Automation designers select hardware, software from portfolio of coordinated products
Automation designers develop IIoT-ready automation solutions of all sizes
Industrial automation designers must always maintain a primary focus on basic equipment operation and safety. But now these same users are keeping their eyes open for ways to achieve secondary goals of data access and connectivity, often described as industrial internet of things (IIoT) functionality or edge communication capability. Sometimes these users want to build-in IIoT capability from the beginning, while in other cases they just want to ensure their systems are future-proof so IIoT can be easily added later.
In recent years, industrial manufacturing end users and machine-builder original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) involved with operational technology (OT) control have begun to recognize the potential value hidden right beyond their immediate grasp: the data contained within their automation systems. Accessing this data, transporting it to someplace convenient — such as on-premises or cloud-based information technology (IT) resources — and then analyzing and acting on it can empower these users to run their systems more efficiently, improve safety, and maximize uptime.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution in this space. Complete OT/IT solutions require the right software, communication protocol, and networking solutions to run on a range of hardware products such as:
• Large and compact programmable logic controllers (PLCs)
• Edge controllers
• Safety controllers
• Input/output (I/O) modules
• Motion control
• Human-machine interfaces (HMIs)
• Industrial PCs (IPCs)
The bottom line is that with so many choices and possibilities, industrial automation designers are best served, and will be most efficient at developing applications both small and large, when they can choose what they need from a product portfolio offering the greatest range of compatible edge-ready devices.
Small/medium/large automation designers
OEMs and end users prefer to standardize automation designs to the greatest extent possible. This minimizes the number of product makes/models they need to order and stock, and it maximizes user familiarity and efficiency. On the other hand, good design calls for applying the right products for each situation. For small cell control applications and localized operations, a compact PLC serves the purpose. Using a large PLC or full-fledged edge controller on a small conveyor system is likely not the most cost-effective way to implement automation, until the project size and requirements grow to a certain size (see Figure 1).
Designers will find it easiest to choose from a family of PLCs to create scalable right-sized solutions for any application from small cell control up to large supervisory installations, especially when the portfolio offers consistency and the following characteristics:
• Form factors usable with a variety of local I/O (slice or rack-based), on-machine remote I/O, and other forms of I/O depending on the target application.
• Scalable options, so users can choose memory, performance, I/O capability, and advanced features like motion as needed.
• Inclusion of 1Gb Ethernet ports on all models; with the option to add ports on larger models.
• Capable of supporting one or more fieldbus protocols, like PROFINET, Modbus, or others.
• Capable of using OPC UA for communicating securely to HMI/SCADA systems and also the new class of edge devices.
• Configurable for control and data handling using a common software development suite.
• Achieves Level 2 Certified for a secure-by-design product.
Especially important is the availability of secure OPC UA communications over gigabit Ethernet. OPC UA is a leading on-premises communication protocol and ensures that any OT controllers are ready to interact with separate edge operating systems of all types to transmit data to IT systems of IIoT efforts. This segregation of control from edge processing is essential to preserve manageable protection of OT systems from IT threats.
OT/IT integration goes small
PLCs of all sizes are necessary for high-speed deterministic control. Large PLCs have their place when an application calls for more memory and I/O, modular scalability, redundancy, and integrated motion control. These larger PLCs also commonly have the feature set to support OT/IT integration with edge computing and more protocol choices. But for the countless smaller systems and machines which need localized control, what is the best and most cost-effective way to design edge-ready automation? Designers should not be forced to sacrifice data-related features like OPC UA, 1Gb networking, and encrypted data transfer just because the application is localized and has a low I/O count.
To connect with just a few I/O points without disrupting existing automation, the best solution is often adding modular I/O in a small local panel or distributed on-machine I/O bricks. These could be connected to a nearby edge-ready PLC, or they could be connected via a PROFINET bus coupler to any edge capable controller or IPC. The latter may be preferable so that a PLC that is currently operating equipment does not need to be disturbed.
In some cases, it may be necessary to gather data from a configurable safety controller, such as an intelligent configurable safety relay. Many of these devices include industrial communications protocols like PROFINET, so they can be connected to edge-ready or edge-capable devices. The main difference is these controllers may also have significant extended and diagnostic data available.
However, for many new machines and retrofit situations, the best solution is an edge-ready compact PLC controller (Figure 2). These right-sized devices have enough I/O to handle common needs, and they can be programmed for local control, monitoring, or both. These devices can also perform data pre-processing, such as incrementing a running counter of how many parts are produced based on a discrete input. Using an on-board Ethernet port, these compact PLCs can transmit information to higher-level edge-enabled devices.
Automation designers, portfolio benefits
Many types of compact PLCs are available, but only a select few are part of a larger and comprehensive portfolio. Why does that matter? Because users want scalable solutions they can use regardless of machine or application size, so they can proceed with minimal learning and effort to create robust automation projects. This is only possible when an automation product vendor takes on the role of a trusted partner who understands the challenges, and provides peace of mind by offering PLCs of all sizes, edge controllers, HMIs, SCADA, motion controllers, servos and drives, safety, and more.
For configuring these systems, when designers select the right-sized automation devices, they don’t want to learn how to use a new programming environment. Instead, they would prefer a consistent environment so there is one toolset and one toolchain for all configuration efforts (See figure 3).
This concept of consistency should also apply to the control and edge implementation philosophy. Deterministic control is much different than general purpose analytics and edge computing. For performance and cybersecurity reasons, these two domains should remain separate, yet able to work securely and cooperatively with each other.
The deterministic side operates within certain so-called guard rails that keep the system safe and operating robustly. Logic programming is changed infrequently, and since it is production-oriented it should be isolated from potentially risky outside influences such as plant network and internet connections. It needs to be tailored to OT personnel, who are typically more familiar with ladder logic and IEC languages than with IT programming.
The edge computing and IIoT environment is configured with other more IT-centric languages like Python, C++, and with associated apps. Not only is this side internet-facing—and therefore it must provide cyber defenses—but it evolves rapidly and should be easier to update without impacting deterministic operations. However, the e dge computing tasks must be able to securely interact with the deterministic side to gather data and provide operational setting updates.
A comprehensive automation portfolio will include deterministic control, edge-enabled computing, I/O, safety, and even motion control products designed to work well together. Users should only need to learn how to use a single suite of development software, empowering them to create deterministic programming consistently and deploy it on the appropriately sized platforms. Similarly, edge code and apps, or an edge-enabled HMI software suite, should operate consistently—whether deployed on an edge controller, and IPC, or a server.
Automating, future-proofing applications
Implementing right-sized automation is important for applications ranging from production plants, to work cells, to machine control, to simply monitoring a few points. Certainly, edge controllers, large PLCs, and compact PLCs should be selected and sized based on the automation needs. But the key to IT/ OT convergence and support current and future data handling needs is selecting controllers (of any size) that offer secure OPC UA over 1Gb Ethernet connection. A family of other products like safety controllers, intelligent I/O, and more should also be available to work in a complementary fashion with the automation.
To simplify designs, future-proof them, and ensure they are IIoT-ready, designers should look for an automation portfolio offering consistency of deterministic control and general-purpose edge computing across the entire product range, with networking capabilities that ensure there is no sacrifice for data collection requirements. This will minimize design effort, enable re-use and portability of work and provide the best flexibility for deploying solutions to applications of all sizes.