IT in Manufacturing


Smart engineering directly in the cloud

June 2020 IT in Manufacturing

PC-based control is an open, central control platform that integrates a full range of machine functionality and optimally supports the implementation of highly efficient IoT-based automation strategies. It enables users to connect their machines, equipment and production lines to tap into potential efficiency gains across all their processes. TwinCAT Cloud Engineering from Beckhoff offers an ideal foundation for this purpose by allowing users to create and manage instances and control systems easily in the cloud.

For businesses in the industrial sector, the ability to use cloud services efficiently is becoming an increasingly critical competitive factor, because these services make it possible to implement scalable applications easily and with significantly less effort than in the past. Here, PC-based control technology provides a comprehensive platform that enables them to exploit IoT infrastructures to advance globalized industrial production. Setting up secure and scalable connections between geographically distributed control systems – to support big data or analytics scenarios, for instance – is just the start; the next step is to ensure that these interconnected systems are as easy as possible to operate and maintain remotely. And this is where TwinCAT Cloud Engineering comes in: it enables existing TwinCAT Engineering and Runtime products to be instantiated and operated directly in the cloud.

Cloud computing: paving the way to connected automation

In 2018, there were already more than 7 billion active Internet of Things devices worldwide, and experts predict that this figure could increase as much as threefold, to 22 billion by 2025. All these devices will be able to interconnect via a scalable infrastructure provided by the cloud. This infrastructure presents a huge opportunity for machine builders and plant operators too: By maximizing the potential of PC- and cloud-based control technology to create automation networks, they can gain and retain a competitive edge in the intermediate and longer term. Connecting machines and equipment – both locally and, more importantly, across multiple locations – not only breaks ground for new business models, it also boosts efficiency throughout production processes – from engineering to cloud-based operational data analysis to dependable predictive maintenance strategies for greater availability and less downtime.

PC-based control from Beckhoff helps users implement optimal IoT-based automation strategies: It integrates the full range of machine functionality – from PLC and motion control, to robotics, machine vision, HMIs and machine learning – on an open, central control platform. With PC-based control technology, users can also connect their machines, equipment and production lines seamlessly to achieve valuable process efficiency gains. And with TwinCAT Cloud Engineering, users can create and manage all their instances and controllers easily and directly in the cloud, complete with integrated analytics and HMIs.

Users have already had the option of running the TwinCAT development environment on a virtual machine in the cloud for several years now, though this involved signing up with a cloud vendor and installing all the TwinCAT components by hand. With TwinCAT Cloud Engineering, Beckhoff now offers a comprehensive package of its own to provide the same capability. Available through the Beckhoff website, this cloud-based solution allows registered users to access their virtual machines simply by logging onto the web portal. All they require is a web browser; there is no need to install or run any additional software. This browser-centric approach also means users can now work in the TwinCAT development environment on previously unsupported devices such as tablet PCs.

Designed for new and expert users alike

TwinCAT Cloud Engineering has different pricing models and feature sets intended for two specific user types: beginners and professionals. Beginners are allocated a time quota during which they can work with an instance to try out all the functionality. This quota only runs down when an instance is actually running, with usage times recorded to the nearest hour. Users can start and stop their instances themselves, allowing them to manage their quota efficiently. Professional users can opt at the end of their trial period to continue using their instance for a monthly fee. In addition, professional users get access to a central source code repository.

TwinCAT is a platform for PC-based control systems which provides professionals with a wide range of options for creating and expanding machine projects. With the new TwinCAT Cloud Engineering solution, they can continue to use existing TwinCAT software components as before, including on-premise TwinCAT installations, that is, on a local engineering PC. As an additional option, however, the entire TwinCAT architecture can be relocated to the cloud. The only difference compared to the conventional working model is that TwinCAT runs on a virtual machine rather than on a local PC. Importantly, TwinCAT Cloud Engineering does not require users to adjust to a new software environment, because they can simply continue to work as before with the same familiar development tools and resources. Another advantage is that it eliminates the need to install and maintain separate software versions for different machine generations on the same PC. Instead, users can run separate instances of TwinCAT Cloud Engineering with different versions that they can access remotely as and when they require. In this way, users always have the right software version immediately to hand for any given machine. Project files are kept in a source code control repository, available directly from within TwinCAT XAE.

TwinCAT Cloud Engineering’s architecture provides a familiar automation environment in which not just professionals such as machine builders and plant operators, but other users, too, feel at home. A TwinCAT Cloud Engineering instance also offers users new to TwinCAT automation software an ideal and comprehensive platform on which to begin exploring TwinCAT’s capabilities. Sample code and video tutorials provide them with the guidance and information they need to quickly get up to speed with TwinCAT and begin creating their first automation projects. The tutorials are organized according to skill levels so that experienced newcomers, too, can easily find the information they require, and a built-in news feed keeps users up to date on the latest TwinCAT developments.

Simpler procedures and implementation

A freely configurable dashboard provides users with an overview of all the instances they have created. From there, they can also initiate a web-based remote desktop connection to an instance. All that they need in order to establish an HTTPS connection is a web browser. No special software or changes to corporate firewall settings are required. Users can simply access a project from within an instance using the familiar TwinCAT XAE toolchain and add it to the source code management system, either through a collaborative Git-based tool or as a backup. Communication between the virtual space and the physical space with the actual control hardware can take place either on Secure ADS or on ADS-over-MQTT, with data connections protected by standard security mechanisms such as TLS encryption and certificates.

Setting up a TwinCAT Cloud Engineering instance takes just a few minutes using a special, automated process. The user interface is integrated into a web browser. This means there is no need to install and operate any other software, and access to the UI will work on any operating system or user device. Connecting an instance to actual physical control hardware is just as easy, because all components share the same communication port; this makes integration with existing IT infrastructure even simpler.

A single instance can connect to multiple controllers, allowing, among other things, remote machine diagnostics and remote debugging of PLC programs. Setting up a visualization and enabling global remote access are both straightforward, too, because the visualization runs in the cloud. Through the source code management system, projects can be shared seamlessly. Plus, local TwinCAT installations can also be connected, which means projects outside the TwinCAT Cloud Engineering environment can continue to be used and kept in synch.

With its advanced source control capabilities, TwinCAT can connect to Git-based systems to manage automation projects. The TwinCAT Multi-User function supports simple, seamless user access to the source control repository without the need for special skills or in-depth knowledge. When enabling a TwinCAT configuration, the necessary check-in procedures are conducted and commented automatically in the repository and the relevant branches created. This makes working collaboratively on automation projects much easier. TwinCAT Cloud Engineering provides the same kind of functionality: By integrating a Git server into the instance or using a Git-based cloud service, multiple users can work together on a number of instances at the same time, and they do not even have to be actual TwinCAT Cloud Engineering users in order to do so, because local users can be granted access to the source control system too.

Machine optimization with cloud-based data analysis

TwinCAT Analytics from Beckhoff supports both selective and continuous data analysis. It offers a range of software tools and mechanisms covering a variety of use cases, designed to help users get familiar with machine analysis quickly. With built-in code generation capabilities, TwinCAT Analytics can automatically convert analysis configurations into IEC 61131-compliant PLC code to incorporate into PLC runtime systems, a feature that enables 24/7 analysis of connected machines.

Parallel to generating the code, TwinCAT Analytics also automatically creates an analysis dashboard. Based on the TwinCAT 3 HMI, this TwinCAT Analytics One-Click Dashboard is written in HTML5 for platform-independence. With a simple mouse-click, users can not only create the dashboard but also the entire TwinCAT 3 HMI application, complete with HMI source code, which they can later modify as needed. The web pages are delivered by TwinCAT HMI Server. The TwinCAT Analytics code and dashboard can both be used from within the TwinCAT Cloud Engineering environment. And because the TwinCAT Cloud Engineering instance is accessible from any geographic location, authorized users have anytime, anywhere access to the analytics dashboard as well.

For more information contact Dane Potter, Beckhoff Automation, +27 79 493 2288, danep@beckhoff.com, www.beckhoff.co.za


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