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Schneider joins forces with Wood to push universal automation

15 February, 2021

Schneider Electric has formed a strategic relationship with Wood, the global automation systems supplier, to help deliver its vision of “universal automation”, based on open standards. The partners will offer their clients next-generation, open automation and control technologies, promising them step-change improvements to their existing operations, and simplifying future upgrades.

The agreement gives Wood’s automation and control group access to Schneider’s IEC 61499-based software, helping it deliver open automation to its industrial and energy customers, using object-oriented, event-based programming which decouples hardware and software lifecycles and optimises engineering efficiency.

Last year, Schneider called for a revolution in automation technologies when it launched its EcoStruxure Automation Expert software, hailing it as “the world’s first software-centric automation system”. The French-headquartered company urged industrial users, suppliers, systems integrators and OEMs to adopt this concept, saying it would “unleash innovation and boost efficiency, resilience, productivity, agility and sustainability”.

Now, it has added more detail to its vision in a presentation to the ARC Industry Forum 2021. Schneider argues that today’s “open” automation is not open enough because it locks companies into particular vendors, rather than promoting innovation. By contrast, its “universal automation” is based on interoperable, “plug and produce” software components, enabled by the IEC 61499 standard. This standard extends the capabilities of IEC 61131-based systems, and ensures portability, configurability and interoperability across automation vendors, as well as software and hardware independence. IEC 61499 defines a high-level system design language for distributed information and control systems.

Schneider sees IEC 61499 as the foundation for open automation because it:
• allows automation applications to be built using proven, portable software components that are independent of the automation hardware;
• lets users distribute applications to any hardware architecture – distributed, centralised or both – with little programming effort; and
• supports software best practices, making it easy to create automation applications that interoperate with IT systems across the lifecycle from design to operations – without significant engineering effort.

Schneider argues that adopting IEC 61499 will drive a long-term shift from low-value programming of proprietary controllers to high-value plug-and-produce automation systems using proven software components. It will allow manufacturers to reduce time-to-market, cut costs, and boost their operational flexibility and agility.

“With closed systems, the full potential of Industry 4.0 remains untapped,” says Fabrice Jadot, Schneider’s senior vice-president for industrial automation “To accelerate industrial digital transformation, we must prioritise portability of automation applications. Today, agility and resilience are paramount. The IEC 61499 standard delivers that needed interoperability and that’s why it is fundamental to the shift towards more flexible automation.”

Also at the ARC forum, Schneider announced a new version of its IEC 61499-based EcoStruxure Automation Expert software. Enhancements in version 21.0 include:
• an EtherNet/IP scanner for software-programmable automation controllers;
• an ASi-5 gateway;
• position control with Schneider’s Lexium 32 servodrives;
• an improved user interface; and
• the ability to define supported function blocks in logical devices.

Fabrice Jadot: With closed systems, the full potential of Industry 4.0 remains untapped

Jadot concedes that users will need to adapt to the new technology. “This is not the same automation platform from 30 or 40 years ago, so there’s an initial learning curve for adjusting to IEC 61499-based technology,” he says. “But we’re finding that once customers and partners dive into the technology, they see real returns in flexibility and speed of engineering unlike anything they’ve experienced before. When users realise the full value of EcoStruxure Automation Expert, the most common response is: ‘This is a game-changer’ ”.

Schneider and Wood believe that their partnership will make open, interoperable automation a reality for their customers.

“By combining our diverse capabilities and domain expertise in automation with the IEC 61499 technology, we can unlock unprecedented innovation for our customers,” says Wood’s global process automation authority, Bridget Fitzpatrick. “The siloed nature of industry is holding us all back. We agree that collaboration is essential to next-generation industries, and IEC 61499 is the enabler. We look forward to continuing to bring greater value to our customers’ projects and welcoming a new era of open automation.”

Wood, whose global headquarters are in Aberdeen, UK, employs around 45,000 people in more than 60 countries, offering consulting, project and operational services.

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