The Future of Control

The industrial controls industry does not seem to follow the economies of scale that the rest of the electronics world seems to follow.  This can be explained by the fact that for most industrial control products, the production volumes are generally in the tens of thousands of a specific product and not the high volumes associated with consumer electronics where quantities of millions to tens of millions are commonplace.

There are also technical and environmental constraints that drive cost.  Technical constraints such as “mission critical” operation tend to require very unique features that make control systems more expensive.  A heart-lung machine or flight controls on an airplane are examples of systems where no fault condition can be tolerated.  In the case of flight rated electronics, there would be additional costs required to achieve the shock and vibration rating  that is typical to that environment.

Is there a point at which the consumer and automotive markets begin to influence the industrial markets? Will there be a cost decline to future control products?

Historically there has been little interaction between consumer electronics and industrial control products.  A few early events such as the adoption of Windows CE for industrial HMI’s wasn’t as much an issue of direct cost saving, but more for the small footprint of CE and the reduction in memory cost that goes with it.  Speed and interrupt handling which were better in CE than most other OS products of the time were simply “extra” features.

The most prominent adaptation of a consumer specification in the industrial marketplace is the widespread use of Ethernet, which on first glance would appear to be incapable of gaining acceptance except for the fact of it’s incredibly widespread and incredibly cheap.  Even with the lack of determinism and bandwidth limitations of the early versions of Ethernet, large industrial users have benefited form the massive speed gains provided by the consumer and corporate IT requirements so that Ethernet is the de facto standard in most environments.  Where Ethernet lacked determinism, several version, most notably EtherCat originally developed by Beckhoff, is now at par with the fasted motion controller networks ever produced, like Sercos, SyncNet and others.

In the controller realm the advent of low cost dual core and multicore processors in laptops and small desktop PCs led to another innovation that was largely unexpected, but which provides immense value to the industrial community.  The singular weakness of using a PC to do industrial applications is Windows.  But if you have 2 processors, you can load a real time OS on one processor and leave Windows running on the other.  The RTOS provides the stability for control application and Windows can access data from the RTOS for data collection or communication to the plant network without impacting the machine control application.

What remains to be seen is how control system pricing will be impacted.  In the PLC arena, the major suppliers generally continue to maintain very high performance and pricing for their products while at the low cost end of the market there is a scramble of suppliers competing for unique niches in the market. PLC’s available in the sub-$200 realm Panasonic and others demonstrate that there are some price trends that appear to follow the consumer market, but linkage is unclear.

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