Software drives automation

The new technology behind .Net, Common Language Runtime, updates COM and DCOM for faster and more stable communication.

Software is increasingly an important part of manufacturing systems. Decreasing memory prices, increasingly powerful microprocessors at stable prices and improved manufacturing have combined to make hardware components of automation systems less expensive. Meanwhile the software percentage continues to grow.

Getting applications to converse with one another in a “talk, listen, respond, listen” manner has been a challenge. When Microsoft introduced Windows, it also introduced object linking and embedding (OLE) as a way to enable applications to share data. This was the ability to copy data from, say, an Excel spreadsheet, and paste it into another application, such as Microsoft Word, on the same machine. OLE evolved into the component object model (COM), which defined a way to write data into software objects and share them. This function was still primarily for one machine, although it was possible to share data manually.

In this age of high-speed communications and greater information sharing requirements, something more was needed. Microsoft’s answer is called .Net (pronounced “dot net”). As Kenna Amos explains in his article on page 24, .Net leverages standards developed through the World Wide Web Consortium (www.w3c.org) such as eXtensible Markup Language and Simple Object Access Protocol. Other parts of .Net include a new language, C# (pronounced C sharp).

There is real—and new—technology behind .Net in addition to using Web standards. It’s called Common Language Runtime (CLR). CLR updates COM and is designed to make computer-to-computer automated communication faster and more stable. For inquiring minds, I recommend reading “Essential .Net, Volume 1, The Common Language Runtime,” by Don Box with Chris Sells, published by Addison Wesley. This is a clear, but technical explanation of the technology and how to use it.

Technology providers in the automation market are already applying .Net in manufacturing, as Rob Spiegel reports. Carol Wilson reports on companies deploying alternative technologies to .Net, just to show that manufacturing isn’t 100 percent Microsoft.

Especially for programmers and their managers, I recommend a recent book by Ellen Ullman, who was involved with computers early on, when there were few women working in the field. “The Bug,” published by Doubleday, is a gripping novel, but woven into its fabric is the tough reality of producing quality software. Whether you are writing control code or enterprise applications, you’ll recognize the personalities and problems of developing complex software.

Manufacturing a dying breed?

As I write this, the big news is unemployment, especially in manufacturing. It’s always hard to tell where the truth lies when looking at macroeconomic numbers, but I’ll hazard a guess and cite Jim Pinto’s column on p. 62 as an example. One of the tasks of automation is to increase output while decreasing cost. What has happened is that many jobs held by unskilled laborers have been eliminated by automation. Those that remain have seen wages cut. The era of someone with little or no skill earning a middle-class income in manufacturing is drawing to a close. On the bright side, there will be a place for those who are competent with new technologies, especially software skills. There will probably be more people in a plant than one person and a dog, as Jim jokingly suggests. But the people will be skilled.

Speaking of Jim Pinto, I’ll plug one last book. Jim will be releasing his newest book through ISA, “Automation Unplugged—Pinto’s Perspectives, Prognostications, Predictions & Poetry.” You can get one at ISA Expo in Houston October 21-23. Look him up there and get an autographed copy.

While you are there, look up Editorial Director Jane Gerold and me. We'd like your thoughts and suggestions about Automation World.

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