Control system technology in the manufacturing arena has been driving a lot of technology over the last few decades. That shouldn’t be a big surprise, the worldwide revenue of the top control suppliers is about $200 billion. Not small scale. The number comprises suppliers of process control, programmable control, industrial computer suppliers and major electrical equipment used for power infrastructure.
Processor technology has continued to follow Moore’s Law which says that performance will double roughly every 18 months. It’s kind of hard to keep up with the technology with unless you really have a reason to keep focused on it.
The controls industry has grown up as five unique disciplines from the 1950s when control technology had to be invented to solve specific problems. Computer Numerical Control, CNC, for making precise metal parts for Navy aircraft, Process Control to manage steam plants that generate electricity and distill gasoline from crude oil. Later the Programmable Logic Controller of the 1970’s was created to reduce cost and increase capabilities in electrical control systems used in automotive manufacturing, followed by dedicated motion controllers to add precision motion to the suite of automation tools. Last came robots, an extension of the motion control and CNC world, a unique mechatronic solution that is now 30 years later really beginning to hit its stride in the manufacturing world.
The problem of the 5 separate technologies is that each one was developed in its own vacuum. The descriptive language of each type of problem is unique. The hardware was created specifically to solve one problem. Anybody remember hand wound magnetic memory? Right. The reason you don’t remember wire wound memory is that solid state memory makes better sense, and it’s 1000’s of times cheaper.
Back to the original premise. In a world where processor technology is inexpensive, dare I say cheap?, Moore’s law has resulted in ever increasing processor power at ever decreasing cost. The latest cellphones have processors that are comparable to the most powerful laptops. And a quad core laptop is capable of running any process or application in the known industrial world.
It has taken a long time to get to this point. Among the steps were the creation of real time operating systems that are resilient, like Linux, and the creation of compatible software that provides the functionality of the various manufacturing platforms. Hundreds, probably thousands of developers have contributed untold man hours of programming to hammer the applications into useful shape.
So it’s interesting to consider where all this is headed.