On today’s industrial equipment, control systems are required to do more than manage the machine. They also give operators open access to real-time data that can be analyzed and used to improve the manufacturing process.

Open architecture controllers let you collect data such as cycle times and feed rates as well as setup and inspection times. This information then can be packaged for analysis virtually anywhere in the world. How convenient to be able to troubleshoot a machine in Brazil while never leaving your office in Michigan.

Open architecture control, simply stated, is the highly leveraged use of PC technology for control purposes. Certainly there are more highly technical definitions of the term, but for all practical purposes, open architecture today means significant application of tools from high-volume markets including Windows, PCs, and the Internet.

It’s not a new idea by any means. In the semiconductor business, PCs have controlled fabrication plants for a long time. But in the industrial environment, adoption has been increasing rapidly especially over the past five years, and U.S. automotive giant General Motors has been extremely instrumental. In 1994 General Motors along with Ford and Chrysler released the open modular architecture controller (OMAC) requirements document. The requirements in this influential document specified that open control systems must be:

Open to allow integration of off-theshelf hardware and software into a controller infrastructure that supports a single standard.

Economical by increasing life cycles and therefore reducing overall life cycle costs.

Maintainable with simple techniques including support from suppliers, small spare parts inventory, and integrated self-diagnostics.

Modular – allowing for “plug and play” of several components from various suppliers.

Scaleable for easy reconfiguration capabilities in diverse applications.

Today, most companies thinking of adopting or supplying open architecture controls refer to these OMAC guidelines. Since the early days, many large companies such as DaimlerChrysler, Volvo, and Volkswagen have trusted their manufacturing to open architecture controls.

Windows to the future

When open architecture controls were introduced, vendors of proprietary controllers insisted that Windows and PCs weren’t reliable enough to control factories. And it’s true that Windows can’t handle sophisticated machines nor any time-critical operation. However, robot, CNC, and motion control companies have solved this problem by using the real-time operating extension, VxWin, with Windows to permit VxWorks, the popular real-time operating system, to run concurrently.

Not all desktop PCs or off-the-shelf PCs are suitable for the harsh environments of many factories. The good news is that with appropriate processes for supply chain management, product validation, product testing, and environmental testing, a PC can be made as reliable as a proprietary controller.

Open architecture products are available as software only or as controllers. Softwareonly solutions remain, for the most part, human machine interface (HMI) products, supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), and manufacturing execution system (MES) products where direct control of the manufacturing process is not involved. Controllers, on the other hand, typically control the manufacturing process directly, PLCs and motion controllers, for example. Many manufacturers prefer to purchase a complete controller solution from one company, a trend demonstrated by the combination of hardware and software companies such as Xycom with ASAP, Nematron with Universal Automation, and Taylor with TCP (now GE Fanuc).

During supplier evaluations, we found that high-volume companies have developed strong processes, consistently producing reliable products. Lower-volume manufacturers have difficulty yielding the same quality. A company that ships only a few thousand units can’t compete with a company that ships millions each year. The idea that low-volume proprietary hardware can be as reliable and as economical as high-volume PC hardware is difficult to believe. The successful deployment of thousands of quality PC-based controllers suggests as much.

Later, skeptics said, “Okay, maybe we can use a PC for line control, but it’s not suitable for machine control. It’s too risky!” This myth has also been dispelled over the last few years. After introducing its PCbased open architecture controller in 1996, KUKA Robotics experienced tremendous growth. Since then, KUKA has shipped more than 20,000 PC-controlled robots. General Motors has installed thousands of PC-based control systems in its plants as well. Adoption of open architecture control is accelerating. More importantly, it has become a proven technology.

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While open architecture control is being driven by the desktop PC model, it does not mean that you can buy some control software, slap together PC components, load the software, and be guaranteed success. Someone must integrate and validate the marriage of software and hardware. Someone must ensure that the two operate in a safe and predictable manner – an important task that applies to both open architecture and proprietary control products. This could be a controller company, a system integrator, or an end user. This step must not be overlooked, as it’s essential to ensure that end users do not experience unnecessary downtime.

A new e-World

Open architecture control is the enabling technology that will open the doors of low transaction cost e-Commerce to the manufacturing world. Increased use of the Internet for business-to-business (B2B) transactions has companies scrambling. Forward-thinking agile manufacturers are developing e-commerce strategies that, in many cases, require them to re-engineer their information technology (IT) and manufacturing infrastructures. PC-based control systems provide the necessary connectivity, software environments, and third-party support. With the incredible explosion of B2B commerce already in swing, this has become one of the most significant issues facing manufacturing executives today.

In addition to the e-Commerce capabilities afforded by open architecture control, there are many much-talked-about end user benefits to this system. They include:

• Protection of software investment with hardware upgrades.

• Ease of upgrading to new technologies.

• Better integration to other products.

• Better integration with enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, providing supply chain visibility.

• Better integration with factory networks and the Internet.

Additionally, when one platform is used for multiple control technologies such as PLCs and machine controllers, training efforts and spare parts inventories can be reduced and hardware costs are lower. Ethernet boards, for example, are available for under $100, compared to over $1,000 for a proprietary board.

As for system integrators, open architecture control lets them resolve customer problems that they could not handle before. Open architecture permits:

• Easier incorporation of third-party products such as sensors, HMIs, and PLCs.

• Easier development of HMIs using standard software such as Visual Basic or Visual C++.

• Easier addition of advanced algorithms that permit the system integrator to create a unique solution for his customer using process knowledge.

To successfully use open architecture control, however, OEMs must change their methods and strategically outsource all or part of their controllers. Machinery companies must realize that focusing on specific customer needs, processes, and application packages will add more value than developing a CPU board.

For all but the largest companies, it is nearly impossible to develop a controller and keep up with technological development. Even these large companies are discovering that they are more profitable when they outsource. A recent survey conducted by PA Consulting shows companies that strategically outsource, for the most part, outperform companies that have low levels of outsourcing. Most successful companies will outsource when others can do it better, to focus on their core business, and to reduce their cost base.

Manufacturers’ technology staffs must shift from a “not invented here” perspective in order to take advantage of opportunities afforded by technology, and management teams must change their bias about outsourcing from “competitive threat to the organization” to the view of “synergistic global relationships.” By leveraging the vast PC technology market, open architecture control is forcing the pace of change to accelerate, and no single company can successfully avoid using technologies from other companies.

The next phase

There’s no turning back from using open architecture controls to run factories. Such products have passed the “teething phase” and are cropping up in factories left and right. The sales of open architecture controls is expected to rise at a rate of 50 to 100% per year, far outpacing the growth rate for proprietary controllers.

Some companies have entered the second phase, creating integrated manufacturing environments by connecting controllers through Ethernet. This is the “plumbing” that permits greater integration with the Internet, enabling remote diagnostics and B2B e-commerce. Customer demands for real-time, over-the-Internet information will significantly influence controller demands and capabilities.

In the not-so-distant future we can expect more remote diagnostics, centralized program storage and retrieval, improved interoperability between office and factory software as well as tighter integration with manufacturing execution software, supply chain management software, and CAD software. There will be wider use of technologies such as Windows CE and network user interfaces (NUIs). The way to take advantage of these future advances is to latch on to what open architecture control offers today.

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