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Over the last several years, much has been communicated across industial sectors regarding the convergence of Information Technology (IT) and Operations Technology (OT). Concepts such as digitalization, enhanced connectivity, big data and advanced analytics have many in the industry excited about the promise of higher productivity, lower operational costs and enhanced customer satisfaction.
Most of the excitement, however, has been generated around the “theory” of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). According to Accenture, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) could add $14.2 trillion to the global economy by 2030 and is “arguably the biggest driver of productivity and growth in the next decade.”
Although the theory is attractive, the actual “practice” of implemening true IIoT solutions has been less publicized. However, evidence that IIoT and IT/OT convergence are driving business benefits is starting to emerge.
A new generation of engineering tools
With industrial businesses, new development efforts are resulting in some intriguing productiivity improvements, especially in the realm of software engineering tools. Schneider Electric’s recent acquisition of the Austrian-based NxtControl software firm is a case in point. The 10-year old software company has developed real-time control software for distributed control systems (DCS) based on the IEC 61499 standard, a relatively new standard for programming control systems.
This has major ramifications for how control system engineers can go about configuring and implementing core industrial controls. Consider the following:
- The IEC 61499 standard is now at the top of the priority agenda for most automation companies. This is because the standard addresses open solutions that greatly simplify complexity and reduce the cost of implementing connectivity across distributed control systems.
- In the traditional centralized world, the ability to configure and modify core industrial devices such as Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) was strictly limited. The PLCs had to be programmed one by one and had to be managed at the system level to make sure that they would all work together. Control software had to be executed in one place, and this represented a big engineering effort. IEC 61499 is an event-driven execution model, which enables the distribution of control logic (communication paths are built automatically).
- IEC 61499 compliant software tools such as the Schneider Electric / NxtControl software reduces engineering costs through integrated facilities for configuration, programming and data management. This means hardware and operating system-independent representations for all functions of the system are now possible, including control, information processing, communications and process interfaces.
For many years, control hardware and software were tightly linked together. If a user needed to replace a piece of hardware, the software, even though its functionality might still provide business value, would also need to be replaced. The case was similar with software upgrades, where part or all the associated hardware would also need to be replaced. Now, the engineering no longer needs to rely on any particular hardware and topology. IEC 61499–compliant solutions decouple hardware from software. Both are independent of each other and this development allows for both lower costs and higher efficiency when control system upgrades occur.
This new level of flexibility and agility provides the basis for permitting “intelligence-based” engineering. One tool can be utilized for all automation tasks. Communication paths are automatically generated, and object-oriented engineering is enabled through pre-fabricated software objects. The programming language is the same for both IEC 61499 and the older IEC 61131 standards. This means the engineering software tools can integrate both new products and older equipment in the existing intalled base.
The new NxtControl software has now been integrated into Schneider Electric’s open EcoStruxure architecture, as part of the edge control layer. EcoStruxure is a vendor-neutral, validated industrial architecture that includes an open, but tailored, stack of connected products, control level software, and cloud-based services for supporting applications and data analytics. The platform is made accessible to developers and to a wide ecosystem of partners so that systems are more agile, flexible and secure. To learn more about how NxtControl software and Ecostruxure help streamline industrial operations, click here.