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Limitations to the Personal Computer Model

I was looking at automation blogs and come across this comment about Beckhoff:

“Europe’s most successful PC pioneer, Hans Beckhoff, has a simple two-part formula for success: 1. Put everything in software, on one platform, and 2. Give the customer everything he needs so he doesn’t have to buy anything else.

Interesting, since Beckhoff makes its money selling hardware. But, its hardware is all PC connected.

A lot of people view copying the PC industry as the inevitable way forward for the automation industry. This means using PC industry standards, such as OPC (originally based on MS’s OLE technology), Windows XP and CE, Ethernet, PXI, and embedded PC’s.

The big advantage is the lower cost, and theoretically more standardization, but there are many disadvantages, such as:

  • The short lifespan of PC technology. A personal example – I have a PC at home with a good Quadro AGP video card. How many new AMD AM2 motherboards support AGP? 1, and it’s not very good. So building equipment designed to last 5 years or more with generic PC technology will have problems with spares down the road.
  • PC technology isn’t always so cheap. Sure, generic PC’s, even in a 4U rack mount case, are cheap. But if you need IP67, or fanless, or a PanelPC, or guaranteed spares – well, your performance goes down and your price goes up.
  • Innovation is shifting away from PC’s. If an automation company continues to be PC-centric, they will miss innovation based on the new innovation drivers, such as web standards (now much sexier than MS’s COM technology), cell phones, and automotive electronics.
  • Commodity OS’s aren’t real time. I know, I’ve tried to do very soft real time with Windows, and it wasn’t pretty. Linux looks like it’s slowly getting there for soft real time, but it’s not mainstream yet in the factory. Yes, there are add-ons, but they cost extra in money (e.g. Venturecom) or time (learning hard RT extensions for Linux)
  • PC standards often do not support industrial needs well, and thus need tweaking; for example, the PCI bus morphing into CompactPCI and PXI, and Ethernet being extended with EtherCAT. But the volume goes down, prices go up, and you lose some of what made PC technology compelling.
  • Too many standards – think of all the industrial Ethernet protocols.
  • Old technology does not go away, so PC automation control needs to be able to communicate with the rest of the world, including PLC’s.

A company can’t be everything to everybody, and Beckhoff is right to focus on PC-centric automation. But if I were running an automation component company, my formula would be “1. Give your customer products that help him build better machines and 2. Understand you cannot meet all of your customer’s needs – integrate easily with the rest of the world.”

Tony

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