Industrial Computer Hardware

Industry 4.0: Ingredients from Beckhoff

February 2014 Industrial Computer Hardware

A revolution is by definition a radical change of existing conditions. Particularly, this applies to the ongoing industrial revolution as currently discussed in its fourth embodiment: Industry 4.0. At the core of this development is the convergence of information and automation technology, a phenomenon for which Beckhoff already laid the foundation more than 25 years ago with PC-based control.

Industry 4.0 – defining a vision

But what does Industry 4.0 really mean? One clear definition can be found in the funding guidelines of the BMBF (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung), which is the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research: “The flexibility that exists in value-creating networks is increased by the application of cyber-physical production systems (CPPS). This enables machines and plants to adapt their behaviour to changing orders and operating conditions through self-optimisation and reconfiguration. This interaction between the real and digital world in a modern factory creates the basis for an ‘Internet of Things’. The main focus is on the ability of the systems to perceive information, to derive findings from it, to change behaviour accordingly and to store knowledge gained from experience. Intelligent production systems and processes as well as suitable engineering methods and tools will be a key factor to successfully implement distributed and interconnected production facilities in future Smart Factories.”

The underlying concept for Smart Factories is the ‘Internet of Things’, a phrase coined in 1999 in conjunction with RFID and sensor technologies describing the networking of and with everyday objects. The prerequisites for a consistent implementation are the cyber-physical systems (CPS) which were first described in 2006. This means cyber components are closely intermeshed at all levels – for discrete processing of information and communication – as well as physical components. The BMBF funding guidelines also reflect this where they explain: “Cyber-physical systems – as an extension of today’s mechatronic systems – are equipped with intelligent sensors for perceiving their environment and actuators for influencing it. They differ from existing technical systems by their ability to interact with their environment, to plan and adapt their own behaviour in relation to this environment and to learn new modes of behaviour and strategies, optimising themselves as a result.”

This revolution starts with PC-based control

This idea of the convergence of IT and AT (automation technology) had its true genesis in 1986 with the beginnings of PC-based control. As a pioneer of industry-compatible IT hardware, Beckhoff has been supplying PC-based control technology for over 25 years – a technology that not only provides an incredible increase in performance (still in accordance with Moore’s Law), but also fully exploits the advantages provided by the convergence of these two worlds of technology. Even at the beginning it was recognised clearly that the industrial PC enables the design of high-performance controllers in the most diverse form factors and, thanks to its openness, optimum IT orientation.

PC plus Ethernet equals a globally-accepted platform

Today there is hardly a technical system that cannot be operated by PC. Considering the great variety of system environments and technologies that are used in industrial enterprises, the role of PC technology as an open platform and de facto industry standard for automation becomes quite obvious. Future Industry 4.0 concepts will strongly benefit from the variety of communication systems and architectures supported by the PC world. It is the openness which will enable the easy implementation of innovative concepts.

This applies in equal measure to Ethernet as an industrial communication standard. Owing to the extremely high – and still by no means exhausted – data transmission rates, Ethernet is now widely accepted throughout the manufacturing industry. A contribution to this has certainly been made by the advanced Ethernet-based industrial protocols, EtherCAT and Safety over EtherCAT which meet the toughest industry-specific demands for short cycle times, determinism and efficient safe data communication.

The development of data communication with ever more complex contents and increasing usability requirements is leading in the same direction: Modern communication is Ethernet-based and is able to meet all requirements created by vertical integration. PC-based control from Beckhoff is also optimally suited to this development because, with the company’s Automation Device Specification (ADS), the EtherCAT Automation Protocol (EAP) and the OPC Unified Architecture (OPC UA) standard, it already offers excellent options today to cost-effectively implement a communication solution that extends all the way ‘from the sensor into the cloud’:

* ADS is a message-based, routing-capable transport layer within the TwinCAT software system. It enables acyclic communication with other tools from any point in TwinCAT. In a networked system, all data can be accessed from any point.

* The real-time protocol EAP can transmit process data between EtherCAT masters at speeds in the s range using the publisher-subscriber mechanism.

* OPC UA is a manufacturer-independent, Ethernet- and Web service-based communication standard which can be seamlessly integrated into MES and ERP systems.

First evolutionary steps have already been taken successfully

In practice, production systems, especially those implemented in Germany, are already connected to each other, even if they evolve further toward better networking and connectivity in a horizontal and vertical direction. If you look at it this way, modern production facilities which are connected to just-in-time suppliers or distributors and are capable of producing lot sizes of one, are in many cases the first existing examples of Industry 4.0.

An example for PC-based control showing its full potential is kitchen manufacturer Nobilia which incredibly manufactures around 2200 kitchens per day. Only thanks to consistent, computer-integrated production at all levels – starting as early as 1990 by linking the production to an Oracle database – the company has been able to advance to its industry’s number one position in Europe and do it in the high-wage country of Germany. In the sense of Industry 4.0, the closest possible linkage of manufacturing and IT systems has facilitated the success of Nobilia. This linkage consists of the integration of the PC controller into the overall manufacturing process as well as binding production to the in-house system for complex production data acquisition and to the higher-level ERP system. In the context of Scientific Automation, the main project ‘ScAut’ of the Leading-Edge Cluster ‘it’s OWL’, the constantly growing power reserves of PC technology can now be used for the additional implementation of scientific findings in standard machine controllers. A specific example of this is process-optimised drilling, where spindle current and power, feed current and power, vibration of spindle and work piece as well as drill-hole temperature, chip formation and drill hole-pattern are recorded and used as control parameters for optimising the manufacturing process.

To see an overview of Beckhoff’s PC-based control technology scan the QR code from your mobile device.

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For more information contact Kenneth McPherson, Beckhoff Automation, +27 (0)11 795 2898,,


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