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This configuration was then downloaded to the Opto PAC, and all that remained was to configure the A-B RSLogix software, and define communication to the PAC as a "generic Ethernet module." The two integrators add that reconciling two disparate control systems is becoming common because end users want more networking options as they build or modify their controls.
Similarly, one of the main benefits of smaller and cheaper microprocessors is that they allow more sensing and data collection points and increasingly wireless networking and control components, which means more can be installed in more places, perform more monitoring and data acquisition, enable better decisions, and do more track-and-trace documentation, especially in pharmaceutical and food and beverage applications.
"There are far more levels of visibility possible now by the plant or the administration," says Jeff Smith, senior engineer for global controls architecture and manufacturing networks at American Axle & Manufacturing (AAM) in Detroit. "As a result, we can zoom into the equipment in a plant in Brazil or anywhere worldwide, and see how well they're following established metrics, or we can drill into PLCs on a machine anywhere and troubleshoot it."
Brian Oulton, Rockwell Automation's networks marketing director, adds, "People are learning that they don't always need standard PCs, but can use super-lightweight client devices instead. This is one of the biggest results of everyone adopting standard unmodified Ethernet and IEEE 802.11n wireless, so they can use more commercial technologies in industrial settings. Likewise, I believe we're also sitting on the edge of real-time data playing a much bigger role in manufacturing, and then being able to use and respond to it much closer to real time."On the Internet, In the Cloud
While some credit CPUs and software with driving industrial network performance, others believe the pull of Internet Protocol (IP) is a primary enabling force. And, of course, it's even more attractive now that the cloud and other Internet-based services have arrived.
"It's true that IP needs processing hardware, but it provides ubiquitous communications that are well-established worldwide and have many options," says Benson Hougland, marketing vice president at Opto 22. "However, industrial networks and IP have to interact with the real world at some point, and so the PHY form interface is what works with the microprocessors at low power and in combination with firmware or software to make those communications possible. This is why we evaluate new technology, provide ASICs at the I/O level to localize processes, and distribute intelligence and computing wherever it's most effective. In general, the combination of data processing and communications is making more devices autonomous, and so we have more mobile applications and the cloud."
Cloud-based services could further reduce data processing costs for users, including those in industrial control and automation, Hougland adds. "Using a virtualized server somewhere and file synching software means you don't have to build and house your own servers."
Eaton's Harwell adds, "We're seeing more fully web-enabled devices at the machine level, which reflects the increased connections between machines and the continuing growth of industrial Ethernet, which is itself a result of less costly, faster and more powerful data processing. Many machine builders are wrapping their arms around this because, instead of having to add a traditional SCADA package, they simply can build a regular operator interface at the machine level, and send data via a simple Ethernet port. They even can include real-time data views, data storage, archiving and analysis function, so they don't need a data acquisition (DAQ) unit either. "Virtualization Is for Real
Probably the spookiest change caused by faster and stronger microprocessors is their ability to use leftover computing capacity to collapse and combine several former operating systems or PCs, and run them as virtual functions on one or two physical processors in servers that can be located pretty much anywhere.
"In PLCs across the board, we see previously separate functions and components collapsing down into individual devices that can run them all," says Intel's Ferrar. "For instance, a user interface can run on one virtual operating system, while some control functions can run another virtual real-time operating system (RTOS), but they're both on the same physical core."
To make sure virtual computing is carried out securely, Trusted Execution Technology (TET) modules are being developed and added to Intel's own CPU architecture to help virtual computing applications check and make sure they're operating securely, and that no other communications are being allowed, Ferrar says.
Likewise, running virtualized computing on just one or a few servers instead of many hardware PCs can make it easier to recover from accidents and possible security breaches. "If you don't depend as much on physical hardware, then you can recover in a few seconds or minutes simply by reverting to a safe version of your virtual computer, rather than waiting days or weeks for hardware computers to be checked and fixed," says Kevin Staggs, engineering fellow for cybersecurity research at Honeywell Process Solutions.
Besides advising process engineers to adopt IT-based security practices, some microprocessors tack on security functions, such as setting stricter requirements for executing tasks, building protection layers into their silicon, and establishing chip-level encryption and firewalls, Staggs adds. Trusted Computing Group's Trusted Platform Module (TPM) is a microcontroller that can securely store artifacts used to authenticate its PC's platforms, such as passwords, certificates or encryption keys.
Surprisingly, just as hardware and their applications are condensing due to faster, higher-capacity data processing, many control and IT engineers not only cooperate more, but are beginning to see their job descriptions merge and their organizational supervisors become the same person. "We now have a number of folks who are bilingual in controls and IT," says AAM's Smith. "It helps to switch controls people on the plant floor with IT people and with administrators for a while, so they can learn about each other's positions."