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Industrial Automation vs Embedded Systems

An embedded system, also known as an embedded computer, is a microprocessor or microcontroller-based computer hardware system with specialty software designed to perform a particular function. It can function either as a standalone computing system or as part of a large mechanical or electrical system–hence the term embedded. Also, it’s either programmable or fixed in functionality.

At the core of any embedded system is an integrated circuit that is designed to execute computations necessary for real-time operations. Like virtually all computers, most embedded systems employ a Printed Circuit Board (PCB) programmed with specialty software that tells the associated computer hardware how it should operate and manage data using I/O communication interfaces and memory, which terminally provide valuable outputs to the user.

Embedded systems are widely used in consumer electronics, industrial machines, medical devices, agricultural equipment, processing industry machines, factory robots, cameras, aerospace avionics, automotive systems, household appliances, vending machines, digital watches, mobile devices, and electrical vehicle charging stations.

Components of Embedded Systems

Embedded systems are a combination of three main components: 

  • Hardware: This is the physical component of an embedded system. It comprises of a microcontroller or microprocessor-based integrated circuit, power supply, Graphics Processing Unit (GPU), LCD display, Input/Output communication interfaces, ports, non-volatile and volatile memory, etc.  
  • Application software: It is an end-user program that enables the user to perform changes on the system and application code to be run on the embedded system, based on the requirements of a given task. 
  • Real-Time Operating System (RTOS): It defines how the embedded system works, as it acts as an interface between the hardware and application software. It supervises the application software and it also provides a mechanism that lets the processor of the embedded system run as per scheduling for the purpose of controlling latencies. In addition, the RTOS sets the rules when executing the application program. Small-scale embedded systems may not include an RTOS.  

Note: Some embedded systems, like those used in mobile devices, also include complex Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) such as keypads with buttons, LEDs, and touchscreen sensing. While other systems, particularly those on electronic devices designed to execute a single task, have no user interfaces. Other embedded systems utilize remote user interfaces. 

Generally, embedded systems rely on microcontrollers or microprocessors, memory, a power supply, and I/O communication interfaces to function. They use communication ports to transmit data between the processor (contained in the microcontroller/microprocessor) and peripheral & I/O devices or to communicate with other embedded systems via communication protocols. The processor interprets the input data collected by the input devices with the assistance of the software stored in the memory unit. This software is normally highly specific to the particular function that the embedded system serves. So, the hardware and software components of an embedded system work together to perform specific functions.

The complexity of a given embedded system varies significantly according to the application for which it’s designed. Complexities range from the use of one microcontroller to using multiple processors with connected peripheral devices and communication networks; from no user interface to having complex Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs).

What’s Industrial Automation?

Industrial automation is the process of integrating information technologies, control systems, and computerized machinery to handle different industrial processes without significant human intervention. It is primarily centered on material handling, manufacturing, and quality control processes. Examples of automated industrial processes include food and beverage processing; metal fabrication processes like cutting, machining, cladding, welding, etc.; packaging and material handling; planning and decision making; quality control and inspection.

Compared to manual control, industrial automation results in improved product quality, increased production rates, reduced product lead times, improved data accuracy, enhanced machine efficiency and reliability, better safety, minimal routine checks as well as reduced design and production costs due to the adoption of innovative and integrated control technologies.

Components of Industrial Automation

Industrial automation makes use of both hardware and software technologies to streamline a variety of physical industrial processes such as material handling, production, and assembly. The two most fundamental components of industrial automation are:  

Control Systems: These systems serve as the foundation of industrial automation because they regulate and monitor automated devices and equipment to perform specific functions. They consist of PC-based controls or complex microprocessor-based data processing controllers like Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) or Programmable Automation Controllers (PACs), and Input/Output devices such as pushbuttons, pressure switches, sensors, valves, motors actuators, etc.  

In industrial automation, a wide range of process variables such as flow rates, operating pressure, temperature, liquid levels, speed, position, and distance are acquired, processed, and managed by the control systems. For example, PLCs use a single microprocessor to monitor and collect input data (i.e. sensor data), process the gathered information, and trigger specific output actions based on the input data and logic execution results. Note: PACs are similar to PLCs, but they make use of multiple processors to support large automation tasks and operations.  

Control Networks: While industrial control systems include all the necessary components for carrying out automation tasks, they need to be connected to a network to communicate with each other. Control networks act as the bridge connecting control systems, software applications, and automated devices/equipment onto one channel. This channel enables the connected devices to safely communicate and transfer data regarding the processes being automated.  

To develop a robust and secure industrial communication system, the control networks apply several industrial communication protocols that sync the data processing controllers and automated machines together, allowing them to successfully perform their assigned operations. 

In addition, to control systems and control networks, there are other common components of industrial automation including: 

  • Human-Machine Interface (HMI): This an interface device (i.e. an interactive screen) with application software that provides data, operational metrics, and any other information of a given system to human operators, allowing them to communicate and interact with automation devices and machines. 
  • Distributed Control System (DCS): This is a specially designed control system that makes use of a central monitoring network connected to various automation devices to control different functions. The system consists of sensors, controllers, and associated industrial computers that are geographically distributed throughout the plant floor. Each of these control elements performs a unique function such as data acquisition, information processing, data storage, process control, as well as a graphical display of the processed data.  
  • Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA): This is a combination of software applications and hardware that enables the implementation of industrial automation by gathering and processing real-time Operational Technology (OT) data, to monitor and control industrial processes and speed up automation operations. 
  • Robotics: Involves the use of robots that perform automation tasks traditionally carried out by human operators.  
  • Artificial Neural Network (ANN): This is a computing system that simulates how a human brain processes data to identify network patterns based on pre-defined activation functions. 

Industrial automation is still evolving, with modern industrial automation focusing on the best way to leverage emerging digital technologies such as IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things), Machine Learning, and Artificial Intelligence. 

What’s the Difference Between Embedded Systems and Industrial Automation? 

Embedded systems typically deal with the interaction between electronics and firmware, while industrial automation focuses on the control logic of a system or process. Although the two might seem similar, they both require a different knowledge base: industrial automation requires a more mathematical approach to a control problem, such as mathematical modeling of the plant floor, on which the automation engineer derives the plant’s control algorithm for the purpose of automating the processes involved; on the other hand, embedded systems require extensive knowledge of the underlying platform hardware and software such as the microcontroller unit or CPU, drivers, peripherals, application software, RTOS, etc.

In addition, embedded systems often handle tasks at a much more integrated and micro level compared to industrial automation systems. They require custom-made microelectronic designs and circuit boards. Also, they are built for specific control tasks, they have defined timelines and they’re tightly constrained. For example, a variety of embedded systems are employed in home electronics, aircraft, automobiles, and mobile devices to perform different tasks. Embedded systems are also designed for devices that are manufactured at a much larger scale. For instance, a thousand cars can be produced in a day all with the same airbag systems or engine control units.

In contrast, industrial automation systems are generally much more custom systems that make use of pre-existing components which have been thoroughly tested to function reliably in harsh industrial environments. Hence, custom-made microelectronic designs and circuit boards are not necessary with industrial automation systems. For example, automation systems from two different manufacturers may have the exact design layout and be made of similar parts, but they’re not identical mass-produced systems. In other words, industrial automation is about the factory setting and what controls a given process on the factory floor, while embedded systems are device specific–performing a different function in each electronic device or system.

Where do Embedded Systems and Industrial Automation Converge?

Embedded systems are often used in factory settings for automation and control of industrial machinery and systems. In such applications, they are used within larger electrical or mechanical systems to supervise specific operations. For example, in a larger industrial system, the embedded system functions as a programmable operating system that performs specified tasks such as controlling assembly-line speeds, adjusting temperatures and other process variables, driving motors, and networking production equipment. There are two primary use cases of embedded systems in industrial automation applications, namely:

A) Machine Automation and Control

For machine automation and control, embedded systems are used to perform a range of control tasks within the industrial equipment, such as automatically adjusting gear ratio in motor-driven systems, controlling assembly-line speeds, and maintaining fluid flow rates in CNC machines. Most industrial systems, particularly manufacturing processes, already feature PLCs that enable communication at the I/O level. As a result, embedded systems designed for industrial use can be integrated into the existing machine controls, thereby leveraging automation software along with proprietary Numerical Control (NC) and Computerized Numerical Control (CNC) functionality.

For example, embedded computer systems can be integrated into existing machines to help consolidate and centralize control architecture, optimize the performance capabilities of a machine, reduce maintenance costs, and improve overall product quality.

B) Machine Monitoring

In addition to automating and controlling industrial processes, embedded systems enable remote monitoring of machinery and equipment within a factory setup. This is possible through the use of industrial embedded systems that collect a system’s operational and performance data in real time and then upload it to a cloud-based gateway or centralized server via the internet for remote monitoring and control. The gathered data is aggregated, processed, and analyzed by embedded computers to provide actionable information and valuable insights through dashboards, reports, and notifications. This information can then be used by factory operators to measure performance and improve the productivity of specific industrial processes.

The application of embedded systems in machine monitoring is a proactive way of maintaining uptime and preventing production losses. In essence, industrial embedded systems perform machine monitoring to help measure performance, optimize equipment capabilities, and improve productivity. For example, industrial embedded systems can be used to monitor and control the power consumption, operating temperature, and vibration levels of equipment that makes plastic bottles, thereby automatically adjusting the bottling assembly line speed as per the required output of plastic bottles. Moreover, embedded systems featuring machine vision can be used to scan plastic bottles for defects, discarding the ones that do not meet preset quality requirements.

Benefits of Implementing Embedded Systems in Industrial Automation

  • Remote Monitoring and Control: If you have manufacturing equipment that’s equipped with an embedded system, it will be possible for you to remotely monitor and control the production process in real time from any device, including a smartphone or tablet. As you can get instant alerts and notifications via a specialized mobile app if some operating conditions deviate from the norm. 
  • Centralized Data Collection: The use of embedded systems in industrial automation allows users to store data in a central location and utilize the benefits of cloud data storage such as instant access from any device, encryption, backups, and enhanced data security.  
  • Flexible Configuration and Expansion: Customized industrial embedded systems are easy to configure and can be easily expanded to meet growing automation needs.  
  • Insightful Reporting: Embedded systems provide operators with customized and visual reports about a given manufacturing process, which help in determining the strong and weak points of the process. Operators can then optimize this information to measure performance and improve the productivity of the process. 
  • Data Archive: All the data generated by embedded systems in industrial automation can be stored on a centralized protected server, for future access to find patterns and draw actionable insights. 
  • Reduced Service Costs: The use of embedded systems in industrial automation eliminates the need for manual intervention by human operators during normal operation. This lowers the costs of operating manufacturing equipment and other industrial machinery. 

This entry was posted on October 12th, 2022 and is filed under Uncategorized. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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