Machine Builders Unleashed: The Big Idea of Open Standard Control

  • October 23, 2019
  • Feature
Machine Builders Unleashed: The Big Idea of Open Standard Control
Machine Builders Unleashed: The Big Idea of Open Standard Control

By Bill Lydon, Contributing Editor,

Machine builders are finally starting to benefit open standard control software. By leveraging this software, they are finding more ways to apply their know-how and creativity to deliver greater customer value with unbundled IEC 61131-3 control and automation software. Industrial automation, too, is starting to benefit from the dramatic increased power at lower cost of computing technologies, which have been driven by consumer electronics and the Internet of Things (IoT) along with the unbundling of hardware and software.

The foundations of the automation industry are being reshaped by this flood of ideas, software, and products which have been driven by Industry 4.0 and digitalization of manufacturing and process industries. The industrial automation industry is in the midst of sweeping, fundamental change with the application of the concepts and technologies, including the Internet of Things (IoT), sensor advances, embedded controllers, and other technology improvements. 


Unbundling Hardware & Software - Industrial Controller Evolution

In the past, industrial process controllers and PLCs have been proprietary software and hardware for executing control sequences and algorithms. However, with the unbundling of hardware and real-time control software based on open international standards, this is rapidly changing.   The computer industry unbundled hardware and software years ago during the PC revolution and saw results that included increased efficiency and broadening applications dramatically by unleashing the skills, know-how, and creativity of subject matter experts. Likewise, with the availability of hardware manufacturer-independent automation and control software, conforming to the IEC 61131-3 (IEC -International Electrotechnical Commission) machine builders are free to select computing platforms that are the best fit for an application.  By leveraging this international programming standard for industrial control and automation industry, any processor can become a controller, potentially creating higher value for users and improved support efficiency.

IEC 61131-3:2013 specifies the syntax and semantics of a unified suite of programming languages for industrial and process automation.  This suite consists of two textual languages, Instruction List (IL) and Structured Text (ST), and two graphical languages, Ladder Diagram (LD) and Function Block Diagram (FBD). In addition, Sequential Function Chart (SFC) is a visual programming tool to create multithreaded and synchronized control and operations.   Most vendors also provide the ability to add functions into the architecture with the APIs for languages including C and C++.  Therefore, this standard defines strong data types and input output data standards.

The PLCopen is a vendor and product independent worldwide association certifies vendor conformance to IEC 61131-3 and extends the standard.  Current standards include Safety, Motion Control, OPC UA, XML Exchange, and Reusability.  In addition PLCopen works with other open standards groups to ensure interoperability and greater productivity for automation engineers.  Notable cooperative working groups include OPC UA with PLCopen defining the OPC-UA function blocks. The goal is to enable application engineers to easily accomplish peer to peer control and information exchange between multivendor controllers and call up methods in an OPC-UA server in enterprise systems, including MES and ERP, in order to achieve synchronized manufacturing and Industry 4.0 goals.


Supporting Edge Computing & Intelligent Devices

Unbundling means that the control software can run on almost any platform including Edge computers and System-on-a-Chip (SoC) devices, all programmed in a uniform IEC 61131-3 standard.  IEC 61131-3 standard controls are being embedded into edge devices including valve blocks, cameras, and motor drives.  The common thread of all these devices is standardized programming, configuration and multivendor interoperability.  Further, there are a range of edge computing platforms that can be used as PLC and process controllers from powerful “brick” PCs to Raspberry Pi devices providing higher performance at lower cost than traditional proprietary bundled PLCs and process controllers.


Supporting Organizational Competitiveness

This open unbundled approach is consistent with the effort to improve flexibility and competitiveness which is analogous to what happened in the computing industry. Companies that continued to use closed proprietary computing to run their operations eventually became inefficient and ineffective being leapfrogged by competitors.


Machine Builders Change Agents & Opportunity

The adoption of new technology during times of significant innovation is critical for manufacturing success and machine builders can be important change agents for users.   Machine builders that understand how to leverage unbundled IEC 61131-3 control and automation software with the appropriate hardware platforms for users can help them outpace their competitors and be more successful.


About IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission)

Founded in 1906, the IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission) is the world’s leading organization for the preparation and publication of International Standards for all electrical, electronic and related technologies. These are known collectively as “electrotechnology”.   IEC Millions of devices that contain electronics, and use or produce electricity, rely on IEC International Standards and Conformity Assessment Systems to perform, fit and work safely together.  IEC provides a platform to companies, industries and governments for meeting, discussing and developing the International Standards they require.  All IEC International Standards are fully consensus-based and represent the needs of key stakeholders of every nation participating in IEC work. Every member country, no matter how large or small, has one vote and a say in what goes into an IEC International Standard.

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