The new reality of programming software

Tuesday November 19, 2013
Written by
I have been in the PLC and software game since 1977. I have seen a lot of things transpire between then and now when it comes to programming software.  

I recently had the opportunity to speak with a few industry guys about PLC programming software and the state of the industry. The three vendors I spoke with were Automation Direct, Rockwell and Siemens. I also spoke with Bill Lydon, managing director for PLCopen.

The main point each made was that, today, the software supports the hardware. One needs to look no further than Rockwell Automation’s RSLogix 5000. Each revision is tied to a firmware revision on the hardware. When you install version 24.x, you can install multiple backward revisions as well. Why? Because it supports hardware configurations. End of story.

I tried to open a file that was written with version 13.04. I had 13.0, and I couldn’t do it. It was very frustrating.

But Rockwell seems to be determined to only support their hardware in this fashion. Others do not. That is not to say that programming software from others is as full-featured, however.

The advent of the PAC and the integration of everything under the sun have created this need for various tools and options in the software that supports them.Motion control, for instance, used to be a bolt-on. It was clunky, and programming and troubleshooting were marginal at best. These days, every vendor integrates motion into their standard products.

All vendors have top-down instruction sets for their specific hardware configurations to allow the user to interface with those add-ons very easily. The advent of the PAC has defined a needed consolidation of programming software.

The components of an automation system include the I/O structure, remote nodes, networking of all sorts, motion, HMI/SCADA, process devices, and graphical display of flow and execution. The new programming software requires that all of these systemic functions are managed and presented in a clear form for both the developer and the maintenance staff.

In my conversations, it was clear that the vendor’s focus is on the hardware. We used to be surrounded by programming products that had multiple developers. We had a choice. We don’t now.

Even HMI and SCADA offerings are becoming less “open.” Indusoft, which was one of the few independent mainstream vendors, is now part of Invensys. When Wonderware got swallowed by Invensys, one of the more innovative development companies disappeared. With each software company springing up and then getting bought, innovation with our software platforms begins to stagnate.

It isn’t like the good old days where you selected software based on features and performance. We are stuck with what we have based on our hardware. And because of that, do we get to use mediocre tools?

This column originally appeared in the November/December 2013 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.

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