The industrial automation and control field is an ever-changing mish-mash of protocols, standards, and conventions. Recently, there has been a wave of replacement sweeping the networking standards space as proprietary and legacy standards give way to more cost-effective off-the-shelf solutions such as Ethernet. The advantages of Ethernet-based networking are probably obvious – high availability of low-cost, high-reliability infrastructure, built-in future-proofing, very high bandwidth by industrial control standards, and the ability to integrate more smoothly with other types of equipment that are not part of the traditional industrial automation ecosystem.
As these standards shift, however, we transition through one of those normal, painful states where a mixture of standards is deployed in many large systems as new devices are added and replaced incrementally and combined with still-in-service legacy gear. Given that industrial controls tend to be safety-critical, there are also myriad certifications that must be completed before bringing a new product to market.
If you’re designing a new industrial control product, and you want to stay one step ahead of your competitors, you’re probably not counting on a proprietary network standard or the excellent job you’ll do getting certification as the big differentiators that will put you ahead of the pack. Chances are, those aspects of your design are mostly busywork tasks that cost you money, slow you down, and don’t gain you any ground on the field. What you’d like is to spend your time and energy on the parts of your project that make it cool, and let someone else manage the mundane.
This week, at the Freescale Technology Forum in Munich, Freescale announced a beef-up of the ecosystem for their recently-announced MPC8360E-RDK development platform. The MPC8630E-RDK is a low-cost development platform that includes a production-ready COM Express form-factor module mated to a carrier board for development work. The COM Express module is identical to production-ready units that can be ordered in volume and BOM-cost optimized based on your specific system requirements.
The included COM Express module comes with an MPC8360E processor (running at 667 MHz with graphics acceleration) combined with 256 MB of DDR2, 8MB Boot NOR flash, 2 Gigabit Ethernet and 2 10/100 Ethernet ports, 4 UARTs, 32-bit PCI, 4-port USB, 8 pin GPIO, and VGA and LVDS connections. The carrier board with comes with connectors, cables, and power supply.
The newly announced collaborations bring real incremental value to the development kit, however. Freescale says their list of ecosystem partners for the kit now includes Real Time Automation (RTA), Green Hills Software, Wind River, IXXAT, IndusRAD, and Logic Product Development.
Since the point of the development platform is to simplify our design process and get us to market faster with more time to focus on our differentiating factors, the expansion of the offering to include things like optimized binaries to support protocols such as EtherNet/IP and DeviceNet (from Real Time Automation), PROFIBUS (from IndusRAD), and Ethernet Powerlink and IEEE 1588 (from IXXAT). The availability of these protocol stacks in optimized binary form makes fast work of the integration and bridging tasks you face if you’re bringing commodity infrastructure like Ethernet into a domain-specific legacy environment with something like PROFIBUS. The programmability of the overall solution gives the kind of flexibility normally associated with devices like FPGAs, but with far easier customization.
The new announcement also brings a wide array of software tools and operating system options to the table. Green Hills INTEGRITY is a very popular option among designers of high-reliability systems because of its ability to create hard partitions for things like separate protocols running on a single processor. These partitions secure the safety-critical portions of the system from other sections, reducing the amount of the system that has to be safety-certified and eliminating the need for separate physical processors for independent non-certified tasks. The system also supports Wind River Linux and VxWorks, and comes with a Linux BSP with optimized drivers. Also included are development tools such as CodeWarrior IDE and USB TAP for debugging.
With all those capabilities and with your reference design practically up and running, your job is primarily to pick the protocols you need, decide what performance and capability is required, and get to the business of writing software to attack the specific task you’re automating. By the time your competitors are just figuring out the PROFIBUS stack, you’ll have your mini-crane already moving blocks around the lab table. When it comes time for certification, many of the components pull-through their own certifications to your application so your workload will be lighter there too.
Once you have your design up and running on the development board, you’ll want to get into production quickly and inexpensively. The kit comes with a BOM, schematics and layout for the COM Express form-factor, and design files for the FlexATX carrier board. Production-ready boards can be customized for your project and ordered in quantity through Logic Product Development. Example pricing is $299 at 2.5K units for the COMMPC8360-10-1652LCR with a 400MHz PowerQUICC MPC8360 or $450 at 2.5K units for the COMMPC8360E-10-2752FCR which includes a 667 MHz PowerQUICC MPC8360E with graphics.
The development kit itself carries a suggested retail of less than $1000 USD and includes graphics and touch-screen functionality. Freescale says they’re targeting the platform at a broad range of applications, including industrial automation, network communications, healthcare monitoring, robotics, and manufacturing automation.