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Schneider calls for an automation revolution

09 October, 2020

Schneider Electric is calling for a revolution in automation technologies, based on open standards, that, it says, will “unleash innovation and boost efficiency, resilience, productivity, agility and sustainability”. It has unveiled what it describes as “the world’s first software-centric automation system” and says the time is right for a bold move in industrial automation. It is urging industrial users, vendors, OEMs, systems integrators to embrace what it calls “universal automation”.

Industrial operations are undergoing a game-changing transformation, Schneider argues. Advances in machine learning, augmented reality, real-time analytics and the IIoT hold great promise, but realising this promise is being held back by closed and proprietary automation platforms that restrict the adoption of best-of-breed technologies, present challenges when integrating third-party components, and are expensive to upgrade and maintain.

While the IT sector has adopted open platforms and is evolving rapidly, the same cannot be said for industrial technology, Schneider contends. Industry has suffered from a lack of adaptability, modularisation and interoperability, which is stunting innovation.

Schneider’s “universal automation” vision is a world of plug-and-produce automation software components based on the IEC 61499 standard. It argues that adopting an IEC 61499-based standardised automation layer, common across vendors, will provide “limitless opportunities for growth and modernisation across industry”.

IEC 61499, which was published in 2005, defines generic function blocks for measurement and control systems based on IEC 61131. By extending the capabilities of IEC61131-based systems and enabling an app-store-like model for automation software components, Schneider Electric believes that the advances promised by the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be fully realised. As the benefits become visible, it believes that vendors will adopt the universal automation approach, and end-users will begin to demand it from their automation suppliers.

“The IT world has realised the benefits of open operating platforms – now it’s industry’s turn,” argues Peter Herweck, Schneider’s executive vice-president for industrial automation. “Industrial automation architectures have done a good job of advancing industry to where we are today, but they are not capable of providing the agility and resilience that are paramount for modern industrial operations.

“To fully realise the promise of the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” he adds, “we need to reimagine our technology model by opening our platforms, decoupling software from hardware, and radically improving system agility and scalability.”

Schneider has unveiled its version of a software-centred automation platform called EcoStruxure Automation Expert. It describes the platform as “a new category of industrial automation system with IEC 61499 at its core”. It will :
• enable automation applications to be built using proven, portable asset-centric software components, that are independent of the underlying hardware infrastructure;
• allow users to distribute applications to any system hardware architecture – distributed, centralised or both – with minimal, or no, additional programming effort; and
• support established software best practices to simplify the creation of automation applications that interoperate with IT systems.

Schneider Electric contends that software-centred automation will deliver dramatic operational improvements for industrial users

The first release of EcoStruxure Automation Expert supports existing Schneider platforms such as Modicon PLCs, Altivar variable-speed drives, and PCs. For the first time, it says, complex multi-drive control algorithms can be programmed and distributed to drive controllers without needing a central PLC. Completing the line-up, a virtualised software controller running in Docker-powered Linux containers supports distributed information and control systems across edge computing architectures.

Exploiting the object-oriented nature of IEC 61499, software components known as composite automation types (CATs) are used to model assets by combining real-time control functions with other facets, such as HMIs. Schneider argues that this asset-centric approach will deliver unprecedented cost and performance benefits and free engineers to innovate by automating low-value work and eliminating task duplication across tools.

Schneider reports that it has benchmarked EcoStruxure Automation Expert against today’s automation systems and demonstrated a 2–7-fold reduction in the time it takes to perform traditional automation tasks.

The new platform’s support for IT best practices allows step-change improvements in asset and workforce efficiency using technologies such as predictive maintenance and digital twins. The system also cuts total costs of ownership by incorporating legacy systems with a wrap-and-reuse approach.

“EcoStruxure Automation Expert is the first step in the journey toward universal automation” suggests Fabrice Jadot, senior vice-president for next-generation automation at Schneider. “To fully realise the potential of next-generation industries, we must embrace a new way of thinking. Working to common, open standards is vital to ensuring multi-vendor interoperability and seamless interfaces from supply chain through manufacturing and production to the end customer.

“Now is the time,” he adds, “for all vendors to fully embrace open implementations with code and function portability to become more connected. Today is the first step in a new direction. We invite industrial developers everywhere to create their own software components and solutions based on the IEC 61499 standard, which can easily interoperate with EcoStruxure Automation Expert.”

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