In a world where compute capability continues to increase and costs continue to decrease, it’s hard to predict where the progression takes the industrial controls field. The latest offering from Intel should be cause for concern for the major suppliers of industrial control systems. After all, is there really a difference between a Beckhoff dual processor PLC CPU and the new Intel Edison with a 500mhz Intel Atom and a 100mHz Quark coprocessor.
Intel has launched a new postage-stamp-sized system-on-a-chip that is targeted to the maker market. At a price point of $20., this platform, like the Raspberry Pi, Arduino, Beaglebone and others, will make their way into serious applications like CNC’s, 3D printers and more. This is all intentional and considered to simply be part of the “second industrial revolution”.
The problem with all this progress is that a $20 price point leaves very little room for the overhead for product development teams or for a mature salesforce. There will necessarily be a major effort to package the technology and make it more suited to the traditional manufacturing environment. It will not be anything like “business as usual”.
This does, however, suggest a new direction in the controls industry that is about to emerge. Possibly one that no one saw coming, because it is a side effect of something else; the maker movement. What will be interesting is to see if the industrial world can keep itself segmented from the maker world. And the crazy pricing. Or will we, in the industrial market become the beneficiaries of smaller, cheaper, better designed control components? Hardware architectures will be the same, but smaller and more efficient. Control system modularity and communications capability will be pretty much unlimited.
500Mhz of dedicated Intel Atom running Linux on one core and Windows 32 or 64 on the other gives a lot of control system bandwidth. Some of the most advanced real time, multi-axis motion control software runs on exactly this platform, only it comes in a robust enclosure at a $1000 price point. Does it really make a difference what the code runs on? As long as its real time?
I don’t think so. And neither do tens-of-thousands of makers and hackers who are inventing the future of industry, and by extenstion, the future of industrial control.
It’s going to be an interesting decade.