Windows CE Embeds Itself in Automation, Control, and Instrumentation

Windows CE, the thinnest among Microsoft Windows operating systems, works as fast as PLCs, is moving to real time, and offers developers of automation, control, and instrumentation software the advantages of the Microsoft development world.Windows CE is compatible with existing Windows products, can look like Windows NT to the user, and has reduced memory requirements, less than 1 MB, so ...

By Mark T. Hoske, Control Engineering November 1, 1998


Software for control

Embedded control

Process instrumentation


Operating systems

Sidebars: Top 10 Reasons to Embed Windows CE Windows CE product sampling Linux provides users with Microsoft alternative

Windows CE, the thinnest among Microsoft Windows operating systems, works as fast as PLCs, is moving to real time, and offers developers of automation, control, and instrumentation software the advantages of the Microsoft development world.

Windows CE is compatible with existing Windows products, can look like Windows NT to the user, and has reduced memory requirements, less than 1 MB, so hard disk isn’t required on the hardware of handheld, palm, mobile, operator interfaces, and embedded computers. Microsoft Corp. (Redmond, Wa.) says Windows CE 2.0 exceeds the performance of most popular PLC platforms with a worst-case response time latency of 500 msec; version 2.11, available now, has added advantages; future versions will be hard real-time.

Win CE appears in human-machine interface products, in programmable logic controllers (PLCs), and in various automation and instrumentation software. Hand-held applications help supply-chain activities with Windows CE mobile computers for field staff, which then transfer data to manufacturing execution or enterprise systems.

Common platforms, such as Windows CE, also allow software and hardware developers to focus on adding value to core products, rather than replicating efforts.

Where and how

Applications include embedded machine and CNC control; embedded visualization capabilities, with or without control; open PLCs driven by CE-based control engines; smart I/O devices; and dedicated embedded controllers, such as single or multi-loop PID and flow controllers. Handheld PCs from Hewlett Packard, Sharp, Casio, Compaq and other run Windows CE.

Dave Rohn, development manager for Open Control group of Rockwell Automation (Mayfield Heights, O.), expects Win CE use in palmtop and handheld computers, within automation software, and as an embedded real-time operating system (OS).

“The rich development environment gives us ability to more rapidly respond to changes and develop products, with less time devoted to debugging code.” Mr. Rohn, who’s done some debugging himself, says it’s quicker and easier within the rich Microsoft environment than with many other methods.

While Windows NT is a strong platform for control, Windows CE will offer tighter real-time capabilities, Mr. Rohn says, and will be integrated into multiple Rockwell Automation and Rockwell Software products. Windows CE version 3.0 will provide interrupt latencies of 50 msec, suitable for “hard real-time” and a platform for small footprint systems.

Rockwell Automation’s soft logic product, SoftLogix, will have controllers for Windows CE as well as NT, Mr. Rohn says. Window CE is likely to expand user choices, rather than displace any product category, he says. Rockwell Automation discusses its views in “Using the Windows NT Operating System for Soft Real-time Control— Separating Fact from Fiction White Paper” on its web site.

James E. Heaton, vp technology research for AMR Research (Boston, Mass.) says, “With Win CE as the core technology, application software will be able to talk to all other MS-based systems on the network.

“The CE-based PLC vision is that the PLC becoming more like a general-purpose computer, an OS, and a programming environment for a code compiler. European and Asian PLC implementations are a more immediate fit for Win CE. The larger ones already have an OS environment and multiple programming languages,” Mr. Heaton predicts. Some North American manufacturers, such as Allen-Bradley, use a proprietary multitasking processor for both code and communications, a less likely candidate for initial use of Win CE, he says.

Win CE, operating as thinner-than-NT implementation, presents advantages to manufacturers interested in open control architectures. As a communications method in PLCs, Win CE competes with web-server enabled PLC technology as the primary alternative. A PLC can be web-server enabled without designing out its current (proprietary) OS.

Win CE-enabled devices could also proliferate on the plant floor, Mr. Heaton says, as small ruggedized PCs, with or without operator interface, barcode readers, infrared products, radio-frequency or wireless products.

Russell Agrusa, president of Iconics (Foxborough, Mass.), sees Windows CE replacing PLCs, Windows NT, and Windows 98 on the plant floor, because “Win CE requires no hard disk and has no moving parts, with a comparable mean time between failure to PLCs.”

Not as much optimism came from Eric Marks, Schneider Automation (North Andover, Mass.) MES/Enterprise Solutions strategic marketing manager in September, saying, “As long as major control companies are around, proprietary languages will dominate in PLCs. Win CE isn’t proven, and commercial technology moves faster than the industrial market wants to. Schneider Automation promotes commercial technology, but I just don’t see WinCE playing a significant near-term role with PLCs.” Even so, Schneider Automation is planning to release Win CE products in the Modicon Quantum controller line next year.

Ken Spenser, president and ceo of Think & Do Software (Ann Arbor, Mich.), expects “Win CE will take traditional PLC hardware to places it’s never been before. Certain embedded markets—like semiconductor, electronics, high-speed sorting and conveying—didn’t like PLCs’ relay ladder logic, proprietary communications, form factor, or cost. Windows CE on an embedded processor, such as WinPLC from PLC Direct , addresses every single one of those issues.” It’s hard for vendors to write applications to a dozen operating systems, Mr. Spenser adds; users will benefit from a widely used platform with multivendor support.

Gary Klassen, SST (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada) software architect and active in OPC Foundation, says popular, consumer-based Windows CE portable devices like handheld and palm-sized PCs can be used to program devices on the plant floor and run diagnostics that function both as human-machine interface and PLC-type devices. Greater interest in Windows CE is for embedded devices, Klassen suggests. (See “Top 10 reasons….”)

Embedded systems

Although many initial Windows CE solutions are based on existing PC-style I/O buses (like PC-Card, ISA or PCI), in many cases these I/O buses do not meet the goals of embedded systems, Mr. Klassen explains. Embedded systems have little need to add and remove devices, and drivers may be pre-configured in system memory. These systems are also typically targeted to high volume, low-margin applications where an expensive, full featured interface card is inappropriate.

Microsoft is pursuing the factory floor with Win CE. Harel Kodesh, Microsoft general manager of the Consumer Appliance Group—commenting on a recent Win CE alliance between VenturCom and Wonderware—says, “Windows CE technology will allow us to bring our industry leading control and automation products to small, low-cost hardware platforms, easily embedded into factory-floor equipment.”

Tony Barbagallo, Microsoft Windows CE product marketing, doesn’t expect Windows CE to control sensors or high-end robotics, “but in other areas, it leverages developers’ knowledge base and provides functionality that ties back into enterprise.” He says Win CE 3.0 should be in beta in first-half 1999, with production in second half.

Jim Thorp, OI product line manager, Cutler-Hammer (Milwaukee, Wis.), says real-time Win CE will be in PLCs and robotics. Mr. Thorp says users should see low-cost Cutler-Hammer operator interface systems using Win CE in first-half 1999.

Wonderware (Irvine, Calif.) is embedding Windows CE into factory machinery and is in discussions with several hardware manufacturers. Dave Emery, Wonderware’s senior business development manager for Windows CE and control products, expects Windows CE to become a standard for factory automation, eliminating PCs, associated connections, keyboard, mouse, and terminal by embedding Windows CE directly into machinery.

Software like Wonderware’s FactorySuite software can serve as the base application for an operating system, replacing proprietary PLCs with connectivity to enterprise resource planning and manufacturing execution systems. While Wonderware gets into the machine, others may dwell there also; other vendor’s software products could be loaded for various applications. Embedding applications into machinery that line workers already know results in less downtime and more productive operations, Mr. Emery says.

Other major HMI and control hardware and software vendors embracing Microsoft platforms seem likely to implement Win CE within their systems, with products emerging now, or soon.

Win CE certainly isn’t the only operating system moving into embedded applications and industrial controllers—competition includes Imagination Systems Hyperkernel, Java, Phar Lap Software, QNX Software, and Tornado/VxWorks, among others.

Top 10 Reasons to Embed Windows CE

Windows CE fits embedded systems because it:

Offers quick response times (with planned improvements);Is embedded in machinery;

Has no moving parts as a software solution;

Doesn’t require a Windows NT box at each piece of machinery along the manufacturing line. Win CE can operate equipment while an NT box runs supervisory functions for a group;

Allows use of PC cards with preloaded programs to cut down on the amount of time it takes to reprogram a machine’s functions;

Runs from memory;

Operates in a form factor familiar to the plant worker, making it easy to support, operate and manage;

Reduces costs of integration and offers built-in connectivity to ERP and MES systems already in place. About 75% of automation systems’ costs are associated with systems integration and support;

Runs on many different processors, including leading RISC, x86, chips, some with very low power consumption; and

Takes advantage of widely available Microsoft-based tools and resources.

Source: Control Engineering with information from SST (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada) and Microsoft (Redmond, Wa.)

Windows CE product sampling

Microsoft Windows CE applications and products are fast emerging for industrial automation, process control, and instrumentation. Use the numbers below and visit

Annasoft Systems (San Diego, Calif.) offers Intrinsyc DeviceCOM, an implementation of of the distributed component object model for Windows CE. DCOM isn’t supported in the present version of Win CE. Annasoft, Sept. 28, announced a contract with MicroTouch Systems (Methuen, Mass.) develop Win CE products.

Ann Arbor Technologies (Ann Arbor, Mich.) offers a human-machine interface, Weblink CE, with a 12.1-in. TFT color display and touchscreen.

BSquare (Bellevue, Wa.) offers a Windows CE and OEM Adaptation Kit ( CE , January, p. 3).

Iconics (Foxborough, Mass.) expected to preview the Pocket GraphWorX software for Windows CE in October. This CE version of Iconics’GraphworX32 product, communicates using OPC, object linking and embedding for process control. Pocket GraphWorX CE also leverages wireless or RF communications and solid-state portable devices. Users can monitor operations in real-time and zoom in on graphical representations of processes and access historical information from corporate databases.

Dynapro (New Westminster, British Columbia, Canada) has human-machine interface software architecture on Windows CE for developers to build applications on a common base allowing interoperability between machine control and supervisory control. ET 4500 CE platform industrial computer has 10 of 16 MB RAM available for applications. Flash drives to 260 MB are available. Color VGA resolution is 640 x 480 x 265 pixels on a 10.4-in. TFT display. The units have two RS-232 serial ports, a PC/AT keyboard connector, and a real-time clock.

VersaLogic (Eugene, Ore.) has a Pentium MMX-class single board computer compatible with Windows CE and other operating systems.

PLC Direct (Cumming, Ga.) integrates PLC, PC features in WinPLC which fits directly in the CPU slot of PLC racks using high-speed backplane I/O connections ( CE , Sept. ’98, p. 187). PLC Direct RuntimePC includes flat panel displays and touch screens.

InduSoft (Hilton Head Island, S.C.) has CEView, a supervisory control, process monitoring, and operator interface package running on Microsoft Windows CE ( CE , Oct. ’98, p. 172).

Spyglass (Naperville, Ill.) developed the Spyglass Device Mosaic Web browser for Win CE and will customize implementations. The software is a full-featured Web browser (photo) with memory footprint under half a megabyte, HTML 3.2 compliant with support for frames, tables, and JPEG and animated GIF images.

SST (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada), recently acquired by Woodhead Industries, works with manufacturers to provide a more cost/performance solution for embedded OPC applications. SST OPC servers are currently implemented as in-process and free threaded. The DeviceNet Pro PCMCIA card operates with compatible Win CE devices.

Siemens Energy and Automation (Newnan, Ga.), through its Automation and Drives Group, launched the Multifunctional Platform based on Windows CE. The company positions the line between “an industrial PC and a process-related, application-optimized dedicated device, such as a programmable logic controller.” The first product, Multi Panel Simatic MP270, is an operator panel with soft logic functionality, introduced in September.

Microsoft (Redmond, Wa.) Windows CE version 2.11 is the present version available; version 3.0 next year will be “real-time” with latency under 50 msec, nested interrupts, and more priority levels and will feature processor independence for applications, and support COM+ and DCOM, according to Franklin Fites, director Windows CE Product Unit for Microsoft.

Think & Do Software (Ann Arbor, Mich.) has added Windows CE to the Think&Do Software Version 4.4 development package. Think&Do Software’s CE runtime is being developed for PLC Direct and other hardware.

VenturCom (Cambridge, Mass.) provides a support package that enhances delivery of Windows CE in embedded solutions, through the CE for Intel-Quick Start program (see also CE , January, p. 3). Separately, the RTX 4.2 real-time extension for Windows NT allows easy port of NT applications to Windows CE environments.

Wonderware (Irvine, Calif.) integrated FactorySuite software will use Windows CE as the base application for an operating system to replace proprietary PLCs with open systems having built-in connectivity to ERP and MES, with one look and feel from sensor to board room.

Linux provides users with Microsoft alternative

The Linux computer operating system (OS), an increasingly popular version of Unix, has more than 7 million users, more than 14% of companies, according to Datapro Information Services (Palo Alto, Calif.).

Companies such as Intel, Opto 22, Oracle, Netscape Communications, and others support Linux. Users include Boeing and Mercedes-Benz for some applications. It may be the only OS gaining marketshare against more than 250 million Microsoft (Redmond, Wa.) Windows-based programs on computers.

Proponents say Linux is more stable and scalable than Windows-based alternatives. And most users like the price—free. Linus Torvalds created Linux in Finland in 1990. Programmers worldwide have improved it, with companies like Red Hat Software (Research Triangle Park, N.C.) offering easier-to-use versions at a low cost, such as Red Hat Linux 5.1.

Bob Sheffres, vp of sales for Opto 22 (Temecula, Calif.), says, “Among commercial software trends, we see a lot of user activity in Linux. The Linux user base is growing rapidly; Microsoft is starting to consider it competition. Whenever we announce something related to Linux, we get passionate responses from users.” Opto 22 Linux products include AC28 Linux driver, which allows users and developers to use the Pamux I/O system with Linux; new Ethernet I/O products also will support Linux. “Users have been looking for someone to offer something,” he adds.

On the high end, Alta Technology (Sandy, Ut.) introduced a family of scalable high performance clustered computer systems (photo), combining standard PCI technology with Linux OS to provide supercomputer performance at a lower cost of ownership than traditional supercomputers. AltaCluster pricing starts at about $15,000; targets include scientific computing, simulation, research, geometric modeling, and numerical analysis.

For more information, visit

Alta Technology


Netscape Communications

Opto 22


Red Hat Software