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Brace yourself for the next wave of controllers

March 17, 2021
Open-source opportunities abound as functionality expands for Industry 4.0

I was asked to review Opto22’s EPIC (Edge Programmable Industrial Controller) and was sent a demo unit to play with.

It is truly an open-source device, which has links to all sorts of control functionality under the hood. When I opened the hood, my head exploded. My more-than-40 years in the automation industry almost became irrelevant. Well, almost.

So, this is a review of open-source tools that EPIC employs and their applications in Industry 4.0. This is your future.

The first thing to note is that the operating system is Linux, and the functionality of the OS is available using the built-in Secure Shell (SSH) interface. This secure shell is a network protocol for operating network services such as remote command execution over an unsecured network.

Such functions as user logins could be done using SSH since it creates a secure channel over an unsecure network.

The RESTful API can be implemented using the embedded Node-RED engine. Node-RED is an open-source, flow-based graphical interface that allows you to connect blocks of functions, of which there are more than 3,000 currently.

Using Node-RED you can create a linked program to extract open data from services, such as darksky.net where users can gather weather information for their current area to perform intelligent and informed control decisions for environmental controls and agriculture.

One aspect of Node-RED that can come into play is the direct nature of the environment. For instance, you can directly write to an Azure database in the cloud without using any intermediary software or appliance. Imagine storing your big data in the cloud directly without having to have a SQL server on-site.

Node-RED supports messaging and communications from various platforms based on the creation of flows developed by the community. This is where its strengths lie.

MicroClimates.com is a company that utilizes Node-RED on the EPIC for what it calls “environmental automation.”

Java and JavaScript are very prevalent within Node-RED, so those who are proficient can code directly using these languages. JSON is another option that can be used.

The system can use the CoDeSys IEC-61131 development system for control program development using all five languages. CoDeSys 3.15 is the latest development package that is free to download. It is used by hundreds of vendors, and I have to say that this latest version is the best yet. It has come of age, and the interface can rival that of more mature standard PLC controller environments.

Another open-source opportunity is Message Queuing Telemetry Transport (MQTT)—the microburst small-packet communication protocol used for IIoT devices over limited networks. MQTT was developed by the oil-and-gas industry for remote device monitoring over wireless devices, which in the good old days had very limited bandwidth. They still exist today, so Industry 4.0 still supports legacy to some degree.

One level of functionality that newer control platforms are embracing is the issue of providing upfront and embedded HMI support. Open-source HMIs do exist, but EPIC supports HTML5 based groov View, as well as Inductive Automation’s Edge HMI.

Edge HMI is all written in Java, so any web browser can be used. I remember back in the day when Rockwell Automation only supported Internet Explorer. That would never fly in this day and age.

There is always an issue with remote monitoring and access. Open VPN is used across many platforms and can be used to create a persistent remote-access connection to the device.

This way Tosibox and/or EWON devices are not required to have access to the remote edge stations that are in the wild.

When I investigated all of these tools, I was shocked to see how much of it was being used in the commercial environment, as well as the industrial workspace. It was only a matter of time before school graduates would prefer to work in their own environment and not be forced in the environment of yesteryear, meaning ladder-logic programming.

They would prefer to implement controls using languages they have learned in their computer-science classes and apply methodologies that conform to their training. One of the benefits with STEM is the idea that all high-school students should learn how to code in something, and it has become clear that Java/JSON and HTML5 should be a starting point.

EPIC is the first of many that will use open-source libraries and languages. Inductive Automation’s HMI/SCADA platform is all in Java so that any Java-based browser will work as the client for the HMI server.

I was very intimidated by the prospect of learning so many new platforms and am thankful that things take time in our industry—time that we may not have in the future, as vendors employ open-source reliably and securely.

Watch out for turing machines.

Its time has come. Brace yourselves.

About the author: Jeremy Pollard
About the Author

Jeremy Pollard | CET

Jeremy Pollard, CET, has been writing about technology and software issues for many years. Pollard has been involved in control system programming and training for more than 25 years.

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