Author | John DeTellem, Siemens
In the era of Industry 4.0, standardization, cross-platform communication, effective simulation and other advanced automation tools are more critical than ever to maintain efficient operations.
In the industrial automation market, the trend of digitalization has gradually become dominant, and more and more end users are beginning to question the traditional limitations of automation equipment and seek solutions to improve usability. Almost every programmable logic controller (PLC) programmer has experienced frustrating software and firmware version mismatches, confusing status bit indications, and other headaches.
Incompatible communication protocols and programming libraries between vendors also continue to plague the industry. With vast amounts of data flowing through industrial networks, communicating with the cloud, there is a greater need than ever to simplify the use and connection of automation equipment.
By properly integrating software and hardware suites to standardize, businesses can gain the following benefits:
• System and process diagnostics
• Reusable logic library
• Cross-device engineering toolset
• Long-term maintainability and version compatibility
• Digital twin and simulation
System and Process Diagnostics
In many automation systems, operators are often skeptical of system diagnostics that indicate basic equipment conditions such as wire breaks, short circuits, power failures, communication failures, and buffer overflows. Such doubts are not necessarily due to unreliable hardware, but more commonly due to different machines in the facility, misinterpretation of diagnostic alarms or failure to standardize alarms. These diagnostics are usually manually programmed and vary from programmer to programmer.
Users can avoid this problem by configuring commercial software and hardware with reliable, consistent system diagnostics. This is a selling point for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), providing them with the ability to simplify operations and reduce end-user downtime. In addition, recent advances in the OPC UA protocol support cross-platform transport system diagnostics without the need for custom programming.
In addition to system diagnostics, it is important to integrate process diagnostics into standard PLC code blocks, which can alert operators to problems in process or equipment operations. This improves reliability and makes device operation easier than piecemeal programming and tag mapping.
Reusable logic library for PLC and HMI
In many automation environments, PLCs and Human Machine Interfaces (HMIs) with various functions and different sizes are included. When implementing products from multiple vendors, developers often encounter library incompatibilities, resulting in having to rewrite similar blocks of code across multiple programming environments. Even from the same equipment manufacturer, suppliers often offer different software to program their different products. This makes it difficult or impractical to export or reuse programmable function blocks.
Some software environments do not support online editing even when PLC and HMI programming templates can be reused. This means downtime when updating, patching, and improving programming, and it puts additional pressure on programmers to quickly complete editing tasks with limited debugging time.
By integrating project portfolios, using standard programming and equipment removes these limitations, making reuse across projects easier (Figure 1). In addition, standardization makes project expansion easier.
▎Figure 1: Simplified automation system management, consolidating the configuration and programming of all components and modern product families into one software framework.
In addition to rapid development, code reuse reduces the risk of logical errors in tested code blocks. Subsequent use usually requires minimal testing (if any). Over time, businesses can build a complete standard library of PLC and HMI programming, simplifying and accelerating development, debugging, and testing.
Cross-device automation engineering toolset
With a large number of automation devices on the factory floor and control rooms, it can be difficult to manage and update programming routines due to the different software applications required to connect and configure each device. Modern integrated automation software suites provide a management center that can manage multiple types of compatible hardware such as PLCs, HMIs, remote input/output (I/O), drive controllers, safety controllers, and network switches.
Most experienced programmers and maintainers have experienced at least once: Troubleshooting by connecting a factory maintenance laptop to a faulty controller, only to discover that the required PC software is not installed. The downtime required for equipment downtime can be reduced by simplifying the software environment or by choosing to standardize all configuration and programming on equipment with a shared software ecosystem.
This unified approach, which integrates PLC, HMI, I/O, safety, motion, and network components into a common software framework, makes automation system standardization easier to achieve, creating an intuitive system-centric approach to Replace complex, device-specific training programs.
Long-term maintainability and version compatibility for industrial software
Another equipment maintenance pitfall involves software and firmware version dependencies, which can lead to confusion and long downtime recovery times. To deal with complex dependencies, developers must focus on installing programs into compatible version frameworks to meet vendor requirements, so they often need to be distracted from process logic.
The programming instructions that can be used are sometimes limited by software and firmware versions. Unexpected version incompatibilities can be troublesome during device replacements as they cause extended downtime.
To prevent these issues, users should consider automation devices that support cross-version compatibility, with programmable firmware and IP addressing capabilities to match the ecosystem (Figure 2). During software upgrades, this provides users with the ability to continue programming blocks from previous versions, reducing the need to redesign and configure devices and write codebases.
▎Figure 2: Siemens offers a native compatibility mode where devices with different firmware versions can run together and be programmed with the same software.
Compatibility is important when dealing with faulty equipment, as it can be replaced online regardless of the firmware and software version associated with the faulty component. In addition, some modern controllers support an in-device memory card (holding the latest program configuration), and the device program can be restored simply by inserting the memory card on the failed controller.
Digital twin technology and PLC simulation software
The latest software and hardware are configured with an extended simulation toolset. The traditional project life cycle requires automation programming teams to order PLC hardware early and wait for the equipment to arrive before important development can begin. They unpack the automation components, hang them on their desks, and start programming.
Even when PLCs include simulation software, project teams often follow this traditional route because simulation tools are often inaccessible, misunderstood, or difficult to use. Modern controllers provide an enhanced simulation experience that connects the virtual world with the real world, enabling engineers to design and test automated equipment before parts are available.
Linking PLC and HMI simulations with digital twin technology allows engineers to visualize plant configurations prior to physical commissioning and operation. They can also use these tools for bidding and mobile demonstrations, or as operator training in the initial stages.
Users should also look for automation devices with open communication protocols that offer the ability to natively integrate with other vendors' products. Hardware at the edge of the factory floor plays an important role in modern data transmission and processing. These edge devices include numerous edge applications to perform data exchange and processing (Figure 3).
▎Figure 3: The Siemens industrial edge portfolio includes a large library of off-the-shelf edge applications and connectivity options.
These applications can be managed from a central system on-premises or through the cloud. In cloud deployments, edge applications can be integrated with cloud applications for control, data exchange, data analysis, alarming, and other tasks, and bring AI to the factory floor to gain the insights needed for production optimization.
In today's network environment, the security of automation equipment must also meet modern standards. Many PLCs and other automation devices have historically lacked safety specifications, or have inherent safety features disabled by default and added at the user's discretion. Today has undergone earth-shaking changes. By default, these protections are enabled. If necessary, the cybersecurity layer can be removed, but automation vendors do not recommend this due to the growing number of attacks against manufacturers' operational technology (OT).
Protecting the digital enterprise from cyberattacks requires a more holistic approach. Modern integrated automation suites help administrators manage security features and settings on devices across the enterprise. Businesses should ensure that the security features of their equipment comply with IEC 62443, the world's leading industrial cybersecurity standard.
Upgraded water treatment system
Municipal businesses with outdated water/wastewater treatment systems lack reliability, standardization, and operational visibility. A device may have been out of order for several hours before the failure was detected. By upgrading automation software, hardware, and standardizing integrated automation suites, municipalities can better understand the state of their infrastructure (Figure 4), use data analytics to improve operational efficiency, and program robust process automation solutions for water treatment and distribution Program.
▎Figure 4: Built-in dashboards and visualization components in Siemens TIA Portal increase operator situational awareness, resulting in improved decision-making and efficiency.
The enterprise installed HMI, PLC, frequency converter and RFID communication equipment. Central Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) software combined with built-in, web-based remote system component diagnostics increases operational visibility and facilitates faster problem resolution. Using the software's native components, programmers create Dashboard to view system status at a glance.
5 Tips to Ease Pain Points in Automation Components
With numerous iterations and improvements, automation components are easier to deploy and maintain than they used to be. Manufacturers can improve overall equipment efficiency by evaluating and standardizing components to alleviate or reduce the common pain points discussed in this article. Here are 5 suggestions to help ease the pain points of automation software and hardware:
• Ensure uniform, reliable system and process diagnostics
• Achieve programming consistency with reusable function blocks to encapsulate diagnostics in programming practice
• Integrate cross-device engineering toolsets wherever possible
• Improved device maintenance over time through version compatibility to support easy program migration and fast downtime recovery
• Offers modern digital capabilities such as analog and virtual commissioning, built-in device security, edge and cloud connectivity, and data-driven performance insights
These important components provide facilities with the essential tools to run automation efficiently for years to come. These important building blocks provide facilities with the essential tools to run their automated systems efficiently and profitably for years to come.
■ Standardized and integrated software and hardware kits through digital twin, cloud and VR technologies can help manufacturers gain data insights and reduce pain points.
■ Combining PLC and HMI simulation with digital twin technology enables engineers to visualize factory settings.