The next generation of industrial automation: How software-defined automation is accelerating agility, efficiency, and innovation

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With recent developments in software-defined automation (SDA) and Universal Automation rapidly transforming the traditional industrial automation model, the shift to open software-centric methodologies and tools is now well underway and closed, manufacturer-dependant options are fast becoming a thing of the past.

This new way of automation is fantastic news for business.

When automation hardware is decoupled from software, it allows automation functionality to be deployed on a platform of choice. This ultimately empowers a company to make decisions based on what makes the most sense for their performance and business needs, allows them to better meet the ever-changing demands of the post-pandemic consumer-driven world, and makes for a smoother transition into the digitalized future of Industry 4.0 and beyond.

Taking industrial automation to new heights with virtualization

The separation of hardware and software also enables new types of virtualization to be applied to the industrial space, further advancing traditional automation paradigms and increasing overall efficiency.

In the traditional IT sense, the term ‘virtualization’ is commonly used to describe a scenario where several virtual machines (VMs) are set up on a single server. When used in the context of industrial automation it has various meanings, but the premise is much the same – a move from physical to virtual.

For this purpose, we are referring to when a process that was traditionally only able to be carried out with hardware and software combined has been digitalized, leveraging the power of software to become more virtual.

Digital Twins

The introduction of digital twin modeling in software such as EcoStruxure Machine Expert Twin allows machine builders to drag and drop from a predefined catalog of objects to design, optimize, test and validate digital models of real machine solutions in a virtualized environment before commissioning. They no longer need to experiment with physical hardware to achieve optimized results. This can significantly increase efficiency by saving time to market by up to 50% and commissioning time up to 60% when compared to traditional approaches.   

Soft PLCs & iPCs

When it comes to the all-important programmable logic controller (PLC), virtualization enables the move to a ‘soft PLC’, such as the EcoStruxure Automation Expert virtualized controller, a hardware-agnostic, software-based PLC which can be run on any Windows or Linux server, industrial PC (iPC) or microcomputer, no matter the supplier. Multiple instances of this virtualized controller can be installed in the same piece of hardware and configured, deployed, and maintained simultaneously and independently from one another. It also offers the ability to make changes to the process without stopping production – minimizing downtime, reducing costs, and providing the all-important flexibility and agility required to thrive in the demand-driven, dynamic consumer landscape of today.

With features like rugged designs, extended temperature ranges, and compatibility with industrial protocols, Schneider Electric’s Harmony iPC (formerly Magelis iPC) is made to withstand the harsh conditions prevalent in manufacturing facilities. Acting as the user’s visualization and control terminal, it’s a powerful, purpose-built, industrial-ready hardware choice when it comes to running soft PLC machine & plant control systems. 

Reusable engineering

Then there is EcoStruxure Automation Expert’s software-centric, in-built smart design and engineering capabilities, which allow for processes or techniques to be piloted in one location and then rolled out quickly to others. Brilliant Planet, one of Schneider Electric’s customers working in the algae-based carbon capture industry, has recently been utilizing this functionality with exceptional results.

“To scale at the speed required, we need to be able to modularize our application,” said Adam Taylor, CEO at Brilliant Planet. “The Schneider Electric and Platinum Electrical Engineering solution enables us to copy, paste, and scale at each site. This means we can utilize resources more efficiently while seeing drastic improvements in control.”

Within virtualized environments, deploying new processes or replicating and modifying existing ones is much easier. This reusable engineering significantly reduces time-to-market, increases engineering efficiency, and can offer an edge over the competition.

Virtualization and software-defined automation supercharge your engineering efforts

In the ever-evolving and exceptionally competitive landscape of industrial automation, where engineers and machine builders are constantly seeking innovative ways to enhance efficiency, productivity, agility, and flexibility, harnessing the power of virtualization and embracing a software-centric way of operating is a game-changer.

As the industrial landscape continues to advance and we transition even further into the Software-Defined Automation era, these digitized, virtualized smart manufacturing environments will, no doubt, continue to set new standards in interoperability, ease and efficiency for the next generation of industrial automation.

Ready to change the game?

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