Control Software

Function blocks come of age with a new generation of software

mapp provides the user a smorgasbord of function blocks specifically created for its PLC and PC-based controller lineup.

By Jeremy Pollard, CET

Remember my buddy, Gus? He works at a Canadian company as a new engineer even though has been there for almost 10 years. Well, you would never guess what he ran up against.

He was told, "We have done this successfully for 20 years doing things this way, so why change now?” You could only imagine what my response was when he told me. It was a social-media-acronym moment.

When I was the managing director of PLCopen for North America, I had a conversation with the global director once and said to him that PLCopen has to be more than just about the IEC 61131 specification (View the on-demand presentation on IEC 61131 basics from current PLCopen North America Director Bill Lydon here). PLCopen has to extend it and provide a platform for the user and vendor community to invest in PLCopen and the specification.

One of the points I made was that PLCopen needed to generate some application functionality. I didn’t know what it looked like at that time, but it sure has happened.

PLCopen has gotten involved with many subsets of the control world such as motion, safety and communications by providing a foundation for vendors to generate common function blocks for use in the aforementioned areas.

>> Watch Now: The Fundamentals of IEC 61131

These are vendor-specific blocks that any developer can use, which has underlying hardware support for the target system. To be clear, these blocks are not necessarily cross-platform—for example, a Beckhoff function block cannot be used with B&R hardware—but the similarity of each of the blocks will reduce the learning curve when switching between vendor platforms.

However, B&R has taken this thesis and moved it to a whole new level. It has created a platform called mapp, which provides the user a smorgasbord of function blocks specifically created for its PLC and PC-based controller lineup.

While short on specifics, the introduction series of videos gave me a feel for the platform and how it can allow a control system to be born from a pick-and-place style of programming using predefined objects such as function blocks. This leads to the actual configuration of the function, but not writing the code for the function itself.

The function blocks have been tested and they are maintained by B&R. It works well. This suggests that once you get used to this approach of generating a control program, you may not want to go back to the way we did it 20 years ago—by thinking and doing.

This method of functionality provides for development, troubleshooting and maintaining a process in a single environment. And that environment is a Web browser.

Well, maybe not quite that easy. B&R’s Automation Studio is required for the setup and actual code generation. The Web interface is the visualization tool to allow any individual to view the execution of the code and alter any configurable data in real-time.

Because the function blocks are objects, all of the configurable data that one would need to adjust to different devices such as robot types is configurable using the browser.

B&R claims that development time can be decreased substantially using this technology, and it makes sense that once the learning curve is traversed then some time savings could be realized. 

Recently, the company released an additional communication function block called OPC UA Browser block. This block allows the developer to browse the variables that have been exposed by the OPC server dynamically and adapt a machine function to the available OPC tags.

The company suggests that it is gearing up for Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things with this technology, as they believe that the manufacturing processes will become more complex since product customization will be required on a piece-by-piece level. “Mass customization” is how B&R refers to it.

While in certain cases the dealer at the end of the food chain may be responsible for the end-user customization, the ability of any control system to adapt to the required manufacturing of a given product could be in our future sooner than later.

The mapp technology also embraces PackML machine and process control blocks.

Currently, there are no other companies that have mapp type function blocks. Thus the assimilation of this technology would not be transferable to another platform as it would be using strictly PLCopen function blocks.

This shouldn’t be a deterrent to employ mapp blocks. However, if B&R isn’t your current hardware platform, that bridge would have to be crossed. A colleague of mine, whose plant has been strictly using Automation Supplier X is currently using mapp and B&R hardware on a new CNC machine for customer use.

Is mapp the future? The investment that B&R has put into the technology sure makes you think that it will be at some point. It does all the development work for you. I have always believed over the past 15 years that the industry will be software-driven. Mapp supports that view in spades. Who will be next?