 ARC Industry Leadership Forum by ARC Advisory Group. Courtesy: Mark T. Hoske, Control Engineering

Next generation of industrial control

Aligned with the goals of the Open Process Automation Forum (OPAF), an organization dedicated to driving interoperability and portability, the three collaborators created a modern, network-based architecture intended to enable the next generation of industrial control.

“This project is the culmination of two years of co-innovation to create efficient, future-proof distributed control systems,” said Nathalie Marcotte, senior vice president of process automation at Schneider Electric. “The DCN framework is key to fostering an open automation approach, enabling industrial businesses to grow and innovate for the future. Its interoperability and portability help our customers enjoy the freedom of shaping technology around their business needs – and not the other way around.”

Red Hat, in collaboration with Intel, recently announced a new industrial edge platform that helps provide a modern approach to building and operating industrial controls. Since implementing this platform, Schneider Electric has deployed Red Hat Device Edge in the new DCN software, in addition to Red Hat Ansible Automation Platform and Red Hat OpenShift at the compute layer for DCN deployments, combined with a control infrastructure from Schneider Electric and reference architecture from Intel.

The framework has two main components: an advanced computer platform (ACP), which supervises the control workload by providing the content control and automation capabilities needed to deploy workloads securely and programmatically, along with virtualization and monitoring functionalities (Figure 1); and the DCN, which are low-power, industrial systems using Intel Atom x6400E series processors, dedicated to running controls and designed for workloads of mixed-criticality (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Schneider Electric, in collaboration with Intel and Red Hat, announced the release of a Distributed Control Node (DCN) software framework Feb. 6, after a Feb. 5 preview to media and analysts at the 2024 ARC Leadership Forum in Orlando by ARC Advisory Group.

Figure 2: Schneider Electric, in collaboration with Intel and Red Hat, announced the release of a Distributed Control Node (DCN) software framework Feb. 6, after a Feb. 5 preview to media and analysts at the 2024 ARC Leadership Forum in Orlando by ARC Advisory Group. Courtesy: Mark T. Hoske, Control Engineering

Christine Boles, vice president of Intel’s network and edge group and general manager for federal and industrial solutions, said, “Open and interconnected commercial solutions will help usher in the transition from fixed function proprietary devices to flexible and dynamic software-based infrastructures. Intel has a long history of driving open system approaches across its ecosystem. This collaboration with Schneider Electric and Red Hat to develop a software-defined control system showcasing next-generation distributed control nodes built on general purpose compute and operating systems brings about this transition to the industrial sector.”

Francis Chow, vice president and general manager of in-vehicle operating system and edge at Red Hat, said, “Red Hat is committed to helping manufacturers implement autonomous operations on the shop floor. By working closely with our partners, like Schneider Electric and Intel, we can help build scalable, software-defined factories and operations capable of advanced automation and interoperability,” using “a consistent platform approach. We’re excited about this collaboration, and this is only the beginning. By taking these steps now, we can help set the industrial sector up to explore all the possibilities AI, edge computing and more have to offer.”

The architecture was demonstrated at the 2024 ARC Industry Leadership Forum in Orlando, Florida, Feb. 5-8.

Schneider Electric said it drives digital transformation by integrating world-leading process and energy technologies, end-point to cloud connecting products, controls, software and services, across the lifecycle, enabling integrated company management, for homes, buildings, data centers, infrastructure and industries.

Figure 3: Andre Babineau, Schneider Electric, PA strategy director, previewed the new distributed control node at a Feb. 5 news conference during the 2024 ARC Industry Leadership Forum by ARC Advisory Group.

Figure 3: Andre Babineau, Schneider Electric, PA strategy director, previewed the new distributed control node at a Feb. 5 news conference during the 2024 ARC Industry Leadership Forum by ARC Advisory Group. Courtesy: Mark T. Hoske, Control Engineering

Technology overview: Schneider Electric’s Distributed Control Node (DCN) software framework

At the 2024 ARC Industry Leadership Forum, Schneider Electric, Intel and Red Hat discussed the DCN software framework from Schneider Electric.

Michael Martinez, Schneider Electric EcoStruxure Foxboro, DCS leader, said the open and inclusive DCN framework intends to help end users challenged to be more agile and deal workforce issues, including shortages of qualified labor and retiring talent, a combination that challenges organizations with legacy control systems to keep up with market demands. Martinez characterized OPAF efforts as “beyond open to interchangeable. How can we create a technology environment to adapt at the speed of innovation?” he asked a panel (Figure 4).

  • Boles, Intel, mentioned above

  • Kelly Switt, senior director, global head of intelligence edge, Red Hat

  • Jason Norris, Phoenix Contact group leader global market development

  • Ravi Jagasia, Stahl global business development.

Figure 4: Panel discussed open and inclusive technologies for industrial automation at the 2024 ARC Industry Leadership Forum by ARC Advisory Group. Michael Martinez, Schneider Electric EcoStruxure Foxboro, DCS leader (left) also served as moderator. Christine Boles is vice president of network and edge group, Intel; Kelly Switt is senior director, global head of intelligence edge, Red Hat; Jason Norse is Phoenix Contact group leader global market development; and Ravi Jagasia is Stahl global business development.

Figure 4: Panel discussed open and inclusive technologies for industrial automation at the 2024 ARC Industry Leadership Forum by ARC Advisory Group. Michael Martinez, Schneider Electric EcoStruxure Foxboro, DCS leader (left) also served as moderator. Christine Boles is vice president of network and edge group, Intel; Kelly Switt is senior director, global head of intelligence edge, Red Hat; Jason Norris is Phoenix Contact group leader global market development; and Ravi Jagasia is Stahl global business development. Courtesy: Mark T. Hoske, Control Engineering

How is Intel making automation products suitable for industrial use?

Boles said Intel has served many industries in the industrial sector with products and technologies, but challenges are too great for companies to solve alone. Bringing capabilities from different industries for a new approach, to defining specifications and standards, evolving to a more open approach. It happens only when multiple companies work on open platform and put innovation on top, building on OPAF reference designs of a few years ago. Now companies are building on reference designs, to produce distributed control nodes in a new system to “revolutionize how automation systems work. It’s very excited to see how industry is progressing.”

Switt said Red Hat has been revolutionizing the IT industry for 30 years with open-source code and the Linux operating system, allowing the IT industry to produce needed products using a rich open-source platform. Intel contributes as much or more code than we do, Switt said. Cloud computing advanced to the telecommunication industries 10 to 12 years ago, with network virtualization functions; 4G and 5G systems became open and interoperable. The same transformation is taking place here, driven by market needs, including next-gen talent who appreciates training on new technologies. Switt said Red Hat is known in the government sector for strong use of cybersecurity standards and open access to data, to improve operations and extract software value with hardware and system resiliency. With easier access to data, companies can think differently about how to run operations. We intend to collaborate and democratize data use so companies can better innovate and run their businesses.

Martinez said select partners have been doing this a long time for IT. For OT, it needs to be proven and made robust in a software-defined future. The concept has been well proven in other areas. When you go to a trusted website, users don’t worry about website security. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish. Users need to feel comfortable moving to next-generation architectures. “Automation industry vendors have trained customers how to buy our products. Now technologies can start to solve problems without users having to adapt their processes to the product.

Boles noted that the telecommunications could not have progresses 4G to 5G without this shift to open-source architectures. In the telecommunications industry this open-source architecture is foundational. Manufacturers and utilities can take advantage of what’s already been done in other industries.

Switt noted that it is a different way of thinking. Manufacturers ask for a spec sheet, but that’s not available with open-source software.

Figure 5: Schneider Electric demonstrates an application use case at the ARC Industry Forum for open and interoperable automation. Among topics covered were software-defined controllers and rugged controller hardware (an edge controller) that can operate software separate from the supplying vendor, as has been the model in IT applications, but fewer OT or automation applications.

Figure 5: Schneider Electric demonstrates an application use case at the ARC Industry Forum for open and interoperable automation. Among topics covered were software-defined controllers and rugged controller hardware (an edge controller) that can operate software separate from the supplying vendor, as has been the model in IT applications, but fewer OT or automation applications. Courtesy: Mark T. Hoske, Control Engineering

Martinez said industrial automation is moving away from proprietary systems. OPAF standards have redefined “open” so everything can talk to everything else, share information. Workforce demands an end to proprietary languages of past, where engineers to be network specialists and cybersecurity experts. This multi-vendor inclusive solution provides a more resilient automation platform (Figure 5), Martinez explained, with easier connections through the supply chain. Customer can expand, update or add automation and keep the facility running (Figure 6). Working with other automation technology vendors, it’s easier to incorporate technologies from other vendors without reconfiguring systems or the input/output (I/O) system infrastructure. Vendors’ products should work together in a software-based architecture with software-based configuration. Learn more.

Norris noted that while OPAF and universal.org both have open visions, they are not the same thing. “I’m a hardware guy, and connectivity is a physical thing.” He said when a sensor comes into a network, it needs standard interfaces to connect and communicate. Automation vendors traditionally offer specific software. In some cases, in requests for proposals (RFPs), customers are looking for a more open concept, an open second channel to talk to proprietary systems. He sees interest in OPAF and gets more questions from customers with field trials.

Martinez said OPAF would create language to help users request open-source architecture in specifications. Perhaps 15% or less know-how to put open-source request in specifications.

Jagasia said Stahl serves hazardous area markets and appreciates that sensor data can be transfers and enhanced with internet or cloud connections and applications. Open-source data efforts have been lost in the past. Plug-and-play architecture is needed, he suggested.

Figure 6: An open interoperable multi-vendor automation architecture was part of numerous discussions during the 2024 ARC Industry Leadership Forum by ARC Advisory Group.

Figure 6: An open interoperable multi-vendor automation architecture was part of numerous discussions during the 2024 ARC Industry Leadership Forum by ARC Advisory Group. Courtesy: Mark T. Hoske, Control Engineering

Martinez said open architecture automation can add scalability and create an industrial automation platform programmable logic controller (PLC), with process control and high-speed machine control capabilities in one platform. The open vision allows multiple vendors of hardware and one software application running on any hardware. Customers can build applications for processes and integrate them into larger applications.

Norris said Phoenix Contact and Schneider Electric share a common sales channel in the U.S. market. Phoenix Contact has done lab and integration tests with open architectures, and while customers have interest, they have not deployed as of early February.

Martinez the platform allows creation of independent applications that don’t require lots of system integration, so customers or system integrators can develop without worrying which hardware it will deploy on. He asked, “What are you doing to add value?”

Boles said the software-defined approach used in other industries, deploys workload where needed and now is building momentum in the industrial space. The utility industry grid cannot handle changes in supply and demand. Intel is working with a range of industries to bring IT capability to the edge of operations. Challenges for reliability and resiliency are similar.

Automotive industry over-the-air software updates

Switt gave an example of the automotive revolution. Many startups in automotive disrupted how cars are made. Now trusted brands are changing how they make vehicles. Linux is going into cars. With a need for physical safety, functional safety was added to Linux. To supplement components in the physical car, a software-defined vehicle can receive over-the-air updates. Red Hat is working with large system integrators to do virtual testing in the cloud about how deploy updates in cars while at a gas station. Industries can learn from each other. Automotive industry, for instance, is asking for a Linux equivalent to safety integrity level (SIL) 3.

“We need to open our minds to what others are doing to learn and share,” Switt said. Perhaps this will end the practice of updating a plant’s controllers with USB sticks, she added.

Martinez agreed that over-the-air updates would be useful. Use of a distributed control node for automation applications provide ability to move platform to another. Software-based controllers allow users to redeploy workload to other areas for added capacity or redundancy as needed. Martinez said this more sustainable infrastructure takes less space and uses less hardware.

News conference preview of Schneider Electric DCN software framework

At a Feb. 5 news conference at the 2024 ARC Industry Forum, Schneider Electric, Intel and Red Hat explained more about the platform. Tom Eck, U.S. media relations manager, Schneider Electric, introduced Andre Babineau, Schneider Electric, PA strategy director, new distributed control node, and Heather Cykoski, SVP industrial and process automation NAM operations, SE. Cykoski said the introduction is designed to drive efficiencies and processes as we move into Industry 5.0 and realize advantages of a software-defined architecture.

Babineau, PA strategy director, commenting on the new distributed control node, said Schneider Electric’s collaboration with Intel started two years ago. Based on the OPAF reference design, the DCN’s IT technology integration leverages Intel hardware and software with lowest total cost of ownership. Babineau said it brings resilience to a control system by leveraging standard technologies. When a failure occurs at night, it’s easy to bring it back to the desired state. Also, software updates bring the highest level of cybersecurity without shutdown.

Boles said working with OPAF created an open-platform approach. Reference design uses an Intel Atom x6400E se processor. The optimized OT software stack is helped with Red Hat, providing industrial edge software functions on rugged hardware.

Babineau said the approach uses IT-OT integration, decouples hardware and software, creates agnostic software architecture, is scalable and future proof and is AI ready. Also, he said, a DCN is better than a PLC because it can load the software you want. A PLC’s firmware is burned in.

Edited by Mark T. Hoske is content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology, mhoske@cfemedia.com, with materials from Schneider Electric.

KEYWORDS

Open, interoperable automation architecture; distributed control node

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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.