Tomorrow’s technologies identified

You can be sure that new technology will come along to replace the old. The trick is knowing which ones and when.

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By Joe Feeley, Editor in Chief

Most technology users and providers agree that the pace of new technology rollouts is blisteringly fast. When that speed combines with many competing opinions about what products and systems work best with that new technology, the crystal ball becomes cloudy. It's hard to foretell with Kreskin-like accuracy what's really going to happen, or exactly when.

Despite the uncertainties, a number of new services and systems are clearly emerging as tools that will impact your thinking about control, if they haven't already. There also are some next-generation technologies that are being introduced in process plants or further up the enterprise chain and they may enter the industrial OEM market at any time.

First, the Market Report
Nearly all the emerging control technologies have common threads to the overall information technology marketplace. "The global controls market is tiny compared to the global IT market," reminds Jim Heaton, analyst, Advanced Manufacturing Research (AMR), Boston.

"Since the selling price of most electronic and software products is affected more by volume than design cost, complex general-purpose [high-volume] products can sell for a fraction of comparably complex, but low-volume controls products." These cost advantages will make it inevitable for the controls market to use general-purpose technology wherever possible. The rapid acceptance of open architecture as the predominant hardware and software design strategy reinforces this projection.

The Objects of Our Affections
The world of little objects is creating rapid growth for new companies that provide control solutions based on object-oriented technology. This program architecture is groups of self-contained blocks of code, with data and function built in. It has been likened to using Legos to build a structure, which, in this case, is a large, complex program. Each unit is a proven, reliable object that can be copied into the larger function. The industry makes the analogy of stringing together software objects in the same way as integrated circuits are strung together on a printed circuit board. "The implications are large. Imagine building your control system with Visio instead of a $5,000+ proprietary package," says Dan Miklovic, analyst, Gartner Group, Stamford, Conn.

Object technology was only a programming tool a few years ago, but commercialization now advances on two fronts. Microsoft's Object Linking and Embedding (OLE) begat the common object model (COM)-the object programming in Microsoft operating systems and applications. Today, this approach matures through OLE for Process Control (OPC).

Where there's OPC, you'll find Sun Microsystems' Java right across the street making similar promises. Java first emerged as object-oriented programming for network and Internet applications, but provides capabilities that make it popular for control. Java is platform blind-it will run on virtually every major operating system and browser.

The advantages of object technology are the growing availability of large libraries of objects; portability across networks and Internets; and easy, visual assembly. Some applications are showing 50% reductions in development time.

The biggest obstacles have been security across networks, familiarity, and the commitment to the learning curve, but 1998 should bring more practical opportunities.

Software Foundations
It really does come down to Windows-both NT and CE-as the software platform and Java as the alternative programming architecture that PC-based real-time control will be built around.

AMR predicts Windows NT will dominate the plant floor by 2001. "The NT operating system is better equipped to manage the market's changing software needs," says AMR president Bill Swanton. While this may not always be the best thing for your real-time control needs, the operating system on the plant floor will influence your end users' preference for the control system platform you build into your machines. Windows NT, with several third-party, hard real-time operating system extensions and Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) scripting language, provides the operating foundation that many third-party solution providers use for PC-based control.

The scripting language lets the solution provider build process-specific applications and still provides the end user further customizing capability with considerable ease. Windows CE has promise provided its beta version solves several embedded application problems, including functional shortcomings with flash disks. Miklovic is convinced, saying, "This can be the hottest thing [in factory automation] since the IBM PC." He believes it will have enough real-time control to be useful, and it integrates well with Windows-based tools and applications.

Java's great attribute is portability-it solves cross-platform problems-and that's attractive to program developers. Even Microsoft supports it, although Sun alleges that Microsoft is giving their version a bitter, MS-only flavor. Embedded Java appears well suited for low memory and storage applications. As much as Miklovic likes Windows CE, he says, "Since Microsoft can't squeeze even CE into a $5 chipset, expect Java to work itself into control at the device level and move on to the controller level."

My Kingdom for a Network Standard
As we move through the year, the march to connectivity will continue with much faster advances in the previously quiet motion-control sector. An industry-expert panel discussion at ISA Tech/97 concluded that DeviceNet and Sercos are motion control's buses of choice-Sercos if the application is motion-centric with some I/O, DeviceNet if the application is I/O-centric with some motion.

"DeviceNet in the U.S. and Profibus in Europe will emerge as clear leaders, although sensor-bus technology will not dominate," says Miklovic. The reason for that could be the emergence of Ethernet.

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