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Kicking the `L` out of PLC – the automation of the Future

The advent of fast, reliable PCs have made soft PLCs a reality. This has, in turn, resulted in cost-effective control systems with an unprecedented level of flexibility and functionality.

“Wonderware’s InControl is a soft PLC solution that allows end users and system integrators to easily upgrade entire control systems to the latest technology.  This contributes to an increasingly larger palette of software modules  which can be integrated  with the entire FactorySuite range of solutions while bringing all the benefits of the IT infrastructure to the shop floor.”

Calling up google.com and asking for a search of “Soft PLC” results in over 150 000 hits in less than 0,1 second. Impressive.

Doing the same thing four years ago, I could hardly find anything. At that time, in one of the few articles found, a professor at a famous University wrote all about why soft PLCs would not be successful in the future. However, the article gave me a good understanding of an opinion without a vision. Four years later and after more than ten successful implementations of control systems based entirely on soft PLC solutions, I could afford to dwell on some vivid memories. Do you remember when we used to control processes with dedicated control units where you paid as much for a car as for just  64 Kbytes of memory? Do you remember where you needed a highly trained specialist knowing all aspects of a particular make and model of controller and, once this specialist was no longer available you had to replace the entire control system?  Do you remember when functional specifications filled volumes but were still misinterpreted, often triggering great disputes that ruined entire projects?

It’s interesting to observe the development in the automation and IT world over the recent past. It wasn’t that long ago when DCS systems were the ultimate in automation and companies where willing to pay any price for this powerful, integrated piece of software – software which ran on a dedicated box of tricks which had some semblance of a modified PC containing physical inputs and outputs to control processes. Then the power of PLCs increased so drastically that DCS systems had to give way to this new technology. Meanwhile, in the PC world, as the race for improved performance, memory size and storage capacity gathered momentum, the temptation to use PCs for software control solutions became irresistible. Specially when one considers that, in most instances, PCs provided more than a hundred times the power of top PLC systems.

Individuals started to design hardware that could be linked to computers and, with a bit of software, this “white elephant” standing in almost every household had one more reason to exist than just playing games and using the Internet. If only the dreaded blue screen of fatal errors could be eliminated and hardware reliability could be improved, the concept of using PCs to create control solutions would no doubt have conquered the world of automation a few years ago already – but it is happening now. The enormous advances in operating systems and hardware reliability have resulted in low-cost computing platforms that are unequalled in the PLC world and that have laid the foundation of a new era in automation and control.

Not only have limitations concerning memory, functionality, ease of use and reliability been eliminated, but the very fact that the software has moved from a propriety platform to a standard platform has also eliminated the vulnerability of using specialists. What’s more, PCs now form part of the IT world and are surrounded by million-dollar infrastructures, which means that soft PLCs form part of an integrated information environment rather than remaining isolated islands of automation. Most global companies now see soft PLCs, such as Wonderware’s InControl, as a sufficiently stable and versatile solution capable of controlling most processes in any industry.

It’s interesting to observe the understandable hesitation of many to enter into this foreign territory of no limitations, where dreams are changing to reality, where suddenly, there are no limitations to communicating with ERP or MIS systems and where the possibility exists for end users to fully-own their systems without recourse to specialists. The picture of a lion comes to my mind which, having been caged in a zoo from birth, is let loose into the wild. First, there’s the hesitation but after the sampling of an unbelievable experience in a world full of opportunities, there’s no desire to return to the cage.

I am interested to know the outcome of this present confusion of control solutions where manufacturers of PLCs develop soft solutions and, by so doing, become their own biggest competitors. No wonder that marketing of such solutions from those manufacturers had to be somewhat suppressed. At the end, selling hardware has been a more profitable business than selling software and who wants to create hardware which is interchangeable with any software, taking away the proprietary approach? The few brave ones who, with a vision into the future and with some courage, have entered this territory, are those who look at you with a smile while enjoying the benefit of having moved to the forefront of technology which brings new opportunities to challenge competitors in market-leading positions.

For further information, contact:
Mike le Plastrier at Futuristix Advanced Control Systems (Pty) Ltd.
Tel : (011) 723 9900
Fax : (011) 453 1808
Email : mike@futuristix.co.za or info@futuristix.co.za

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