The added value of the CODESYS Automation Server for machine operators and users

"Why wander afar when good things lie nearby?"

 

Author: Roland Wagner, Head of Product Marketing CODESYS Group

When it comes to the catchphrase "Industry 4.0", many automation specialists only consider the question: how can we collect data from industrial systems in cloud platforms and derive new information and insights from it by means of highly complex algorithms? In this way it will be possible in future to create innovative features at a rapid pace. The first part of the question is then already solved: by means of project planning with modern IEC-61131 systems such as the market-leading programming tool CODESYS, controllers can exchange data with the cloud via common standard protocols such as https/WebClient, MQTT or OPC UA. Reloadable libraries or components in the runtime system of the devices provide the required functions. Know-how and communication are protected against unauthorized access by means of integrated IT security features such as X.509 certificates or hardware dongles. Connected to the Internet, such controllers immediately show their added value for the digitization of machines and plants and become an "intelligent thing" in the sense of the "Industrial Internet of Things" (IIoT). However, for answers to the question as to how insights can be optimally generated from the available data, one has to look much further into the distance. Using control data in order to generate predictive maintenance and self-learning machines that offer real added value is no trivial matter - even if the approach is extremely promising and cloud system providers already offer apps with such functions. Today, many automation specialists have very different, much more obvious needs and requirements.

As a new Industry 4.0 server platform, the CODESYS Automation Server takes care of precisely these needs. What added value can users expect?

Getting a quick overview of the landscape

Let's consider the simplest requirement right away: automation specialists want to get an overview of the controller landscape at a mouse click, ideally in a simple web interface. Nowadays, every cheap 30-euro router for commercial devices does that, and precisely that is the first application case for the CODESYS Automation Server. It is implemented with a digital twin of all connected controllers. The twin also displays further device information, e.g. about the respective state or the stored or executed boot application, i.e. the control project that is automatically executed after a restart of the PLC. In addition to a list view, the controllers can also be displayed in a topology or map view.

Keeping a controller up to date

A glance at the controller shows immediately whether it needs an update of the application software. For this purpose, the Automation Server provides very simple options for the rollout of the update as soon as it has been generated in the CODESYS Development System and loaded onto the server as a boot application. The download to the device is initiated from the web interface. Via a ticket system, the employee assigned can carry out an update order that is limited in function and frequency. In order to do this, he doesn't even need a user profile of his own in the server and thus cannot inadvertently cause any damage.

 

For identical units or machines in a machine pool, the update of the application can be rolled out centrally from the server to all relevant devices. It is thus no longer necessary to connect to each device individually and download the project.

 

 

Fig. 2: Commissioning of a new controller on the basis of a ticket

 

The Automation Server also offers a very helpful solution for another typical and at the same time annoying scenario, namely the surprising failure of a device. Even if an exchange device is available, questions remain: Which version of the application software was running on the defective device before the failure? Where is the project located? With which version of the project planning software was the application created? Or is there perhaps a boot application? The CODESYS Automation Server knows the answers and thus enables the replacement within a few minutes: first of all, it automatically creates backups of the controllers on a regular basis. The server registers a device failure immediately. It automatically sends a ticket for the device exchange to the responsible service technician. The technician can immediately register the new device via QR code, then load the backup to the new device via the web interface and restart production immediately. The Automation Server helps minimize the damage in the event of such a failure.

Keeping on the safe side

A further application case: a new controller is to be used in a machine. In accordance with the security recommendations, the device is equipped with user management based on user groups and profiles. In order to avoid the need for the user management to be created manually for each new controller, the administrator stores corresponding user profiles in the Automation Server and transfers them to all desired devices with a mouse click. Changes to the user management, e.g. due to new employees joining or others leaving the company, can also be implemented centrally and quickly.

 

Sometimes a controller becomes vulnerable because security holes have been discovered and published on the stored firmware. No problem - as long as the machine is not connected to the Internet. Networked controls, however, are by all means at risk. With CODESYS-compatible devices, however, this is also very easy to handle: thanks to the modularization of the CODESYS runtime system, individual, unsafe components can easily be updated - without affecting the runtime of the control program. Hence, what is daily practice for Windows updates today will be possible in future: the continuous updating of system components without negatively affecting the application or users.

One way to avoid damage from hacker attacks is to encrypt data and communications as mentioned at the start. If certificates are used for this, then public or private keys are required in pairs on both the controller and the accessing system. Such certificates or keys are valid only for a limited time. The worst case scenario is if a production process were suddenly to be stopped because of an expired certificate on a controller – even though all technical components were working perfectly. The Automation Server includes centralized certificate management for all registered devices and signals the forthcoming expiry of a certificate in good time.

Data logging in the cloud

In addition to the application cases described, the CODESYS Automation Server is also suitable for the classic recording and analysis of process data and events - as a supplement or alternative to other server solutions. Corresponding services are being successively implemented. These data are then available, for example, for anomaly detection or artificial intelligence. First of all, however, their algorithms must be embedded via a framework in the Automation Server as their own additional services. Also of interest: The server can act as a "natural" depository for all tool-relevant information, such as device descriptions, control projects, application libraries and various installation versions of the IEC-61131-3 project planning tool. This feature in turn helps minimize the effort required for the expansion, maintenance and updates of the control landscape.

Third fundamental product in the CODESYS portfolio

The CODESYS Automation Server combines the advantages of a ready-to-use system solution with those of a modular system. This makes it clear: in addition to the already established engineering and runtime products, the new server solution will become the third mainstay in the CODESYS product portfolio. As an Industry 4.0 platform, the server simplifies typical tasks for users by means of web technologies. In doing so, the CODESYS Automation Server does not look exclusively at the "high-hanging fruits", as is usually the case with the previous server and cloud systems. Instead, it offers direct added value for manufacturers and operators of industrial machines and plants – and easily handles the demands that nowadays cause big headaches for many automation specialists on a daily basis.

This article was published in German language in the „Open Automation“ magazine under the title of „Unmittelbarer Mehrwert mit Industrie-4.0-Serverplattform” in November 2018.