Much of today's consumer-facing applications and behind-the-scenes computing infrastructure are built using open source software. Also, in recent years, a growing “maker” community has created do-it-yourself computing and automation projects based on open source software and commercial microcontrollers like the Raspberry Pi and Arduino. These efforts are widely accepted due to the flexibility, convenience, and low cost of open source.

For more critical industrial automation applications, however, the norm has been for users to build with proven platforms like programmable logic controllers (PLCs). As a new generation of workers enters the industrial market and as current staff become familiar with new technology advances, both groups are looking for ways to combine open source advantages with reliable automation.

Hobbyists like that they can obtain a bare-bones Arduino for about $20 and stack on other inexpensive boards called “shields” to perform networking, input/output signals, GPS, and other functions. They can create applications from scratch or more commonly incorporate code snippets or complete programs, usually obtained for free from a large community of developers. Users range from beginner level to experts.

However, consumer-grade microcontrollers are built for low cost and are not designed or tested to withstand industrial conditions of temperature, contaminants, vibration, and electrical noise. They may not have any agency approvals and the available wired inputs and outputs can be difficult to interface with common industrial signal levels. Some suppliers, recognizing the market's desire to leverage open source for industrial projects, have responded to the call and created industrial-grade products that address the risk of applying consumer-grade open source technologies for crucial applications.

Arduino-type controllers and some accessories are now available in hardened industrial form factors (Figure 1). Not only are these devices specifically designed for harsh environments but they can also interface with traditional PLC I/O modules, allowing users to take advantage of proven field interfaces.

Figure 2. Industrial automation users will find that the AutomationDirect Productivity Blocks interface makes it easier for them to incorporate open source concepts into their projects.

Developers can code in C++ or use the Arduino integrated development environment (IDE) to create program “sketches.” For even better usability, one supplier created a specific graphical programming interface to make the most common industrial programming tasks even easier (Figure 2).

The availability of industrialized open source controllers gives developers more options than ever before. They can add this type of controller to an existing PLC design, providing enhanced analytical computing and data handling. Or, they can directly perform equipment control and associated calculations, all on one open controller.

Consumer-oriented developers will appreciate the improved packaging and I/O connectivity of these controllers for home and appliance automation. Commercial and industrial facilities will find plenty of applications for controlling and monitoring lighting, environmental systems, and utility skids. Original equipment manufacturers can apply the latest technologies using a platform familiar to their up-and-coming workforce. These industrial-grade solutions minimize the risk and cost of using commercial-grade products.

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Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the October, 2020 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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