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HMI and I/O are the foundations of controls automation

Oct. 26, 2020
The stuff legends are made of

What is a legend? A name, a person or a technology?

John Legend or John Prine? Dick Morley or Jim Pinto? Most of the modern world may not have heard of Ron Lavallee or his legendary product FloPro.

I had the opportunity to talk to Ron about computer hardware and his take on the path that the hardware has taken over the decades.

Industrial computing takes on many forms. PLCs and PACs are computers in their own rights but are definite-purpose computers. The Rockwell Automation ControlLogix PAC has the ability to run windows in one of its four environments. This means that your HMI can run directly on the PAC, and you don’t need an additional piece of hardware to execute the HMI code.

The early HMIs were based purely on commercially available hardware using normal components in a different form factor. Nematron, Xycom, Total Control Products (TCP), and Advisor (Rockwell) are examples of some of the early HMI products that used standard equipment.

Dennis Wisnosky started a company called Wizdom Systems, which had a ladder program execution engine that fit on a board inside a standard PC-based environment. The industrial computer came about as a result of bad power and bad environments that the commercial stuff had trouble existing in.

Lavallee created the first PC-based control system in late 1981, and it ran flowchart software of his design. It was called FloPro. It ran on basic desktop computer hardware, and it had its own I/O structure. I asked him what he did to make it industrial, and he responded, “I put it in a metal box,” upon which he added, “Don’t you know that PLCs were selling by the pound?”

He was referring to the robustness of the packaging that housed the normal components that made up the control system.

He reminisced about having a conversation with Keith Pritchard of Sutherland Shultz, a Canadian technology company. They developed a standard PC card with DOS drivers to communicate with Modicon or Allen-Bradley I/O structures.

This was a very attractive alternative for Lavallee. When he introduced his FloPro to GM Powertrain, they were fine with the desktop PC but not with his homegrown I/O. Once he wrote the drivers to use the Sutherland Schultz module inside the PC, GM jumped all over it.

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One wonders why GM wanted the industrial I/O from trusted companies. Lavallee suggests that it was because it was heavy and the perception that it was made for tough conditions—industrialized.
I remember a story from the father of the PLC, Dick Morley. When he first went to demo his new Modicon PLC to the people in Detroit, it fell out of the trunk onto the cement floor. There were oohs and aahs and oh nos. Morley plugged it in, and it sparked up without a hiccup. They were impressed, to say the least.

Morley believed in availability of control. One hundred percent is the only accepted value and to that end didn’t have an on/off switch on the power supply.

The addition of the PC to the plant floor allowed for an inexpensive diagnostic approach—just add some I/O and implement it in FloPro. Bingo boards were very popular back in the day, and it saved a ton of time for troubleshooting and saved the customer money due to increased production.

[pullquote]One of the issues with PC-type control was scan times. The PC is an interrupt-driven machine that took scan times out to the moon in real-time terms. It is only with real-time operating systems, such as Wind River VXWorks, that a desktop could be used in pseudo-real-time applications. This kernel addition made a commercial system industrial as such with respect to timing and scan times.

I have used Dell white-box PCs in warehouse and in wastewater applications. I wouldn’t use it on mobile equipment or in a foundry.

The nemesis of any electronics is shock, vibration, temperature and power/air filtering. That’s what makes an industrial computer tick for many years. Solid-state drives (SSDs), motherboards, and video cards are standard fare, but become industrialized when the above are addressed.

Lavallee is working on his chip architecture (U.S. Patent No. 10,181,003) that is called a Flowpro Machine. Flowpro Machines are naturally parallel and low-power while today's computers, Turing Machines, are fundamentally serial and not as low-power. He states that the world needs more efficient computing power, and parallel execution is another way to achieve that. My mind went to cloud-based or, in other words, server-based virtual SCADA, and even control, which takes all devices except for I/O off the floor.

I’m not sure that would be a good idea, but, with the industrialization of just about everything we need, that may be a few more years away, if ever.

Legends are made. Go, and be one.

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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