The architecture problem is stretched further as the next generation of computing emerges. When it is possible to embed a 32 bit processor that costs $1. into a peripheral, it is more effective to put the processing capability at the point of use. This enables high data rate traffic between a network of intelligent peripherals that, in addition to doing their intended functions like sensing analog values and turning equipment on and off, can do even more important functions like report trends for preventative maintenance and monitor network traffic for system health.
Will silicon engineers be able to define small enough slivers of circuits that can act as I/O and network in one package? The trend to systems on chip (SoC) seems part of that solution. Today a single module like the Xilinx Zynq series has 2 – Arm9 processors plus a large FPGA matrix in a single integrated module. Each Arm9 is the equivalent of a full computer. There are loads of ports and high speed communications options, all at a relatively inexpensive price. There are an array of similar platforms at prices under $100. Add a Linux operating system and a compatible 4th generation ladder editor and you can control almost anything.
Where does that put the controls industry five years from now? Controls will continue to be about packaging. The cost of the control hardware and software and the cost of implementation. Distributed solutions are coming out at lower and lower cost, with granularity that will allow control manufacturers to embed the control in the cable blocks where I/O is terminated. Small intelligent I/O blocks could be packaged by having a wash down rated barrier over the terminals of the control.
Intelligence at the point of use will require robust networks and deterministic communications in order to achieve the reliability of a typical industrial control. Given the past lessons learned in putting PCs into critical control applications, conquering explosion proof I/O packaging and making motors for light immersion, the packaging effort will be quite manageable. The additional benefit will be the ability to monitor equipment health, right down the I/O point and create very sophisticated preventive maintenance protocols.
It’s time to start inventing the future in the controls industry.