Like Rodney Dangerfield, controls manufacturers can’t seem to get any respect from the mainstream electronics industry. In the broad business of electronics manufacturing, industrial products simply don’t have the volume of the consumer electronics industry. In fact, it is only in the last few years that Microsoft bothered to establish a liason with Rockwell Automation and others in the automation industry.
Microsoft may have concluded after decades of success in the office and consumer markets, that there were no comparable markets to conquer and that in order to expand at all, smaller segments like industrial would have to do. Considering the explosion of the “Internet of Things” model to the 10’s of billions of dollars in the industrial controls market, the folks at Microsoft stand to win big by being in the right place at the right time during this expansion. Microsoft, having already established a solid platform for web, served and mobility applications, stands to gain incredible market share in an emerging sector that they, to a certain degree, created by accident.
The unique requirements of the industrial market creates significant hardware burdens that have been difficult to deal with in the past. Reliability is, in part, physical properties like operating temperature range, resistance to shock and vibration, immunity to electrical noise, and passing stringent radiated electromagnetic noise criteria to prevent interference with sensitive instrumentation. Real world input output devices also involve high voltages and currents so there are also basic electrical protection concepts that often need to be applied. These constraints added to low volume requirements drive costs.
Control technology at it’s core has come to a crossroad. After 35 years of market maturation, the cost of hardware from the electronics world has declined to the point where it has become almost transparent. Embedded processor technology licensed from ARM has resulted in powerful processors in the $5 range that can run Linux with IEC 61131 PLC logic. Rock solid real time control. Platforms like the Raspberry Pi and Beagle Board in the sub $50 price range can control 3rd party I/O on Ethernet.
Declining costs with volume have driven laptops and tablets below $500. There are dozens of board level PC options with multi-core processors under $200. These platforms far exceed the computing performance needed for the most demanding machine control applications in the industrial arena.
The trend in many other industries has been the conversion of hardware to software. While this is not an immediate threat to large suppliers of control hardware, over time the erosion of price and migration of functionality to software based solutions seems inevitable.
What do we do now? Experiment and find the solution that best fits your situation.