Sense, Control and Connect: The Embedded Thread

Why companies like Texas Instruments are increasingly focused on how embedded technologies can extend and change the foundational elements of industrial automation.

The advances we’ve seen in automation technologies over the years—from embedded cybersecurity to shrinking controllers to deterministic Ethernet—have all come about through advances made at the embedded layer. It’s why I’ve been such an advocate for end users to increase their knowledge about advances in the embedded space that are changing the key automation technologies they rely on.

Apparently, the idea of conveying information about embedded technologies beyond the developer audience is gaining traction. At the Embedded World 2018 event in Nuremberg, Germany, Texas Instruments hosted a session focused on industrial sensing, process and control, and connectivity. In this session, Texas Instruments’ Ray Upton, vice president of connected microcontrollers and embedded processing, and Sameer Wasson, general manager of radar and analytics processors, explained the importance of these technologies and highlighted new products the company has developed to help advance these core areas of industrial automation technology.

In terms of sensing and measurement technologies, Wasson noted how ultra-low power MCUs (microcontroller units), like the company’s new MSP430FR2512/22 device, can bring new levels of accuracy to ultrasonic sensing for use in temperature, pressure and humidity sensing applications. These capacitive sensing MCUs (which can be used to measure anything that is conductive or has a dielectric different from air) were designed for cost-sensitive industrial applications.

Using flow meters as an illustrative example of an MSP430 application, Wasson said that, at first glance, the function of a flow meter seems simple. After all, the device is basically used to track the flow of a liquid from one location to another. “But there is more involved,” he said. “You have to measure the pressure in the pipe. You have to measure the rate of flow. With the MSP430 MCUs, you get a higher precision reading [of those parameters] without sacrificing power.” And if you also need to monitor the level of the tank where the water is stored, that’s what Texas Instruments’ mmWave technology is designed for.

“The combination of our analog, MSP430 and mmWave technology not only gives system and device developers a complete system to work with, it also gives users a level of efficiency that has not been previously available,” Wasson said. He added that the mmWave sensors can also be used in applications where position detection is critical.

On the process and control capabilities front, Upton pointed out that Texas Instruments has been providing real-time control processing with its C2000 MCUs for more than 20 years. These MCUs are designed to handle complex and precise motion control required on a factory floor. The recent updates to these devices are designed to maximize power efficiency for cost-sensitive control applications.

And while running motors and other plant floor equipment more efficiently with better MCUs is important, so too is managing factory floor communications, said Upton, and that’s where Texas Instruments’ Sitara processors come in. They manage wired communications from program logic controllers (PLCs) across the factory floor. “Sitara supports more than 10 industrial protocols including Profibus and Profinet, EtherCAT, Sercos and even Ethernet protocols like Time Sensitive Networking to improve speed of communication to get more efficiency out of the plant floor.”

With the increase in industrial sensing technology applications occurring alongside rising interest in the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), Upton pointed out that, as you gather and process all this data, “this information needs to be stored and shared via a connection to the cloud or other devices.” In response to this, there is a strong trend around the adoption of wireless technologies, as well as new use cases for sub-1 GHz technologies. Upton said interest in sub-1 GHz technologies is primarily coming from users looking to leverage its long range. While this kind of technology is often used in widely spread smart grid applications or across city blocks, it is also being used in large manufacturing facilities.

To learn more about the use of wireless networks to capture data, read about how AWNC incorporated Wi-Fi networks into its plantwide automation technology upgrade.

Keeping up with industry trends in wireless technology, Texas Instruments announced the extension of its SimpleLink MCU that broadens the controller’s protocol support to include Thread and Zigbee (both of which are open standard, mesh local area network technologies). “This extends the ability to connect more than one device with mesh technology,” said Upton, “meaning that we can help a facilities manager connect and manage the factory’s entire sensor network from a single interface.”

The prevalence of Wi-Fi devices for industrial use proves that it’s “not difficult to build a Wi-Fi product, but it is difficult to build a robust one,” Upton said, referencing Texas Instruments’ newest extension of its SimpleLink platform, which represents its sixth generation. In addition to support for Thread and Zigbee, as noted above, other new capabilities added to the platform allow it to connect communications from the sub-1 GHz level to Wi-Fi.

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