Automation Meets Embedded Systems

May 16, 2017
At the Embedded World 2017 conference, it was clear that embedded systems are having a growing influence in industrial machines and devices.

What do automation and embedded systems have in common? The short answer is more and more. The annual Embedded World trade fair, held every winter in Nuremberg, Germany, has become the world’s largest show for the highly fragmented embedded community of suppliers, developers and users. Though the embedded market is fragmented into thousands of different application areas, the focus on automation has grown sharply in recent years as automation suppliers put more intelligence into their field devices.

The ongoing success of Embedded World is due to the growing influence of embedded systems, primarily in the automotive sector, but also in automation. Just as the importance of software is rising, embedded systems (the combination of computer hardware and software designed for a specific function within a larger system) is growing rapidly. In addition to everyday applications like automobiles, medical equipment, airplanes, vending machines, cameras, household appliances, toys and mobile devices, embedded systems are employed frequently in industrial machines and process industry devices. And the number of applications is expanding as industrial devices become more connected.

Time-Sensitive Networking

Many exhibitors at the show highlighted implementations of the IEEE standards for Time-Sensitive Networking (TSN). National Instruments, for example, is cooperating with the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC), Bosch Rexroth, Cisco, Intel, Kuka, Schneider Electric and TTTech to develop a testbed for this new IEEE 802.1 real-time Ethernet standard for use in industrial applications. The testbed will evaluate the use of TSN in a live production application.

TSN, an open standard network architecture, provides cross-vendor integration and interoperability. The technology supports open, deterministic real-time communication over a single Ethernet network, such as between motor control applications and industrial robots. TSN provides access to data in real time. This is necessary to optimize business processes and create new business models based on intelligent, interlinked networks, systems and machines. So TSN will play an important role for the realization of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

Open source in industry

For the developer community, the open source idea has long been a golden rule. Increasingly, this approach is now entering the traditionally conservative automation industry. Companies like Kunbus or Janz Tec are offering small industrial PCs (IPCs) based on Raspberry Pi modules.

Though there are limitations for industrial use, these types of open systems lower the entry barrier for developing software applications. Depending on the knowledge and preferences of software developers, they can use various programming languages—from simple graphical, up to more demanding high-level languages.

Automation companies discover Embedded World

Just a few years ago, no major automation suppliers were to be found at Embedded World. But times have changed. From year to year, we see more and more automation companies participating, even if their numbers are small compared with the SPS IPC Drives exhibition held every year in November at the same location.

Some of the automation suppliers we spoke to at Embedded World include:

  • GE Automation & Controls presented its new Industrial Internet Control System (IICS), a central control system for industrial asset and plant control based on analyzed machine data. GE also introduced a new line of IPCs.
  • Advantech announced the launch of its WISE-PaaS Marketplace, an online store for software services from Advantech and its partners. This is designed to create a collaborative ecosystem for IIoT and cloud products, as well as its Embedded Linux & Android Alliance (ELAA), a unified platform for the industrial embedded and IIoT market.
  • Kontron presented a new and broader IPC portfolio that includes industrial tablets, notebooks and panel PCs. The company also highlighted its secure system approach that protects embedded systems on three device levels relevant to security: BIOS (Secure BIOS), operating system (Secure OS), and application (Secure Application).
  • Siemens had a booth focused on product lifecycle management (PLM), but the company’s most relevant presence here was through Mentor Graphics, a provider of electronic design automation (EDA) software that it recently acquired. Among other things, Mentor Graphics showed solutions to network devices for IIoT applications securely using low-energy Bluetooth.
  • Wind River demonstrated Siemens IIoT gateways, showing how Wind River technologies can enable virtualization, real-time performance and edge-to-cloud connectivity via Wind River software and the on-premise Titanium Cloud.

Cooperation and alliances abound

One notable ARC Advisory Group takeaway from this year’s Embedded World was the high level of cooperation and alliances announced among embedded suppliers, automation suppliers and IT suppliers. Many exhibitors highlighted their respective cooperation with partners, especially in areas like networking, security and the cloud. The embedded industry clearly does not regard this just as a technical task and the partnerships with associations like OPC Foundation will help to make different systems and protocols compatible for end users.

Automation end users and suppliers alike should keep an eye on the embedded industry and visit Embedded World or similar exhibitions. Trends from the embedded industry are entering the automation industry at an increasing rate as the operational technology, engineering technology and information technology worlds converge. This trend will continue for the foreseeable future as the importance of embedded systems for industrial automation continues to grow.

>>Fabian Wanke is an analyst for ARC’s automation team in Europe, and is based in Dresden, Germany. He specializes in the automotive, aerospace and polymers industries, as well as economic modeling and forecasting. He has a special focus on industrial PCs and operator panels, and is also responsible for the European automotive research. David Humphrey, director of research, Europe, is based in Munich, Germany. He has more than 25 years of experience in industrial automation, including specifying, designing and programming control systems in areas ranging from automobile to packaging, implementing projects involving PLCs, HMI hardware and software, industrial networks, drives and motion control.

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