How IEC 61499 Streamlines PLC-driven Plant Processes

As manufacturing continues to evolve, the ability to respond to rapidly changing market conditions has become a growing competitive advantage. Achieving a flexible and low-cost infrastructure that enables fast adaptations requires innovative and open automation systems. Operating from an open architecture, as defined by the IEC 61499 standard, allows manufacturers to begin accessing an entirely new range of Industry 4.0 benefits. These include:  

  • Easier access to meaningful operational data
  • The ability to simulate operations to better predict production decision outcomes
  • Tighter linkages between operations technology (OT) and information technology (IT) systems

A key factor that keeps most mainstream manufacturers from attaining such benefits is the closed proprietary nature of the plant systems that support their operations.

IEC 61499

Most traditional automation systems must be equipped to meet digital-age challenges, as their architecture was designed to accommodate a non-digital world. For example, many consumer-packaged goods industries today run programmable logic controller (PLC)-driven automation architectures based on older standards (such as IEC 61131), meaning most of their systems will continue operating at only 60-70 % of their true capacity.

Meanwhile, manufacturers face ever-changing supply and demand-side circumstances. They require more operational flexibility to optimize business performance, and many want to build best-of-breed solutions.

However, with proprietary systems serving as their base technology, implementing such an approach is expensive and complex. The difficulty lies in software being tied to the hardware- most are constrained to relying on one technology supplier, and switching to others is challenging.

IEC 61499 decouples hardware from software

Looking for solutions, many organizations are revisiting an industrial automation standard developed in 2005: IEC 61499. This standard sets a foundation for industrial automation application portability that creates wide-ranging benefits, including:

  • Easy IT/OT system convergence
  • Software applications that can run independently of any hardware platform
  • Engineering design flexibility that radically speeds up new product time-to-market

IEC 61499 has particularly caught the attention of organizations interested in digital transformation. These organizations have needed help accessing quality data from their existing proprietary systems, and the open IEC 61499 approach helps to expedite the full implementation of IT/OT convergence. In addition, organizations that are increasingly managed by younger next-generation workforce are embracing legacy-free automation architecture approaches. New emerging industries such as logistics, hydrogen production, recycling, green business, and electric vehicle (EV) battery production are also seizing the opportunity to quickly build cost-effective yet robust, next-generation open automation architectures.

Such an approach is particularly effective when orchestrating separate but related processes in PLC-driven environments.

For example, consider yogurt production in a food processing plant: first, control equipment is necessary to process the cream feedstock. Then, a mixing tank is controlled to ensure a proper blend of ingredients. Once the mix is optimal, more control is needed for packaging the yogurt into cups, sealing those containers, and moving those cups down a conveyor belt to be packaged into boxes. Finally, palletizing the boxes requires additional control.   

For each of these steps, plant engineers have to interface with different production assets and generate separate programming for each when changes in the process are needed. In addition, the steps have to integrate seamlessly, which is very time-consuming to manage.

Most such plants require a standardized solution to perform the proper orchestration, and the system and machine integrators manage many of the linkages. With a standard like IEC 61499 in place, such orchestration is made much more straightforward. Without requiring new programming every time a change is needed, plants can use either internal engineers or outside technical support to manage the process.  

Those firms that migrate to the IEC 61499 standard recognize that working in such an environment requires non-traditional thinking. Whereas PLC shops typically use engineering tools focused on programming individual components, IEC 61499 specifies an event-driven paradigm and uses a system modeling language. Control parameters are designed much closer to the process in question than an individual machine with PLCs that require programming to effect process changes. 

For more information

Companies like Schneider Electric™ are investing heavily in software compliant with the IEC 61499 standard. Field tests of our standards-based tools suggest moving from traditional, heavily engineered, and tailored design platforms to user-centric platforms can drive engineering and operational efficiency gains by 3-4x.

We support manufacturers in the migration of their control applications and the digitization of their operations. We work directly with manufacturers or partner with machine and systems integrators to provide full proof of concept, pilot, and project implementation support.

To learn more, visit our EcoStruxure™ Automation Expert page.

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