Industrial Control Redesigned

Bedrock Automation has introduced a unique set of industrial control system products that could alter the way we think about controllers, I/O, power supplies and backplanes. The question is: How will industry respond?

In the automation space, technology suppliers are forever upgrading the capabilities of their control products and the software used to run them. By and large, however, the form and function of the components themselves have remained relatively unchanged for decades, i.e., small plastic boxes—typically ranging in color from beige to charcoal gray or black—that house the PLC or DCS, I/O, and power supply connected via a backplane with connector pins.

For my first face-to-face meeting with Bedrock Automation, I was expecting a discussion of this new company’s approach to embedded industrial control system security. After all, the company’s tagline is “secure industrial automation” and, from a few materials I saw prior to the meeting, I knew their security approach revolved around embedded hardware. However, I wasn’t prepared for everything else I saw.

Essentially, Bedrock Automation has redesigned the industrial automation components with which we are all very familiar. Yes, the PLC/DCS, I/O and power supplies are still housed in little boxes and connected through a backplane. But the similarities largely end there.

Let’s begin with the backplane. For starters, the I/O connector pins are gone. They have been replaced with an electromagnetic interconnect that, according to Bedrock Automation, provides: increased reliability—as there is no concern about pins breaking, bending, corroding or being subject to RFI bursts; higher speed—via replacement of the serial multi-drop bus design with the company’s Black Fabric technology (more on that later); galvanic isolation—which cannot be achieved in conventional pin-based backplanes without implementing transformers and/or opto-coupling; and protection against cyber snooping—as backplane pins are subject to snooping via logic analyzers as well as faking of modules through manipulation of the pins.

So just what is this “Black Fabric” Bedrock Automation uses to construct its backplanes? “Black Fabric is our proprietary, 4GB communication and power interconnection fabric that encompasses our electromagnetic interconnection method, as well as the asynchronous, parallel, redundant power and communication architecture, and embedded communication switch fabric,” says Albert Rooyakkers, founder, CTO and vice president of engineering at Bedrock Automation.

Bedrock’s patented backplane power and communication architecture (which is among the 74 patents filed by the company around its new control system products) is a passive, asynchronous, full duplex communications switch fabric with parallel and serial interfaces. The serial interface is configured to connect the I/O devices to the control, communication, and power devices in parallel. The parallel communications interface is configured to separately connect the I/O devices to the master and transmit information between the I/O devices and each other at 1 msec I/O scan times, regardless of I/O count or application. The parallel interface forms a dedicated channel for each of the backplane module interconnect (BMI) devices and operates like an integral cross switch.

The BMI is constructed from machined, anodized aluminum. According to Rooyakkers, the all-metal construction of the BMI and mating modules creates contiguous thermal coupling and passive cooling.

Another interesting point about the backplane is that all of its I/O slot and I/O module electromagnetic power and communication interconnections are symmetric. Rooyakkers notes that this means any I/O module can be placed in any slot on the backplane in any orientation, allowing for better cable management and flexible segregation of field wiring to either left versus right or top versus bottom as a function of vertical versus horizontal BMI mounting.

With a basic understanding of Bedrock Automation’s backplane in place, let’s move on to the power supply. Bedrock uses one universal smart power supply module to support 80-265 V AC/V DC 50/60 Hz input that reportedly provides all required system power plus an isolated +24V DC output for field devices. This design of this power supply requires no fans and is sealed in an all-metal box for operation in an extended temperature range of -40C to +80C. The power supply is redundant and cyber secure via a secure Black Fabric ARM processor on board. Connected to the backplane, the power supply provides diagnostic capabilities for analytics, predictive maintenance, and reduced unplanned downtime.

Bedrock Automation offers one universal controller for Continuous, Ladder or Sequential Function Chart languages. With guaranteed execution times of less than 5 msec, Rooyakkers says that one controller can support as few as ten or up to 200 I/O modules and 4000 I/O points. “These connections can be distributed through an integrated gigabit switch fabric in the controller and I/O communication module,” he says, “eliminating the need for edge switches and the reliability, security and cost issues associated with switch technology.”

The gigabit I/O distribution bus can reportedly be up to 100 kilometers in length, with the option to use copper, single or multi-mode fiber networks built into the controller and I/O network via small form factor pluggable standard network connectors on the controller and I/O network communication module.

The controller, like the power supply, is sealed in an all-metal box and uses a Black Fabric ARM secure processor running a SIL III rated, EAL 6+ certified RTOS. The controller’s built-in sequence of events (SOE) capability—IEEE 1588 standard timekeeping is enabled in all I/O modules and the power supply module—means there is no need to buy special hardware, adds Rooyakkers, who notes that all I/O, as well as the power supply, are also eligible for SOE functionality.

Like the controller, power supply and backplane, Bedrock’s I/O also features all-metal housing and Black Fabric crypto ARM processors. Power and communications are managed through the BMI without pins at 1 msec scan times. The I/O are configured with Virtual Marshaling software for three I/O module types: UA—universal analog; UDI—universal discrete in; and UDO—universal discrete out. Bedrock’s Universal Fieldbus Module provides a road map for use of the I/O with Profibus, DeviceNet, Industrial Ethernet and Foundation Fieldbus. Rooyakkers notes that this capability provides an 80 percent reduction in module types for most users.

Getting an up close view of these products while listening to Rooyakkers explain the technology and design processes behind them, I could not help but think that these products must cost significantly more than its competitors. And though Rooyakkers would not quote a general price for me during our discussion, as total cost is dependent on application, he did stress that Bedrock’s prices are in line with other top-level automation technologies. He then pointed out some of the savings inherent in the design of Bedrock’s automation products, such as:

  • Elimination of junction boxes reduces cable termination requirements;
  • I/O is installed and terminated in the field eliminating intermediary terminations;
  • The need for loop diagrams is eliminated; and
  • I/O panel layouts and wiring diagrams are reduced by two-thirds.

These factors, along with others he cited, are said to deliver a 33 percent reduction in total engineering system design requirement.

Rooyakers then explained Bedrock’s non-obsolescence concept. “Current OEMs source virtually 100 percent of their active semiconductor components from suppliers like Maxim Integrated (Bedrock Automation’s parent company), Texas Instruments, Intel, and others.Since component obsolescence is one of the primary drivers to product obsolescence, Bedrock sources nearly 100 percent of its system active components internally from Maxim Integrated and organic designs,” he says. “This means most complex analog and digital components are designed internally by Bedrock engineers and are built around a multi-decade supply chain model. Further, through module level convergence—the use of sophisticated circuit architectures to minimize system module count, as well as very large scale integration in both digital and analog designs—we have dramatically reduced the absolute component count. These factors combine to create a significantly different component supply chain model and results in a new paradigm for system life expectancy and non-obsolescence.”

Looking back over my coverage of these new products, I cannot recall ever having used this much space to explain a new product before. However, I felt that Bedrock Automation’s new approach to control system design and operation warranted more attention than usual. Having said that, I’ve only hit the highlights here of what was discussed during our meeting. I haven’t even touched on Bedrock’s Integrated Development Environment, its controller’s embedded real-time OS from Green Hills Software, or its soon-to-be-released secure power products with power supplies and UPS with an embedded server. I’ll have more to say on those later. For now, to wrap your head around this new concept as I have been doing recently, I suggest visiting the Bedrock Automation site for more detailed information.

As for questions about how industry will react to this wholesale new approach to industrial control system design, a few end users I spoke with (whose names I cannot reveal yet) expressed very high levels of interest in this product and some noted plans for pilot projects with the technology. I’ll keep you posted with what I hear as these products are released to the market this year.

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