Collaboration Makes Automation Software More Accessible

Makers of industrial automation products are discovering that closed software development environments may be a thing of the past. But there is something besides open source development. The PACTware Consortium demonstrates the benefits of a “shared source” business model.

As our kindergarten teachers taught us, sharing is important. Many software developers learned that lesson well, creating a large open-source community of code-sharing collaborators who have made everything from the Linux operating system and the Firefox browser to a range of accounting, security and server software for business. There are even open-source versions of enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM), e-commerce and content management tools.

Open-source software gives users great flexibility, because it can be easily changed or extended to meet specific needs. It also can have features and capabilities not found in commercial counterparts, and it generally costs less than those proprietary alternatives. Add to that the way the Internet has created an environment where anyone can create something new, send it out to others for improvement, and then distribute it when it’s complete, and suddenly collaborative software development is all the rage. No one wants to reinvent the wheel.

Developers of industrial automation software are not known to embrace information technology advances easily or quickly. But some are making the most of these trends by using a consortium software development model, which falls somewhere between the open-source and proprietary software varieties.

“Sadly, the automation industry is littered with the remains of many failed attempts at technical collaboration and standardization,” says Harry Forbes of research firm ARC. But “the collaborative software development technologies that enable the many critical open-source programs in IT can easily be adapted for use by private groups operating with a shared-source model. ARC sees considerable room for this type of software development cooperation within the automation industry.”

In an October ARCview report, Forbes uses the example of PACTware, “a high-quality FDT Frame Application for Microsoft Windows” that has been jointly developed by a commercial consortium of 24 member companies. Members include Pepperl+Fuchs, Invensys Foxboro (now part of Schneider Electric), Endress+Hauser, Turck, Trebing+Himstedt, and others.

As Forbes explains it, FDT is a standardized software technology for interoperability between field devices and automation systems. FDT specifies two types of software components. “One is the DTM (Device Type Manager) that acts like a device driver by encapsulating the features and behaviors of a particular field device (for example a radar level transmitter or a robotic welding tool). The second component, the Frame Application, provides a unified runtime environment for any and all DTMs,” Forbes says.

PACTware is a Frame Application. It is manufacturer-independent configuration software for field instruments that is fieldbus-independent. It simplifies setup in automation, supports the full range of functions of all field instruments, and offers diagnostics and asset management functionality. “The development of PACTware has given a major boost to FDT adoption in automation,” says Forbes, because it eliminates barriers to the development of FDT Frame Application.

Beyond giving a boost to FDT, PACTware helps its member companies. “FDT Frame Applications (and software devel­opment in general) are of lesser importance to many members,” Forbes says. PACTware provides high-quality software that members don't have to develop themselves. The consortium also revises the software to incorporate the latest revision of the FDT standard, so members don’t have to.

Consortium members “are much more focused on differentiating their measurement and field products. Indeed, many treat software development as a cost center rather than as product,” says Forbes. “Large members (such as Invensys) already manage many software businesses and products, most far more important as differ­entiators than an FDT Frame Application. So all members want a high-quality product, but are focused on controlling costs, risk, and avoiding ‘mission creep.’”

The consortium did not begin with sponsorship of any major automation supplier, so the initial members all had a similar outlook and objectives, and truly had to share their costs and risk, says Forbes. The group benefitted from the intellectual property contributions of Pepperl+Fuchs, but this is different than a partnership program sponsored by a major automation supplier, where the major supplier generally provides most of the technical and financial support for the organization.

Forbes calls the success of the PACTware consortium “remarkable,” and cites another example of shared-source development: the WiTeck consortium www.witeck.org, which develops WirelessHART communication stacks and related software.

“The list of possible areas of cooperation does not end there,” says Forbes. “The benefits of higher software quality and lower cost and risk are attractive business propositions in many cases.”

Just like your kindergarten teacher said, sharing really is best.

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