Because of the rapid rate of technical innovation, the way computerized products are developed for the industrial measurement and control (IMC) market will change significantly in the coming years. Historically, embedded systems have been used for many IMC market solutions to control heavy-duty and mechanical applications such as robotics, packaging machines, semiconductor production and others. But a number of dynamic forces in the larger IT industry, as well as changing customer needs within IMC, are affecting the way vendors develop the embedded systems that are the key to many IMC products on the factory floor.
Many of those changes are part of the emergence of a complex, geographically dispersed but well-connected IMC world that converges on the Internet and related technologies, such as Internet-based device management and quality-of-service for deterministic concurrent transport of voice, video and data. IMC devices will be remotely managed with Web-based tools. For example, a production line in Detroit could be managed via remote access in Munich. Or, in case of emergency, an alarm could be sent directly to the cellular phone (or pager, or Web tablet) of the production manager on duty. For developers and vendors, this new world of networked IMC technologies will require shifting where efforts are placed, since manufacturers will require assistance in bridging the gap between what exists today and what will be needed to support the converged network.
Networking is already beginning to play a major role within IMC. To get information into the factory and campus networks, many proprietary industrial networking solutions exist for different application areas and different regions. They include DeviceNet, Profibus, Modbus, CANopen and Foundation Fieldbus, to name just a few. However, these solutions are often incompatible with each other and, typically, tied to a specific vendor or group. IMC solutions are therefore typically more expensive than open, mass-production solutions such as those found in the PC and consumer arenas.
To complicate IMC's connectivity problem, the desire for more distributed control to eliminate bottlenecks and single points of failure results in more complex applications and functionality in devices, i.e., more intelligence in industrial end devices. More functionality typically means more data must be accessible from outside and exchanged between the devices. However, current industrial proprietary buses are limited in meeting today's needs and will continue to struggle with the requirements of future traffic.
Intermediate solutions to connect devices to factory floor networks were brought in to resolve the problem. Specifically, PCs and desktop operating system technology, in the form of Microsoft's NT and DCOM communication, began appearing. Because of those systems' desktop nature, such requirements as low memory and CPU footprint are not met either, resulting in higher costs. Flexibility is also sacrificed, since multiple devices are often connected to an industrial PC, which can handle only a certain number of tasks at a time, creating a bottleneck in IMC applications. Because desktop-style systems are being reused for something they were never designed for and tested against, they also are often not stable enough to run IMC applications and handle heavy Internet-style traffic in a factory environment. Today, products like Wind River's VxDCOM for VxWorks provide the bridge between embedded devices and PCs.
Not just infrastructure
Beyond infrastructure design matters, several other areas related to networking exist for manufacturers. For example, acquired data is usually in number/text form, but there is often a need for remote locations to require richer information about the status of industrial processes using multimedia-style information (i.e., video, audio). Again, this cannot be adequately supported with the current technology. Also, critical traffic used by manufacturers requires determinism. This is similar to quality-of- service aspects already being perfected in the converging voice/video/data networks but has real applicability in the IMC space.
Reuse and frequent reprogramming of equipment, for dynamic loading of applications and upgrades over the network, require more flexibility and intelligence in end devices.
Several of the industry's market trends indicate the changing customer needs and the move toward converged networks. One factor is the critical importance of IMC network and device uptime, since one failing machine might stop the whole production line. This concern drives the need for more intelligence in the overall infrastructure and within devices. However, sharing intelligence and moving toward open-standards-based communication in IMC applications requires security to protect against downtime of factory lines. A greater threat is the risk of accidents caused by incorrectly addressing a device or even by computer viruses.
Another trend is the use of Ethernet, because of its speed, to connect to end devices. But Ethernet is not always suitable as a mode of connection because of how it responds to environmental challenges, including fluctuating temperature range, humidity and the like. This means that there will still be a need for specialty buses, so gateway functionality will have to be built into devices managing this new factory network. Industry consortiums related to proprietary industrial buses are already working on standards for interfacing to Internet-related technology, which means work to standardize running Modbus and Profibus over TCP/IP and running DeviceNet protocols on Ethernet physical layer.
In addition to IMC-specific trends, factors in the general manufacturing industry are also affecting IMC. For instance, there is globalization. This requires central data warehousing, remote monitoring and diagnostics as well as other networked technologies to efficiently run the new large and distributed organizations. In addition, voice (telephone), video (cable) and data (original Internet and corporate LANs) are already converging. Because of these two trends, the Internet will become a larger presence on the factory floor as IMC converges with the new Internet.
Technologies pioneered in other markets (including consumer and Internet) are also affecting IMC. For instance, many design cycles for other networked applications, now measured in "Internet time," are getting much shorter as the rate of technological innovation increases. This encourages manufacturers to produce their networked products faster as well, just to remain competitive in an industry where obsolescence often comes within a year.
In IMC, design cycles are far longer than in the office, communication and entertainment areas. Current IMC technologies and infrastructure will be around for quite some time and cannot be easily phased out. Also, environmental challenges (temperature, humidity) apply to deployed devices as well. Therefore, infrastructure devices following Internet time cannot easily be used on the factory floor. This opens opportunities for the established infrastructure providers as well as for new players recognizing these needs and moving into this market.
The increasing complexity of Internet-connected smart devices also has an impact on IMC. Because it is possible to embed more-powerful functions into applications, pioneered for the Internet device market, the level of sophistication of all embedded applications is skyrocketing. The demand for greater functionality has also brought down the costs for silicon that is suitable for consumer devices.
IMC devices are extremely cost-sensitive and must be highly reliable, so not all of the new technology can be applied easily to IMC applications. In industrial automation, that change is causing a lot of 8-bit processors to be replaced with 16-bit processors, and 16-bit processors with 32-bit processors to add similar new functionality to industrial devices.
In the future, connected factory floors will mean that "high availability"-almost constant network uptime described as 99.999 percent of the time-will move from a telecommunications-related concept to deployment on the factory floor as well. Failover techniques in control applications will provide longer uptimes for factory lines.
SCOT MORRISON IS VICE PRESIDENT AND GENERAL MANAGER FOR THE TRANSPORTATION/DEFENSE/INDUSTRIAL BUSINESS UNIT OF WIND RIVER SYSTEMS INC. (ALAMEDA, CALIF.).
See related chart