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SDA and hardware agnostics disrupt the world of industrial automation

In industrial automation, equipment has always been tightly coupled with closed and proprietary software. A new era of software-defined automation (SDA) and hardware agnostics is about to begin, decoupling applications and hardware from each other. This means a significant transformation that benefits both developers and owners of automation systems.

Traditionally, automation systems and their PLC units (programmable logic controller) have had a very tight coupling of hardware and software. The field has been dominated by a small number of vendors, such as Siemens, ABB, Bosch, and Rockwell Automation, to name but a few. Software driven automation breaks up this strong bond by introducing hardware agnostics. It decouples applications from the components on which they are running.

“When defining the system, the developer now has the option to select any platform without being tied to any specific vendor. SDA allows freedom to choose the hardware components from any vendor and replace them with any other vendor’s components at will. It is like a small revolution.”

Tomasz Badowski

Sales director at Etteplan’s SES business unit in Wroclaw, Poland

SDA is based on virtualization and abstraction with a layered hardware and software structure connected by an application programming interface. This allows using different hardware and software components and customization.

“Hardware agnostics is not new itself, but it is a novelty in industrial automation. One analogy to SDA is Google’s Android on smartphones; another is Open RAN in mobile telecommunications infrastructure. There is a common software platform for everyone to use but full freedom in hardware,” explains Daniel Rogoz, head of Etteplan’s embedded systems unit in Poznan, Poland.

Benefits, challenges, and risks

The purpose of automation has always been to bring cost efficiency, safety, fewer accidents, better quality, and faster processes. Software driven automation can improve all of them – but it has even more benefits for industries.

“At the moment, SDA’s benefits are not directly aimed at reducing costs. Instead, it is opening the ecosystem to connect the world pretty much from the device and factory floor level. The added value comes from interoperability and bringing together multiple blocks easily,” says Daniel Rogoz.

Interoperability is a great bonus for developers. They can have cross-platform development interfaces to combine systems with multiple vendors without any risk that the software won’t work.

One challenge in SDA is that it requires learning new skills. It is necessary to have a good understanding of the automation domain combined with application-level know-how. Companies need to build competence to utilize the new opportunities in their projects. However, developers and engineers no longer have to be specialists experienced in a particular PLC but can succeed with more generic skill sets.

A different challenge is regulation. SDA must ensure functional safety and cyber security in the same way as traditional automation has done. As with any emerging technology, hardware agnostics also raises criticism.

“Some people suspect that if you take components from many vendors, the result cannot be as safe and reliable as with just one vendor managing everything. It becomes difficult to say who is responsible for quality. One solution could be that the integrator takes responsibility”, says Rogoz.

The future adoption of SDA can create new business opportunities

Over time, the adoption of software driven automation is expected to create an expanding ecosystem of hardware vendors and software developers. More and more players are likely to enter the market. Some calculations claim SDA can improve cost-efficiency by 30%.

“There is a possibility of more price competition in hardware components if SDA gets a large adoption and acceptance among both factory managers and vendors of hardware and software. We need to convince and educate them all to join this SDA world to understand the benefits,” Tomasz says.

He believes that SDA can completely change how automation is done and what it looks like. So far, industrial automation has been designed by people, but in the future, AI can detect inefficiencies and organize itself to improve efficiency.

Etteplan is starting its first delivery projects and using Bosch Rexroth ctrlX Automation, the leading SDA platform. Its experts can help customers make their products compatible with the platform.

“We can help, for example, to create automation applications and select applications for collecting or processing data. We can build end-to-end hardware systems, select components, and create a full service solution."

Daniel Rogoz

Head of Etteplan’s embedded systems unit in Poznan, Poland

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Eero Kaappa

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