Schneider Electric enters collaborative automation market

More proof of the inexorable combination of IT and control engineering can be found in Schneider Electric’s release of Unity, a set of software products and associated hardware designed for distributed automation applications. Unity products are designed for use by control engineers, system integrators, and IT development engineers.

By Control Engineering Staff November 13, 2003

More proof of the inexorable combination of IT and control engineering can be found in Schneider Electric ’s release of Unity, a set of software products and associated hardware designed for distributed automation applications. Unity products are designed for use by control engineers, system integrators, and IT development engineers. The software products’ open design and interoperability with other systems and devices—provided through the use of XML—allows collaboration among engineers, operators, and product designers throughout the product lifecycle management process.

The three software products that comprise Unity are:

  • Unity Pro—Programming, debugging, and operating software for PLCs. Based on Schneider’s PL7 and Concept software, Unity Pro allows the creation of links to any document or tool, in either local or remote mode, for access to diagnostic help tests or a database in real time.

  • Unity Studio—Based on Microsoft Visio, Studio is software for developing and structuring distributed automation applications. Unity Studio incorporates Unity Pro, PowerSuite for drives and motors, and XBT-L1000 for user interfaces and OFS (object file server) for real-time communication. Unity Studio allows users to develop their own environments for data exchange, accessing tools such as mechanical or electrical CAD, production management, process simulators, drives, etc. Using the Visio 2002 graphic editor, Unity Studio automatically generates a data set (functional structure, communication addresses, Global Data) for each station in the distributed architecture with no programming required. It can be used to position various stations in your Ethernet TCP/IP network (PLCs, HMIs, variablespeed drives, hubs, etc.).

  • Unity Developer’s Edition—Additional software for IT and systems development engineers working with VBA, VB or C++. Developer’s Edition offers access to all Unity Pro and Studio object servers so that tools can be interfaced by a supplier in partnership with Schneider (e.g., electrical or mechanical CAD, supervisory software, MES and ERP, batch, etc.) or designed and implemented by the user.

On the hardware end corresponding to Unity Pro, Schneider has upgraded its Premium, Atrium, and Quantum PLCs with increased memory capacity and Unity-configured processors.

Unity also features Schneider Electric’s Transparent Ready capability, which enables any product—PLC, distributed I/O, variable-speed drive, HMI, robot, etc.—to exchange data locally or remotely. Transparent Ready enables this through integrated Ethernet TCP/IP link, Ethernet I/O scanning and synchronization (Global Data) services, and a ready-to-use Web server in the PLC processors.

One of the principal values Unity offers engineers and system integrators is the ability to develop a process in either a top-down or bottom-up fashion.

”It helps users move from determining the needs of the plant to developing the control architecture to support it, which allows the user to better understand the physical needs to support the structure,” says Lee Ward, Unity commercial support manager for Schneider Electric.

Ward also claims the efficiencies in system design offered by Unity can eliminate 20-30% of engineering development time. ”Unity declares from a single point who’s reading and writing data on the network. Therefore, if anything changes, it is changed throughout, dynamically,” he says. ”For an integrator, this means that a process can be engineered and a bid returned within days because the integrator can look at the whole process, not just the PLC.”

After attending a session where Unity was introduced to system integrators affiliated with Schneider Electric, G. Duane Grob, engineering manager, Total Systems Design in West Chester, PA, agrees with Ward that the software is especially useful in designing projects from the top down, particularly with regard to large projects. ”Because it’s not specific to Schneider Electric, but open to incorporate various devices within a plant, it puts all PLCs and documentation together to integrate all hardware, software, and specifications. That, in turn, puts operations, IT, and engineers all on same page with access to the same information.”

Robb Dussault, US product marketing, Automation Products, Schneider Electric, says Unity is offered through its three individual modules—Pro, Studio, and Developer’s Edition—as a result of being adapted to the needs of manufacturers as outlined in ARC Advisory Group’s collaborative production model, which delineates collaboration at both the automation and IT levels.

In ARC ’s white paper, ”Collaborative Automation: The Platform for Operational Excellence,” it states: ”Automation systems are comprised of a large variety of devices and associated software. This means all system integrators, machine builders, and end-users must develop and maintain competency in several application-building environments. The complexity of the situation seriously impairs rapid progress. End-users need more consistency and fewer environments to reduce this complexity and achieve the rate of change required by new manufacturing strategies and customer demand.”

The white paper also accurately states that, in working toward this level of collaboration, ”manufacturers will not replace everything at once and do not want another development environment. Therefore, next-generation automation environments must be flexible and extensible to accommodate future products through an evolutionary process.”

Because Unity it is not limited to Schneider Electric products, ARC says ”its collaborative automation mission expands its lifecycle coverage using an architecture open to all end-user tool providers over multiple disciplines and various levels of detail. Unity’s architecture for integrating applications by openly sharing automation data is one of its most significant advancements. Unity application development tools can use the open information server’s COM interfaces to create applications as well as access them. This gives third party tools equal status and encourages development of tools.”

—David Greenfield, Editorial Director, Control Engineering,