Schneider Electric Continues its Open Automation Journey

Schneider Electric is taking a bold step toward the future by completely changing its control architecture, moving away from the hardware-dependent system of the past to an open, software-centric automation model. The company is also building out a partner ecosystem that promotes collaboration and co-innovation with customers, integrators, and even competitors. The strategy was outlined at a press conference during the ARC Industry Forum in Orlando in early June. But there have been clues over the past few years that this was coming. In 2017, Schneider Electric acquired nxtControl, a developer of runtime software based on the IEC 61499 standard. IEC 61499 uses event-driven function blocks for industrial process measurement and control systems, allowing distribution of applications across multiple devices and systems. It is not a programming language, but a system design language for distributed information. The goal here is application portability independent of hardware, and it feeds well into the efforts underway by the Open Process Automation Forum (OPAF). In fact, nxtControl was used in the ExxonMobil proof of concept testbed for the Open Process Automation Standard (O-PAS), and paved the way for Schneider Electric’s next steps. In April of 2021, Schneider Electric outlined a plan for universal automation in the form of “plug-and-produce” automation software components based on the IEC 61499 standard. And in November 2021, Schneider Electric launched as an independent non-profit association. The group’s mission is to design interoperable automation software that enables vendor agnostic portable applications. This is done, not surprisingly, by using a shared-source IEC 61499 runtime engine. UniversalAutomation promotes portability and reusability of hardware-independent software components that can be plugged together to build applications that are distributed to the hardware architecture of choice, as defined by the user. Of course, it means that control system technology suppliers would have to adopt the shared-source approach (it is not open source, it is shared). Suppliers add the runtime software to their hardware, to open it up to application portability.

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