Schneider Electric is taking a bold step toward the future by completely changing its control architecture, moving away from the hardware-dependent system of the past to an open, software-centric automation model. The company is also building out a partner ecosystem that promotes collaboration and co-innovation with customers, integrators, and even competitors.
The strategy was outlined at a press conference during the ARC Industry Forum in Orlando in early June. But there have been clues over the past few years that this was coming.
In 2017, Schneider Electric acquired nxtControl, a developer of runtime software based on the IEC 61499 standard. IEC 61499 uses event-driven function blocks for industrial process measurement and control systems, allowing distribution of applications across multiple devices and systems. It is not a programming language, but a system design language for distributed information.
The goal here is application portability independent of hardware, and it feeds well into the efforts underway by the Open Process Automation Forum (OPAF). In fact, nxtControl was used in the ExxonMobil proof of concept testbed for the Open Process Automation Standard (O-PAS), and paved the way for Schneider Electric’s next steps.
In April of 2021, Schneider Electric outlined a plan for universal automation in the form of “plug-and-produce” automation software components based on the IEC 61499 standard.
|Watch this Take 5 with Automation World’s David Greenfield reporting on Universal Automation.|
And in November 2021, Schneider Electric launched UniversalAutomation.org as an independent non-profit association. The group’s mission is to design interoperable automation software that enables vendor agnostic portable applications. This is done, not surprisingly, by using a shared-source IEC 61499 runtime engine.
UniversalAutomation promotes portability and reusability of hardware-independent software components that can be plugged together to build applications that are distributed to the hardware architecture of choice, as defined by the user. Of course, it means that control system technology suppliers would have to adopt the shared-source approach (it is not open source, it is shared). Suppliers add the runtime software to their hardware, to open it up to application portability.
“We are trying to break hardware and software free [of each other] to give flexibility and an advantage to the customer,” said Andre Babineau, director of strategic initiatives for Schneider Electric, who reinforced the notion that UniversalAutomation.org is an independent organization that will eventually be fully managed by the members. There are currently 24 members, which includes some end users like Shell and ExxonMobil and a few industrial suppliers including Yokogawa, Phoenix Contact, and Belden. At the ARC Industry Forum, UniversalAutomation.org demonstrated the first plug-and-produce offer from six member companies.
|Read more about UniversalAutomation.org.|
In the spirit of collaboration, Babineau also mentioned Schneider Electric Exchange, where partners and customers can come together to solve problems and participate in a technology offering while protecting IP. To that end, the digital marketplace enables third parties can buy, sell, and promote products compatible with its EcoStruxure open, interoperable IoT-enabled system architecture and ecosystem of experts.
“We believe in openness, collaboration and co-inovation. It will happen no matter what we do so we are not fighting it, we are embracing,” Babineau said.
Additional announcements at the ARC Forum included:
An agreement with Claroty builds on the existing relationship between the two leading companies, enabling Schneider Electric to now integrate The Claroty Platform into its offering, to better address new cybersecurity concerns, including protection, safety, and insurance for industrial customers.
The offering addresses issues associated with the digital transformation, as more and more industrial enterprises are connecting previously isolated operational technology (OT) to corporate IT networks, while also introducing new IoT and industrial IoT assets into these converged OT/IT environments. As a result, industrial systems have become more exposed to new kinds of cyber threats with serious implications for physical safety and the environment.
According to the companies, the collaboration between Schneider Electric and Claroty provides the industry with an enhanced level of cybersecurity.
Separately, Schneider Electric also announced a collaboration with Intel to extend EcoStruxure Automation Expert by creating a Distributed Control Node (DCN) software framework complimented by an associated Intel processor-based DCN hardware offering.
By combining the performance, security and deployment capabilities of Intel Edge Controls for Industrial (ECI) technology with EcoStruxure Automation Expert, the DCN framework can simplify and speed the development of software defined control systems. Additionally, the DCN will enable EcoStruxure Automation Expert – a software-centric automation system – to scale faster and further in process industries, including energy and chemicals, mining, water/wastewater, pharmaceuticals and hybrid markets.
This DCN development will be based on UniversalAutomation.org, and EcoStruxure Automation Expert represents the first of a new era of automation software based on this shared runtime, Schneider Electric officials said.