Cloud-Based Production Controls

Tablet vor einer Modellfabrik
© Competence Center Automation Düsseldorf (CCAD)
Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Cognitive Systems IKS make production control interoperable and flexible by moving parts of it into a cloud.

From high-grade networked production systems, to fully networked production sites and real-time company-to-company communication, the term Industry 4.0 has become synonymous with the concept of efficient, flexible and individual manufacturing systems, in which the product maneuvers itself through the production process.

While conventional hardware-based programmable logic controllers (PLC) have been characterized by closely-intertwined processes and controls, the last decade has seen a trend toward more open networked industrial systems based on software PLCs that assume responsibility for the control function. The next step will involve the complete uncoupling of the control functions and the associated processes/equipment and eventually a move to cloud-based control services.

Proprietary Systems Increase Effort

The programming, commissioning and maintenance of the majority of today's control technologies is too cumbersome and inflexible for Industry 4.0 scenarios. Most of the control units are based on embedded systems programmed from PC-based development environments using proprietary communication protocols. When distributed systems or multiple controls are involved, this significantly increases the effort required to maintain the  programs, which makes version management more susceptible to problems. Today, proprietary and manufacturer-specific technologies (i.e. network variables), or application-specific  and non-standard implementations, are used for exchanging data between the control units. When control units from different manufacturers are used at the same time, interoperability issues frequently emerge. An additional hurdle arises when control functions that exclusively support real-time Ethernet protocols are connected to the Internet. Although the PLCopen organization is propagating several  approaches involving the first uniform interfaces based on OPC UA, few are actually being deployed in products.

Cloud-Based Control Services – Adaptable, Fault-Tolerant, Cost-Effective

Against this backdrop and as part of the Cloud-based Industrial Services (CICS) project, researchers examined new and complete web-oriented control systems that can be adapted to application-specific requirements with little effort.

The idea was that the control services will utilize public and private cloud structures to manage and execute the CICS. Plans were also in place to implement an alternative, enhanced web-client (web browser)  for executing the CICS.  To ensure that it offers practical utility for automation technologies,  CICS employed the IEC 61131 and 61499 industrial control program standards. Researchers then undertook a study to identify the application and utilization potential, including an evaluation of new web technologies designed for this purpose. The result is a wide range of potential benefits:

  • Cost-savings resulting from location-independent and cloud-based commissioning and operation.
  • Flexible establishment of control functions for adaptable production systems.
  • Improved manufacturer service (central backup, reserve systems in case of problems/outages).
  • Better ability to adapt how user information is displayed.
  • Simulation support for improved planning and process optimization.
  • Optimized production through the tailored use of efficient algorithms (app concept).
  • Significant reduction in the number of control system interfaces, which exist only as software interfaces in the IP network.

Within the CICS project, the Fraunhofer Institute for Cognitive Systems IKS (former Fraunhofer ESK) was pursuing the development of new industrial control technologies together with the Chair for Communication Technologies at the University of Augsburg and the Düsseldorfer Telelabor, a facility operated by the Competence Center Automation Düsseldorf (CCAD). Fraunhofer IKS's contribution focused on developing the corresponding web-based interfaces. Also involved in the project were six companies from the automation industry including ESR Pollmeier, Formware, MicroNet Automation, Siemens, Software Factory and Wiesemann & Theis.

Using the know-how acquired from this project, Fraunhofer Institute for Cognitive Systems IKS is in a position to support manufacturers, service providers and SPS solution users in implementing industrial cloud-based control services. Customers can use the reference architecture created by the project partners as a basis for establishing their cloud services or they can align their products with it.

The IGF project 18354 N was funded by the AiF within the Collective Research program (IGF) by the Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy based on a German Parliament resolution.