On the Horizon: Network-Enabled Control Platforms

The next generation of process control includes at least two new categories made possible by advances in networking technology, according to Connie Chick of GE Intelligent Platforms.

When most automation professionals think about control platforms, categories that usually come to mind are programmable automation controllers (PACs), programmable logic controllers (PLCs), PC-based controllers, and embedded controls.

But the categories don’t end there for Connie Chick, global product manager at GE Intelligent Platforms (www.ge-ip.com). For her, the next generation of process control also includes at least two new categories made possible by advances in networking technology.

The first is what Chick calls the Ethernet standard fieldbus platform. “Ethernet is an enabling platform that can connect everything down to the device level,” she says. The controller, I/O modules and HMI can reside on the same wire—or wireless. An important consequence of having an industry-standard link like Ethernet is that users are no longer restricted to one vendor’s technology. They are free to choose devices that solve their problems in the simplest manner.

“Another platform emerging in the industrial world is what we call the cloud-based platform,” says Chick. She describes it as a collaborative environment in which structures like a database and servers are provided as services over the Internet and accessed through mobile devices.

More than anything else, the mobile explosion—from phones to tablets linked locally or distributed globally—will drive the proliferation of these platforms in manufacturing. “Before, you always had to have some type of an HMI there right at the machine or process,” says Chick. “Today, somebody can get the same amount of data with a tablet or a phone. You don’t even have to be at the machine. Somebody sitting at home on a Saturday night can get real-time information when a machine goes down.”

Thanks in large part to the mobile explosion in the consumer market, the speed of communications today is such that real-time feedback no longer requires close proximity and dedicated lines and memory. Even the special Ethernet chips that some automation vendors use to generate determinism on networks are often no longer necessary, according to Chick. “You can get those same speeds without having special hardware,” she says.

By real-time feedback, she means monitoring what’s happening. “Real-time control is going to stay in a local environment for now,” she says. Even so, she envisions a day in the future when speed and security are such that the real-time control of some processes will eventually migrate to a cloud-based platform.

>> Read Automation World's complete coverage: Evaluating the Control Platform Choice

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