Are Open Systems Reliable Enough for Industrial Automation?

Jan. 23, 2024
Ken Crawford of Weidmüller USA speaks with Automation World about the company’s use of open-source technologies in its new u-OS product and how it can benefit OEM and end-user operations.

See the video and article related to Weidmüller's release of u-OS at Pack Expo 2023.


David Greenfield, Automation World 

Welcome to the Automation World Gets Your Questions Answered podcast where we  connect with industry experts to get the answers you need about industrial automation  technologies. I'm David Greenfield, editor in chief at Automation World and the question  we'll be answering in this episode is: Are open systems reliable enough for industrial IoT? 

And joining me to answer this question is Ken Crawford, senior director of automation at  Weidmüller USA, a supplier of industrial connectivity and electronics technologies such as  terminal blocks, connectors, cabling, IO controllers and power supplies. So thanks for  joining me today, Ken.

Ken Crawford, Weidmüller USA 

Thanks, David. I'm very excited to be here. 

David Greenfield, Automation World

Alright, so you know before we get started on our discussion today, Ken, I just wanna  update the audience real quick on the origins of the topic for this interview which started  when we met at Pack Expo, where Weidmüller was introducing u-OS which is your open  operating system designed to handle tasks such as device maintenance and application  integration and automated systems. Now for listeners interested to learn more, I've placed  a link to that article that I wrote following our meeting, which also features a video of you,  Ken, explaining u-OS on the page for this podcast at the site.

Now based on what I learned in our discussion about u-OS, you know I see u-OS as a great  example of how integral the use of open systems technologies is becoming across the  automation device landscape. And as you know, it wasn't so long ago that the idea of using  open systems technology wasn't exactly widely embraced by the industrial engineering  community.

So, seeing Weidmüller’s introduction of u-OS really highlighted for me, you know how far  the acceptance of open systems use in industrial technology has come. So considering  that history of open systems in industry, and that the basis of your new u-OS strategy  involves the use of a Linux core, which of course opens up a number of possibilities for  users, the fact remains that some users might still be a bit apprehensive about relying on  open source software for their operations, because it's openness can be perceived as less  secure.

In your opinion, what are the risks of open-source software and automation today and what  is Weidmüller doing to mitigate these? And are there any specific benefits you can point to  with regard to security and robustness when using open-source software?

Ken Crawford, Weidmüller USA 

Sure.  That's, that's actually a great question. So, umm, you hit it on the head a little bit  when you mentioned that open-source software is perceived or the perception because it's  open lends itself a little bit less secure. But you know, just because hackers can't see the  source code doesn't mean that it's more secure by any means, and by some estimates,  90% of the industrial community uses some form of open software today.

And in my opinion, open-source software is that you have is with open-source software.  You have the largest developer community authoring, contributing and patching the Linux  based OS as well as the other open-source platforms like Python and Node-Red.

At last count, the Linux Foundation estimated the number of developers to be over a  million.  So a closed or proprietary developer, they can't achieve that level of creative  support. Also, because of the openness, and because you will have four players, we  engage with communities and we have partnerships and tools that alert us to that, provide  us with alerts for any vulnerabilities that may be present as well as help us rapidly our  patch, our solutions and also with that level engagement we are seeing an explosion of  unique and creative open source solutions that are more flexible and extensible than any  kind of closed counterpart could possibly be.

David Greenfield, Automation World

So you know Weidmüller advertises u-OS as an open Linux based operating system as I  mentioned earlier you know, but not every automation application needs that level of  openness. And of course, not every engineer is comfortable with Linux, so considering that,  do you see it as being a good fit for a broad range of industrial automation applications?

Ken Crawford, Weidmüller USA

Yeah, certainly. Linux has come a very, very a long way since the beginning of just a  command line structured language. But at the same time, Weidmüller sees that the Linux  partitions and the Linux piece can be a little bit more difficult for people that engineers that  aren't maybe as a IT literate as a typical Linux administrator would be. That's why we've  really abstracted a lot of the Linux portions from the user interface so that you really don't  have to understand or know Linux.

So Weidmüller provides powerful tools and we provide applications that limit the need for  the user to interact directly with our OS, thereby extracting the need for the user to have  really any interaction with Linux at all. And this is a key benefit of the product.

Another benefit is that u-OS enables OEMs to run third party applications that can coexist  on the controller and provide an enhanced functionality of the controller. For instance, we  support a platform called AnyViz which provides condition monitoring, visualization and  cloud connectivity right out of the box.

These are open-source platforms that are supported on Linux now and make it very easy for  us to load and utilize. So it makes it a very flexible and extensible platform without really  the need for in-depth software development or in depth knowledge of the platform itself. You just take these modules much like an application, load it on our containerized OS and  you can run that application and all the and dependencies and all the drivers and all the  applications that are associated with that module. So the ability for the containers to  isolate each application running in conjunction with the main control algorithm really  provides an isolation barrier that enables the control features to be still deterministic and  run your analytics as well as the application running independently in a multi-threaded  environment. It keeps it all very safe.

David Greenfield, Automation World

I like that you mentioned that I think that's a key point too about even though Linux is  integral to u-OS In that you don't have to be an expert in Linux, and historically that has  been something of a requirements with different applications. You know, they were built on  Linux and the user or the engineers involved with it needed to be at least somewhat  familiar. So that's an interesting approach that it's transparent to the user that they don't  need to be an expert in that.

So one other thing, you mentioned on that was about the benefits to OEMs, if you don't  mind, I'd like to dive into that a little more deeper beyond the technology issues we've been  discussing surrounding open systems use in industry. What about the business side  benefits? And you know, since you mentioned OEMs lets you know start with that, you  know from an OEMs perspective, how can this be used to expand an OEM's business  opportunities?

Ken Crawford, Weidmüller USA 

So this platform really provides a big punch in a highly integrated and simplified solution.  This this really drives a high feature set at a lower cost, lower cost of ownership, lower cost  of a reduced bond cost really because of the OS that is the PLC that runs on a PLC. It also  enables you to do a lot more with that OS than just be a PLC, and it does it in a way that  simplifies a platform. 

So years ago it used to be that if you wanted a platform that was cloud connected, you'd  have your PLC platform. But then you'd have to buy a gateway, or you'd have to buy a  cellular modem, and then you'd have to buy some kind of firewall device. Today with u-OS,  since it is a cloud connected OS, we incorporate a lot of those individual parts and pieces  and software modules that reside on the PLC itself. So you get a lot of bang for your buck  there with a very reduced BOM cost.

In addition, you know since u-OS is built from the ground up, it's really built as a  connectivity platform that allows a high level of this integration and adoption for many of  the Industry 4.0 benefits, and this is all in a PLC that offers traditional discrete and process  level control, as well as providing a state of the art VPN level security.

A missing piece that a lot of companies still don't have for the remotely deployed assets.  And that is the idea of fleet management and edge management where you can remotely  administer and control and maintain, diagnose, troubleshoot and individual edge device on  on your platform as well as all of your remotely deployed devices. So fleet management  allows you one really central location, one single pane of glass to see how your machines  are operating, what the health of those machines are, if they're online, offline and really get  a very quick glimpse of how well your fleet is performing.

David Greenfield, Automation World

Yeah, that whole idea of fleet management or equipment as a service from an OEM point of  view, that's a that's definitely been a game changer in the OEM industry over the past few  years. And you know, we see no signs of that slowing down. And in fact, it seems to really  just be getting started.

So that's a good point there, you know, and following on that, you know from our discussion  there on the OEMs, what about from an industry end user point of view at a manufacturing  or processing facility, you know, how can these kind of technologies help their operations?

Ken Crawford, Weidmüller USA

So let's take problem detection is an example. So with US's ability to host and run third  party applications, imagine installing a data aggregation application alongside Codesys on  a PLC with the ability of inherit that aggregation in a PLC. The OEM can continuously gather  metric information about their remotely deployed product in a way that enables them to  see and detect problems and trends in their equipment.

So you have, you know, basically a your core control algorithm that's running your piece of  equipment and then you could just load a third party application that maybe is an analytic  that does it really good at problem detection and that analytic can coexist with a control  algorithm collecting data, sending that data up into the cloud, allowing you to see trends in  your equipment portfolio to be able to detect early problems and rectify those problems as  well as optimize your program remotely and update your program. In a way that you can  address those problems locally at the edge.

And with detection comes prediction and with prediction that company can better  determine issues before they become downtime events and also provides them with  solution intuition that puts the right part on the truck before they deploy the site. Resources  can cover more customers, more territory, and it results in a lot less wasted time and  money for the company.

David Greenfield, Automation World

You know, digging a bit deeper into the industry workforce issues that you mentioned there,  you know which is something both end users and OEMs are facing you know, can these  open source technologies help address the loss of in-house expertise as boomers retire  and greater numbers and also address new workforce trends around remote work and  employee retention?

Ken Crawford, Weidmüller USA 

Definitely. I think the exodus of expertise with the controls engineering field now entering  the retirement ages that a lot of people, a lot of companies are, are seeing that as an issue  in many industries, are seeing their workforces retiring. And with that, the exodus of  decades of experience and that intellectual property knowledge, you know, companies are  now finding that text and engineers like could locate a problem based on experience or  even listening to a piece of equipment. And that history is no longer available. Yeah, you know, with the introduction industry 4.0 comes in, comes in handsets through  more intelligent machines through data gathering and whatnot, capable of telling you  where it hurts. But with those insights require a broader sensor deployment as well is a  highly trained workforce.  

Normally you can get more information about your machine, but it costs a lot more money  and time because you have to outfit that machine with a bunch of sensors and what not to  bring that data back.

So in an environment where resources learn and sprint for high wages and with little  company loyalty, it's imperative that the companies employ a technology that's easy to  learn is easily configured and operates some really with low technology overhead and is  expertly supported with a team of central control engineers.

u-OS offers the ability to remotely log in, traverse the solution diagnosed and update the  control applications from a central location, and can even be accessed by Weidmüller tech  support if needed.

This lessens the impact for resource constrained companies and opens up the possibility  for remote work staff to continue to add value remotely instead of having to go into work or  having to go onsite. So really having these connected assets with all the tools necessary to  access and run them is really what the u-OS brings to the table.

David Greenfield, Automation World

Alright, so last question, Ken, you know we've talked about open systems technologies in  industry in general and we've talked about u-OS. You know very specifically as it pertains to  both OEMs and end users, but can you give us a few examples of companies in different  industry verticals that have used these open-source technologies to actually digitally  transform their operations?

Ken Crawford, Weidmüller USA

We've already mentioned a bit about combining open-source applications with an  established control algorithm like Codesys to allow you to quickly adopt known, tested  solutions to solve problems without adding additional hardware components.

For instance, an oil and gasoline company needed to add tank monitoring, for instance,  because what they do is they put a chemical in to control anti data put anti foaming agent  in tank so that they can keep that oil flowing when it's moving and they find that they can't  really modify a cabinet because these cabinets are certified. So really you OS gives them  the opportunity to they can find a local vendor with a local sensor, a tank level sensor and  then actually run that that that company's application. That interfaces to that sensor  alongside of the control algorithm and connect that to the cloud remotely. So really in the  control cabinet, there isn't necessarily a need to modify or add components. You can just  connect to an application that runs coincidentally with your control algorithm and bring  that data back to the cloud so that the customer can do automatic inventory, for instance,  on those anti flow agents.

Another example would be a crane company that offers update services for proclaim  installations. You know, it's like, you know, these big industrial crane systems are anywhere  from 4 to $12 million for a brand new and up, right. So there's a whole industry of of  companies that go out there and they update these these crane systems and as many  types of crane systems as there are, they're PLC's. And so no two crane systems look  exactly the same, and so a lot of them will standardize on like a you control where we can  incorporate you remote into that you control and parasitically connect to each one of those  design architects architectures and bring back that data with analytics, with data  aggregation with that remote access that secure remote access to a central dashboard  where really it doesn't matter if there's ten different installations, they all look exactly the  same through a single pane of glass and they're represented where the tag maps are  represented. Same look and feel for the dashboard. 

So when these companies go in and they offer maintenance contracts from remotely, they  can log into these devices and they don't have 10 unique different devices that they really  have to manage. They can go into a single portal where all of the devices have been  configured to look exactly the same from their perspective, and that really simplifies their  ability to manage these diverse fleets.

And we do that with u-OS through the u-link portion of u-OS running on our u-control as  well as our u-remote parasitically tying into all the sensors so that we're not really doing  any of the control in the crane. But we're doing a lot of the monitoring and status monitoring  of that crane.

David Greenfield, Automation World

Well, thank you again for joining me for this podcast, Ken. And thanks of course to all our  listeners and please keep watching this space for more installments of Automation World  Gets Your Questions Answered and remember you can find us online at to stay on top of the latest industrial automation technology  insights, trends and news.