Need dictates control platform choice

History and a little OEM Insight shows that when hardware solutions based on proprietary firmware become obsolete, the cost of replacing them creates serious sticker shock.

By Loren Shaum, Comtec

WHEN EXPLORING machine control options for custom or production machines, machine builders often have too little say in which the control solution is chosen. In the end, the choice might come down to what brand will sell the machine. More often than not, this brand choice increases the machine’s hardware costs (as much as five times on complex machines), determines when the controls are proprietary (not to open standards), and invariably lengthens the integration, acceptance, and installation process, particularly on custom machines. It’s no wonder that many machine builders have gone away over the past five years.

There are many reasons to stick with a brand-recognized control system, however, and astute machine developers are economizing by embedding new control technology and branding the solution as their own. With this strategy, machines using the builder’s control solution have one price, while machines using a customer-requested brand control solution have another. Obviously, this strategy works best when the machine is functionally unique and the embedded control solution requires little, if any, modifications from machine-to-machine. Typically, this strategy has proven itself on machines that are “fixed” in their automation process.

Because of costs and lifecycle planning, many fixed-automation machine builders are moving toward these customized, embedded, single-board solutions, or they’re implementing similar functions on an industrial PC platform. This is because many PC-based solutions have embedded operating systems and embedded application code.

Though most custom, embedded controls are produced in North America, arrivals from Taiwan are increasing. Taiwanese manufacturers have fast development turnaround times, and are well into the latest embedded techniques for control solutions. The unique thing about single-board, embedded solutions is that they’re increasingly throw-away and easily replaced by an identical or newer version—essentially solving the lifecycle planning issue. If the embedded solution is on a PC platform, then similar upgrade procedures are used throughout industry for software solutions.

Alternatively, for more complex machines dedicated to specific processes, but requiring high flexibility to change product configuration with some frequency, the choice for control solutions often migrates toward a best-of-breed (BoB) solution that uses the best hardware and software platforms from multiple manufacturers, and are usually PC-based. A high-tech, automation solution provider (ASP) partner often is the primary source for such solutions. ASPs frequently offer multiple control vendor solutions that integrate seamlessly, reducing the overall cost. Achieving cost objectives with best-of-breed solutions usually means the solution has high software content.

On highly complex machines, branded solutions continue to dominate, especially in traditional industries such as automotive, food and beverage and pharmaceuticals. These solutions might be appropriate due to an already-installed base of similar controls and trained plant personnel. However, history shows that when hardware solutions using proprietary firmware become obsolete, the cost of replacing them creates serious sticker shock. There are currently numerous obsolete control systems operating in many industries.

Obsolescence occurs when a solution’s manufacturer chooses to no longer support its hardware and/or proprietary firmware. This lack of open standards in high-profile, name-brand control solutions invariably costs someone when replacement is required down the road. Even though many suppliers claim open standards compatibility, this usually only implies that their controls can communicate in an open environment, while programming remains proprietary.

As developers and users consider embedded controls for fixed automation machines, or best-of-breed controls for flexible machines using open standards, or proprietary, branded controls, they need to understand that it’s actually the type of machine, machine complexity and customer demands that dictate the most appropriate control solution for any given scenario. In the end, the controls selected must be delivered on time and be maintainable at the customer site. The most easily maintained control solutions can be removed and immediately restarted with a replacement control. And, the more that a control is software-based, then the more this can happen efficiently. This is where the embedded control notion seems to work perfectly. 

The choice for machine builders comes down to which strategy sells the most machines at the least cost with the most functionality, the best maintainability, and the quickest path to automation success for them and their customers.

These are tough criteria. However, any machine builder not exploring these options will lag its competitors, and lose market share going forward.


  About the Author
Loren Shaum is principal at Comtec, Syracuse, Ind., which provides research in the machine and general factory automation markets. You can reach him at 574/529-1490.
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