1 January 2002
Reality 2002 is lean and results driven
By Perry Sink Marshall
The controls business has always been too pragmatic for dot.com dreams, but it's certainly entertained its glimmers of idealism. Three years ago, the hot topics were e-commerce, Web-enabled everything, PC-based control, and fieldbuses.
Today, the integration of existing equipment with the latest and best happens one step at a time. Most folks aren't shelling out $1,500 an hour to the SAP consultant these days; the economic and technical reality today is very lean and results driven. Managers will take cost savings any way they can get them as technologies available in the consumer world shape expectations in ours. The following technologies are on the rise in 2002:
Everybody wants a PDA. I recall a vigorous debate in a room of reps and distributors about whether factories would embrace personal digital assistants (PDAs) for human-machine interface (HMI), configuration, and troubleshooting or shun them for fear of theft. That question will probably be answered on a case by case basis, but plenty of PDA-based tools are now available, with offerings from numerous small companies for viewing HMI, configuring hardware, and troubleshooting networks.
Wireless is the latest rage, with Bluetooth and wireless Ethernet products entering the market on a daily basis. While these two formats have their limitations, numerous other standards exist. These days, one can usually find a viable wireless technology for situations requiring flexible configuration or where long cable runs are too expensive.
Industrial Ethernet is a serious I/O alternative, and networkers increasingly see open fieldbuses such as Modbus, DeviceNet, and Profibus as "legacy technologies." But nobody's ripping out equipment that works just because something new debuted. So Ethernet versions of these networks—Modbus/TCP and EtherNet/IP, for example—bridge the gap between existing systems and business LANs.
Real Time Automation and Pyramid Solutions offers EtherNet/IP software for product developers, and Rockwell is using Wind River's VxWorks operating system to do the same. Tiny servers from companies such as Lantronix and Fieldserver Technologies extend ordinary serial ports to any PC in the world via the Internet.
PC-based control got its share of black eyes in the late 1990s, as vendors struggled to be all things to all people, sometimes unsuccessfully. But with the pervasive familiarity of Windows NT and 2000 and the growth of Linux, PCs are finding their way into every imaginable kind of application. With this growing comfort level, PCs are replacing PLCs and DCSs in growing numbers.
One example is Emerson's Delta V, popular even in the highly cautious process control world. And don't ignore the growing contingent of Generation X OEM design engineers who'd rather roll their own code, thank you very much. Systems running custom Visual Basic, Java, C, or Visual C++ on industrial PCs, PC/104, VME, and Compact PCI hardware are plentiful.
Embedded controllers are a fast-growing phenomenon, fitting somewhere between the Old World of proprietary PLCs and open PCs. The ever-popular TiVo is a shining example from the consumer world: To a user, it's somewhat akin to a VCR, but it's really a "headless" PC running embedded Linux on a massive hard drive. Controls companies such as Z-world, Hilscher, and Delta Systems make flexible, "quasi-open" hardware/software combinations for OEMs, which speeds the development of specific kinds of control systems.
Firewire may very well become the high-speed motion control network of the
future, as numerous vendors such as Ormec, Acroloop, and Mitsubishi embrace
it. Blazing speed, deterministic performance and low hardware cost make it an
excellent choice for linking high-speed servos. USB is making definite inroads
as well, with new diagnostic tools and PC peripherals appearing every day. IT
Behind the byline
Perry Sink Marshall is an author, speaker, and consultant who assists
technology OEMs with product definition and customer acquisition. You can contact
him at www.perrymarshall.com.