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30 June, 2022

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‘Virtual PLCs’ will turn factories into software systems

06 June, 2022

A German company has developed a “virtual PLC” technology that decouples real-time control from proprietary hardware, allowing automation engineers to manage PLCs from suppliers such as Siemens, Bosch Rexroth and Beckhoff like cloud-based software systems. Software Defined Automation (SDA) says that its industrial-control-as-a-service model will break up proprietary silos in control technologies and turn factories into software systems.

The development will offer automation engineers transparent code, traceability of changes, and the ability to automate code updates in minutes. It will also make it easier to apply IT innovations to real-time industrial control.

SDA argues that today’s automation stacks are based on technologies dating back to the 1970s and rely on manually programmed real-time controllers. These are a bottleneck to increasing productivity based on data-driven insights.

The company says its radical new approach offers several degrees of freedom beyond proprietary industrial automation systems, bringing automated configuration, operation, maintenance and continuous change to production plants. It adds it is closing the gap between IT and operational technology and enabling self-optimising, AI-based production plants.

SDA’s concept consists of several elements: cloud-based management of existing PLCs (SDA TechOps), Git-enabled PLC code versioning and collaboration (SDA DevOps), and virtualisation of PLCs on edge servers (SDA Virtual PLC).

The virtual PLC (vPLC) technology decouples real-time control from proprietary hardware using virtualisation. SDA works with VMware to run virtual PLCs on any x86 server, with cycle times of less than 10ms. Automation engineers work with the vPLCs as they would with conventional PLCs, via a cloud-based control plane. They can commission new Codesys controllers in minutes. Users will pay a monthly fee per virtual controller.

The SDA DevOps tool provides Git-based version control for PLCs. It backs up all project updates safely. Changes to individual objects are versioned and highlighted in both structured text and ladder logic via a simple Web interface.

SDA says that its virtual technologies will bring automated configuration, operation, maintenance and continuous change to production plants

The result, says SDA, is that automation engineering teams can work together more efficiently, speeding up developments. Risks are minimised and new features can be deployed across whole fleets of PLCs at the press of a button.

“This is a game-changer for the industry,” declares SDA’s founder and CEO, Josef Waltl. “Whether you are part of a large team of automation engineers pushing further the limits of automation sophistication, or you’re one of the few in-house automation experts spending time travelling instead of solving problems. Stop firefighting! Free up your time, and manage all your PLCs remotely.”

“Finally, industrial automation is on par with the rest of the software development industry,” says Natan Linder, CEO of the US-based connected operations developer, Tulip Interfaces. “We have been able to integrate our frontline operations platform via simple API calls with real-time controllers. Workers can change PLC programs from Tulip apps, and any Tulip edge IO can be transformed to a PLC without incremental hardware cost. Workers are now empowered to rapidly change and extend existing automation systems – a truly democratising move.”

Another enthusiast is Hans Michael Krause, Bosch Rexroth’s director of ctrlX World product management. “Software Defined Automation extends our innovative ctrlX Automation platform with powerful device and source code management in the cloud,” he says. “Combining the most innovative automation platform with unseen degrees of freedom gives our joint customers the toolset for the next phase in automation.”

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