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Apr/16

3

TwinCAT 3 Tutorial Complete

Over the past year I’ve been working on a TwinCAT 3 Tutorial, and with the posting of the 13th chapter about the TwinCAT 3 Scope View, I’m considering it “complete.” I’ve covered all the major topics that I wanted to cover.

Writing a tutorial like this was actually a learning experience for myself. Before I made any statement about the software I tried to validate my assumptions first, and many times I learned that I had preconceived notions about how it worked which may not have been completely accurate. If you’re a TwinCAT 3 programmer, then you need to know your tool set inside and out. If you’re not sure how something works, it’s best to setup a quick test and try it out. That’s one of the advantages of PC-based software: if you want to run a test, your office PC is a laboratory environment. Write some code and run it.

Thank you to everyone who offered feedback on the existing sections, and to those of you who kept pushing me to continue writing more. I sincerely hope this can be that missing link to take people from the world of traditional PLCs into the more interesting and ultimately more powerful world of PC-based control.

It looks like TwinCAT 3 has a viable future ahead of it. Interest seems to be growing over time (according to Google Trends, anyway):

That makes TwinCAT 3 a valuable skill to learn if you’re an integrator, and an interesting technology to investigate for existing plants.

· ·

The recent drop in the world price of oil has caused a similar drop in the value of the Canadian dollar. Much of that has to do with the huge oil production in Alberta, so that province is being hit particularly hard right now. The “oil sands” in Alberta are particularly expensive to exploit, as oil sources go, so companies there are quick to make cuts when the price drops below their break-even point.

The previous run-up in oil prices saw a lot of migration out of manufacturing-heavy Ontario westward to Alberta, and control system specialists were a big part of that. It’s difficult to see them facing these challenges, and none of us want to be in that position.

Back here in Ontario, the pendulum looks like it’s swinging the other way. When rising oil prices drive up the Canadian dollar, it makes it a lot harder for Canadian manufacturers to compete in the export market, because their products are automatically more expensive. The recent drop in the Canadian dollar, if it persists, is going to mean growth in the manufacturing sector, especially along the 401 corridor in Ontario. Personally I’m looking forward to seeing some growth in what has been a relatively stagnant market over the past 10+ years.

Automation is poised to be a big part of the new growth in Ontario. At first companies are likely to be cautious about adding new capacity, likely adding temporary labour, but if the trend holds, I think we’re going to see lots of interest in automation projects throughout the area. Companies are still a bit leery of the economy, so they’ll be looking for flexible automation that can adapt to changes in demand and re-tool quickly. Technologies that can support flexibility are going to be winners.

While disappointing for Alberta, I’m excited to see what the future holds for Ontario.

If you do happen to be out in Alberta and you have discrete automation programming experience, and you’re interested in moving back to Ontario, make sure you drop me a line. We’ve experienced lots of growth ourselves in recent years, so we’re interested in hiring an experienced automation programmer for our Electrical Engineer position. We use TwinCAT 3 and C# and mentoring is available to get you up to speed with these technologies. Even if you’re local and you’re tired of the endless travel or 2 am service calls, then maybe this family-friendly company is right for you.

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Nov/15

1

Offline Changes to a PLC Program

As a PLC programmer, you’ll often be asked to do a change to an existing system. If there’s a significant amount of functionality to be added, you generally get your changes ready “offline” and then do all the changes during a short window of time to minimize disruption to the production schedule.

If you’re using an Allen-Bradley PLC, the procedure is typically this:

  1. Get a copy of the latest program from the PLC (a.k.a. an “upload”)
  2. Make your changes to the offline copy, and write down every change you had to make
  3. Go online with the PLC and apply your changes as online changes

Step 3 is much safer than just taking your modified program and doing a “download”. That’s mainly because when you download, you’re not just downloading the program, but the memory state of the PLC as well. The PLC typically has to track things in memory (like recipe data, part tracking, data collection, sequence numbers, machine counters, etc.). If you do a download, you’re going to overwrite all those values with previous values, and that can cause a lot of problems. The other thing step 3 saves you from is simultaneous changes that were done online while you were busy making offline changes.

The only other option you have is upload-change-download, but you really have to shut the machine down for the duration to make sure that the internal state doesn’t change.

When I did a lot of Allen-Bradley programming, I didn’t question that. It’s just how it was. I remember visiting a plant one time for a service call, and the local maintenance person was a bit suspicious of what I was going to do (after all, I was a young kid who had never seen this machine before). He decided to quiz me a bit, and one of the things he asked was, “when you go online, do you download or upload?” I said “it depends,” but his answer was, “you never download.” I agreed that someone in a maintenance role should never need to do a download unless they’re replacing a CPU, or recovering from a corrupted PLC program.

Now that I mostly do Beckhoff TwinCAT 3 programming, I realized one of the benefits are that offline changes are a breeze. It’s due to the fact that TwinCAT 3 completely separates the program from the memory data. The program is stored in local files on your hard drive and compiled into a TMC file. The persistent data is stored in a different place on your hard drive.

When I want to do offline changes to a TwinCAT 3 project, here’s the procedure:

  1. Get a copy of the latest program
  2. Make your changes to the offline copy
  3. Copy changes back to the machine (keeping a backup, of course), rebuild, and activate configuration

This makes offline changes go a lot more smoothly, of course. I don’t have to copy and paste my changes in while online, so it takes less time and eliminates the possibility of a copy/paste error.

Since we also use Mercurial for version control, getting a copy of the latest program is a matter of pulling the latest from the source control, and copying it to the machine is a matter of pulling the offline changes to the machine. Any changes that were done in parallel can be merged with Mercurial’s built-in diff and merge utilities. (Note: I/O changes can’t be merged nicely, so if someone changed the I/O while you were doing your offline changes, you have to copy those changes in manually, but that’s rare and at least it tells you that it can’t merge them.)

This got me thinking that Allen-Bradley probably has a better way of doing offline changes that most of us just don’t know about. I know that you can do an upload without uploading the memory. However, it seems like it requires you to download both the program and data at the same time. I wonder if anyone out there knows how to do better offline changes to a ControlLogix. If so, I would be interested to know that.

· · · ·

Oct/15

18

Announcing: the TwinCAT 3 Tutorial

Some of you may have noticed the new section on this site: TwinCAT 3 Tutorial.

I’ll be building this over the next several weeks or months. I’m working on making it more detailed than the RSLogix 5000 Tutorial.

Rather than being an introduction to PLCs, I assume most readers are coming to the new tutorial with some automation experience and they really want to know what this new technology can do for them. I won’t be touching on every single feature of TwinCAT 3, but I certainly want to touch on most of the common ones, and particularly some advanced features that really set TwinCAT 3 apart from traditional PLCs.

As always I greatly appreciate any comments you have. Please send them to my email address (which you can find on the About page).

·

Mar/15

15

Upgrading your TwinCAT 3 Version

Beckhoff releases new versions of TwinCAT 3 fairly often, and especially since this is a new platform you probably want to stay on top of their new updates for improved stability and new features. Here are some hard-won lessons I wanted to share with you about how to upgrade your production system to the latest TwinCAT 3 release:

Have a Test System

You should definitely have an offline test system for many good reasons. This test system should have the same operating system version as your production system and should ideally be the same hardware, though I realize that’s not always feasible. It could just be an old desktop PC you have sitting around, but that’s better than nothing. TwinCAT 3 is free for non-production use so you have no excuse for not having an offline test system.

Test your upgrade on the Test System First!

Never try upgrading your production system without running through a dry-run on your test system first. Get a copy of the latest TwinCAT solution from your production machine and get it running on your test system. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have I/O attached because the runtime will work just fine anyway. After your perform the upgrade procedure on your offline test machine, make sure you do a thorough test, including a reboot.

Follow These Steps

  1. Stop the machine and make it safe
  2. Put the runtime into Config mode
  3. Uninstall the old version of TwinCAT 3
  4. Also uninstall the old version of the Beckhoff Real-time Ethernet PnP Drivers
  5. Reboot
  6. Install the new version of TwinCAT 3
  7. Reboot
  8. Open the TwinCAT 3 solution
  9. Re-install any custom libraries, if you have any (optional)
  10. Go to the tool for configuring Real-time Ethernet devices, and install the new driver on your EtherCAT cards
  11. Re-link your EtherCAT master to your EtherCAT adapter under I/O, just in case
  12. Build each PLC project (individually, don’t use Rebuild All because it sometimes ignores errors)
  13. Check that you didn’t lose any I/O mapping
  14. Activate boot project on each PLC project
  15. Check under System that it’s configured to start in Run mode (if that’s what you want)
  16. Activate configuration and restart in run mode
  17. Test by doing a reboot

Upgrading the Real-time Ethernet drivers is critical. We were experiencing cases where the EtherCAT bus would just cut out on us, but only on one machine. All of our machines were upgraded to the same version, so we initially thought it must be a hardware issue. It turned out that we weren’t upgrading the Real-time Ethernet driver when we upgraded TwinCAT 3 versions, so this machine had an old version of the driver loaded, and all the other machines had a newer version. After upgrading the driver, the problem went away, so upgrading the driver is a critical step.

If you find that you did lose your I/O mapping, make sure you’ve built all your PLC projects (which generates a TMC file) and then close TwinCAT 3 XAE down and revert your .tsproj (TwinCAT solution project) file back to the original state. Then start again at the step where you open the TwinCAT 3 solution. Now you should find that your I/O mapping is back. That’s because the inputs and outputs of each PLC project are compiled into the TMC file and TwinCAT 3’s system manager links I/O against that. If the file doesn’t exist (or they changed the format during the upgrade) then it’ll just delete the links. However, the links still exist in the original .tsproj file, so creating the TMC file and then reverting the .tsproj file will put everything back to a happy state. This is also a useful trick when you’re moving the project to a new PC and you didn’t bring the .tmc files along for the ride (because they’re quite large).

Edit: Since writing this article, I’ve added a TwinCAT 3 Tutorial to this site as well.

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Nov/14

26

The TwinCAT 3 Review Revisited

I reviewed TwinCAT 3 in February of 2013 and it was a mixed bag. I lauded the amazing performance but warned about the reliability problems. I think it’s time to revisit the topic.

Things have improved greatly. When I wrote that review we had 2 production systems running TwinCAT 3 (the 32-bit version). We’re now up to 5 production systems with another on the way, all running version 3.1.4016.5 (which is a 64-bit version). The product has been more stable with each release. First we tried switching to a Beckhoff industrial PC, but we still experienced two blue screen crashes. We’ve then turned off anti-virus and disabled automatic windows updates. So far I haven’t seen another blue screen on that system, for about two months.

Manually installing windows updates isn’t a big deal, but it’s unfortunate to be running a PC-based control system with no anti-virus. Our industrial PCs are blocked from going online, and each one is behind a firewall that separates it from our corporate network, but it’s still a risk I don’t want to take. Industrial Control vendors continually tell us their products aren’t supported if you run anti-virus, and I don’t see how anyone can make statements like that in this day and age.

The performance of the runtime (ladder logic) and EtherCAT I/O is still absolutely amazing.

While the IDE is much better than the TwinCAT 2 system, the editor is still quite slow (even on a Core-i7 with a solid state drive).

The Scope is now integrated right into the IDE, and I can’t give that tool enough accolades. I recently had to use Rockwell’s integrated scope for ControlLogix 5000 and it’s pitiful in comparison to the TwinCAT 3 scope.

The TwinSAFE safety PLC editor is light years beyond the TwinCAT 2 editor, but it’s still clunky. It particularly sucks when you install a new revision of TwinCAT 3 and it has to upgrade the safety project to whatever new file format it has. We recently did this, then had to add a new 4-input safety card to the design, and it wouldn’t build the safety project because of a collision on the connection ID. It took us a couple hours of fiddling and we eventually had to manually set the connection ID to a valid value to get it to work. On another occasion, after a version upgrade, I had to go in and add missing lines in the safety program save file because it didn’t seem to upgrade the file format properly (I did this by comparing the save file to another one created in the new version).

The process of upgrading to a new TwinCAT 3 version often involves subtle problems. The rather infamous 3.1.4013 version actually broke the persistent variable feature, so if you restarted your controller, all the persistent variables would be lost. They quickly released a fix, but not before we experienced a bit of pain when I tried it on one of our systems. I’m really stunned that a bug this big and this obvious could actually be released. It’s almost as if Beckhoff doesn’t have a dedicated software testing department performing regression tests before new versions are released, but certainly nobody would develop commercial software like this without a software testing department, would they? That’s a frightening thought.

I ended my previous review by saying I couldn’t recommend TwinCAT 3 at this time. I’m prepared to change my tune a bit. I think TwinCAT 3 is now solid enough for a production environment, but I caution that it’s still a little rough around the edges.

Edit: Note that I’ve since added a TwinCAT 3 Tutorial section to this site.

· ·

May/13

23

The TwinCAT 3.1 Review

Earlier this year I reviewed TwinCAT 3 and I admit that it was a less than stellar review. Up to now TwinCAT 3 has seemed like a beta all the way.

Well, I’m pleased to say that after using and deploying TwinCAT 3.1 for several weeks, it’s a significant improvement over its predecessor, and brings it into the realm of “release-quality” software. There are several improvements I’ll try to highlight.

64-bit! Finally! Yes, it’s so nice to get rid of the old 32-bit copy of Windows 7 and get back to the world of 64-bit computing.

The TwinSAFE safety editor is so much better. While the old one would take several minutes to verify my safety program before downloading it, and several minutes to even get online with the safety controller, this new version does it in seconds. It was so fast in comparison that I thought it didn’t work the first time. Thank goodness because that was a major shortcoming of the old version.

I’m pleased to report that Beckhoff has made changes to the source code file format to make them more friendly to source control applications (like Subversion or Mercurial). Doing a “diff” between 2 file versions now gives you a really good idea of what changed, rather than some obscure XML code. This is one of the first things I complained about and I didn’t expect it to get changed, so I’m really happy to see that. (Also remember that TwinCAT 2 files were completely unfriendly to Source Control; they were just a big binary blob!) Note that when you upgrade your TwinCAT 3.0 solution to TwinCAT 3.1, it has to do a conversion, and it’s one-way. Keep a backup of your old version just in case. In our case, the upgrade went well, except for references, but that was ok…

The old library manager in each PLC project has been replaced by a References folder, which you will be familiar with if you do any sort of .NET programming. You can now add and remove library references right in the solution tree, which is nice. That’s one thing that didn’t get upgraded automatically. I had to remove my old references to the TwinCAT 3.0 standard libraries and re-add them as TwinCAT 3.1 libraries. Not a big deal once I figured out what was causing the build error.

The scope viewer has been removed from the system tray icon menu and pulled into the Visual Studio interface. I think this is just part of their attempt to pull everything into one environment, which I applaud.

Unfortunately I still had one blue-screen-of-death when I tried to do an online change, but I couldn’t reproduce that problem. I’m using a commercial desktop computer, not an industrial PC for my testing, and Beckhoff says they won’t support the software if it isn’t installed on Beckhoff hardware. Let that be a warning to you: even though you pay significantly more for the software license in order to run it on non-Beckhoff hardware, they will not warranty software bugs in that case. That doesn’t mean you can’t get local support, but it does mean that if you have a legitimate bug report, they won’t help you unless it can be reproduced on Beckhoff hardware.

While upgrading, I also upgraded the operating system on the PC from Windows 7 32-bit to Windows 7 64-bit. That created a small problem because it caused the Beckhoff generated system ID to change, and the license is attached to the system ID. That means I have to go through generating a license file and applying the response file again. Hopefully there are no problems with duplicate licensing, as it is the same physical computer. I’m still waiting for a response though.

I did run into a couple gotchas during the upgrade. First, TwinCAT 3.1, for whatever reason, requires Intel’s Virtualization Technology Extentions (VTx) to be enabled in the BIOS, and mine weren’t. It turns out that I needed to flash the BIOS to even get that option. Secondly, we use Kaspersky Endpoint Security version 8 for our enterprise anti-virus solution. It turns out that both version 8 and version 6 prevent TwinCAT 3.1 from booting the PLC runtime into Run Mode on startup. Without Kaspersky installed it worked fine. I eventually tried Microsoft Security Essentials (the free Anti-virus solution from Microsoft) and that seems to work well. Some anti-virus is better than none, I figure.

The upgraded system has been in production for nearly 2 weeks, and seems to be working well (no problems that I can attribute directly to TwinCAT, at any rate).

In summary, if you’re looking to jump into TwinCAT 3, I know I said to wait in my last review, but I now think that TwinCAT 3.1 is a good solid base if you’re looking to get your feet wet.

·

Feb/13

16

The TwinCAT 3 Review

Edit: Note that I have posted an updated TwinCAT 3 Review in 2014.

So back in 2010 I wrote about my first impression of TwinCAT 2 and later that same year I wondered if automation programmers would accept TwinCAT 3. I was lucky enough to be involved in the TwinCAT 3 beta, and now that the 32-bit version of TwinCAT 3 is available for general release we’ve deployed 2 production systems based on TwinCAT 3, and will likely deploy more in the future. What follows are my impressions of the current state of TwinCAT 3 based on our experiences with those 2 systems.

I think the best way I can describe TwinCAT 3 to the non-initiated is by comparing it with Allen-Bradley’s ControlLogix platform with their RSLogix 5000 programming environment. I say that because I’m familiar with that platform, and so are most of my North American readers (I assume). It speaks well of Allen-Bradley that they are the de-facto default control system platform around here.

We often fall back on car analogies, and I don’t want to break with tradition. If ControlLogix is the Ford Taurus of control systems (common, reliable, with lots of performance for most tasks, lots of room, and fairly maintenance free) then TwinCAT 3 is something like the Rally Fighter. That is, it’s road legal, fairly rare, requires lots of TLC and understanding and may not be as reliable, but will take you places you’ll never get to go in a Ford Taurus.

When it comes to speed, TwinCAT 3 with Beckhoff’s EtherCAT I/O is a beast. I can’t stress this enough. We’re running both production systems of TwinCAT 3 with both a 0.5 millisecond logic scan time and a 0.5 millisecond I/O bus scan time and we’re only using about 10% to 15% of the available horsepower of each system. You can see and react to things in the TwinCAT 3 system that you’ll just miss in a ControlLogix processor. For instance in one case we’re driving an output off of an absolute encoder and the repeatability of turning on that output is much better than anything we’ve seen with any other controller.

Furthermore, data accessibility is light years beyond any traditional PLC. In one test I moved a 400 kB block of data from the real-time (ladder logic program) to a .NET program running under windows on the same PC and all I can say is that it’s nearly instantaneous. That’s an advantage of having the HMI and real-time executing on the same physical hardware.

That’s not even getting into the new C++ integration (which I haven’t used).

Any TwinCAT 3 vs. ControlLogix system comparison will also certainly favor the Beckhoff solution when it comes to price. At least I can’t seen any case yet where that’s not true by a significant margin. I can’t say exact prices, obviously, but I’m confident that’s generally a true statement.

Does that mean I think the competition is a hands-down blow-out in favor of TwinCAT 3? No. In fact if you’re considering trying TwinCAT 3 I can’t even go so far as to give you my blessing right now. It has problems.

TwinCAT 3 crashes with a blue screen. Regularly. There, I said it. That’s the dirty secret. Everyone’s fears about PC-based control on the factory floor were around stability and in our experience TwinCAT 3 isn’t stable yet. This is odd to me because we have another system with TwinCAT 2 and it’s solid as a rock. Unfortunately our TwinCAT 3 system crashes with a blue screen regularly, and the crash report always shows that it’s some kind of memory violation in their Tc*.sys files, which are the system files responsible for running their real-time system under ring 0 of the OS (as far as I understand). I’ve never even seen blue screens with Windows 7 until trying out TwinCAT 3. There are actually two different times that it crashes: (1) randomly, and (2) when I try to do an online change.

Beckhoff’s response was that we were running it on 3rd party hardware. They loaned us a Beckhoff industrial PC to try. We tried it for a week and we didn’t see any random crashes, but it still crashed the real-time when I tried to do an online change, and it also crashed the IDE almost every time I recompiled the program. In fact that’s the reason we had to stop the test with Beckhoff’s hardware after only one week. I needed to compile a change and couldn’t get it to compile. It did work on our 3rd party PC (an HP desktop PC).

Now, I don’t think these are insurmountable problems. Beckhoff is still coming out with new versions on a regular basis. Their new support for 64-bit windows operating systems is on the horizon. TwinCAT 2 seems stable and I’m sure TwinCAT 3 will get there eventually. However, for the moment, if you’re considering the plunge, I suggest waiting about a year before bothering to check it out. If you just need the speed, consider TwinCAT 2, as even though it doesn’t take advantage of multiple cores it will likely do what you need and is a much more mature product at this point.

· ·

Note that this is an old article and I now have more up-to-date TwinCAT 3 Reviews and now a TwinCAT 3 Tutorial.

In the world of programming there are a lot of PC programmers and comparatively few PLC programmers, but I inhabit a smaller niche. I’m a PLC and a PC programmer. This is a dangerous combination.

If you come from the world of PLC programming, like I did, then you start out writing PC programs that are pretty reliable, but they don’t scale well. I came from an electrical background and I adhered to the Big Design Up Front (BDUF) methodology. The cost of design changes late in the project are so expensive that BDUF is the economical model.

If you come from the world of PC programming, you probably eschew BDUF for the more popular “agile” and/or XP methodologies. If you follow agile principles, your goal is to get minimal working software in front of the customer as soon as possible, and as often as possible, and your keep doing this until you run out of budget. As yet there are no studies that prove Agile is more economical, but it’s generally accepted to be more sane. That’s because of the realization that the customer just doesn’t know what they want until they see what they don’t want.

It would be very difficult to apply agile principles to hardware design, and trying to apply BDUF (and the “waterfall” model) to software design caused the backlash that became Agile.

Being both a PLC and a PC programmer, I sometimes feel caught between these two worlds. People with electrical backgrounds tend to dislike the extra complexity that comes from the layers and layers of abstraction used in PC programming. Diving into a typical “line of business” application today means you’ll need to understand a dizzying array of abstract terminology like “Model”, “View”, “Domain”, “Presenter”, “Controller”, “Factory”, “Decorator”, “Strategy”, “Singleton”, “Repository”, or “Unit Of Work”. People from a PC programming background, however, tend to abhor the redundancy of PLC programs, not to mention the lack of good Separation of Concerns (and for that matter, source control, but I digress).

These two worlds exist separately, but for the same reason: programs are for communicating to other programmers as much as they’re for communicating to machines. The difference is that the reader, in the case of a PLC program, is likely to be someone with only an electrical background. Ladder diagram is the “lingua franca” of the electrical world. Both electricians and electrical engineers can understand it. This includes the guy who happens to be on the night shift at 2 am when your code stops working, and he can understand it well enough to get the machine running again, saving the company thousands of dollars per minute. On the other hand, PC programs are only ever read by other PC programmers.

I’m not really sure how unique my situation is. I’ve had two very different experiences working for two different Control System Integrators. At Patti Engineering, almost every technical employee had an electrical background but were also proficient in PLC, PC, and SQL Server database programming. On the other hand, at JMP Engineering, very few of us could do both, the rest specialized in one side or the other. In fact, I got the feeling that the pure PC programmers believed PLC programming was beneath them, and the people with the electrical backgrounds seemed to think PC programming was boring. As one of the few people who’ve tried both, I can assure you that both of these technical fields are fascinating and challenging. I also believe that innovation happens on the boundaries of well established disciplines, where two fields collide. If I’m right, then both my former employers are well positioned to cash in on the upcoming fusion of data and automation technologies.

TwinCAT 3

I’ve been watching Beckhoff for a while because they’re sitting on an interesting intersection point.

On the one side, they have a huge selection of reasonably priced I/O and drive hardware covering pretty much every fieldbus you’d ever want to connect to. All of their communication technologies are built around EtherCAT, an industrial fieldbus of their own invention that then became an open standard. EtherCAT, for those who haven’t seen it, has two amazing properties: it’s extremely fast, compared with any other fieldbus, and it’s inexpensive, both for the cabling and the chip each device needs to embed for connectivity. It’s faster, better, and cheaper. When that happens, it’s pretty clear the old technologies are going to be obsolete.

On the other side, they’re a PC-based controls company. Their PLC and motion controllers are real-time industrial controllers, but you can run them on commodity PC hardware. As long as PCs continue to become more powerful, Beckhoff’s hardware gets faster, and they get those massive performance boosts for free. Not only that, but they get all the benefits of running their PLC on the same machine as the HMI, or other PC-based services like a local database. As more and more automation cells need industrial PCs anyway, integrators who can deliver a solution that combines the various automation modules on a single industrial PC will be more competitive.

Next year Beckhoff is planning to release TwinCAT 3, a serious upgrade from their existing TwinCAT 2.11. The biggest news (next to support for multiple cores) is that the IDE (integrated development environment) is going to be built around Microsoft’s Visual Studio IDE. That’s a pretty big nod to the PC programmers… yes you can still write in all the IEC-61131-3 languages, like ladder, function block, etc., but you can also write code in C/C++ that gets compiled down and run in the real-time engine.

Though it hasn’t been hyped as much, I’m pretty excited that you can have a single project (technically it’s called a “solution”) that includes both automation programming, and programming in .NET languages like C# or VB.Net. While you can’t write real-time code in the .NET languages, you can communicate between the .NET and real-time parts of your system over the free ADS communication protocol that TwinCAT uses internally. That means your system can now take advantage of tons of functionality in the .NET framework, not to mention the huge amount of 3rd party libraries that can be pulled in. In fact, did you know that Visual Studio has a Code Generation Engine built in? It would be pretty cool to auto-generate automation code, like ladder logic, from templates. You’d get the readability of ladder logic without the tedious copy/paste/search/replace. (Plus, Visual Studio has integrated source control, but I digress…)

Will anyone take advantage?

With such a split between PC and PLC programmers, exactly who is Beckhoff targeting with TwinCAT 3? They’ve always been winners with the OEM market, where the extra learning curve can be offset by lower commodity hardware prices in the long term. I think TwinCAT 3 is going to be a huge win in the OEM market, but I really can’t say where it’s going to land as far as integrators are concerned. Similar to OEMs, I think it’s a good fit for integrators that are product focused because the potential for re-use pays for your ramp-up time quickly.

It’s definitely a good fit for my projects. I’m interested to see how it turns out.

Those of you who know me remember I’ve been itching to get my hands on a Beckhoff TwinCAT PLC industrial control system for a few years now, but I never found a project or customer willing to take on the risk of trying something new. Like a bunch of penguins on a cliff of ice, nobody wanted to be the first in the water.

I’ve recently had the opportunity to apply a TwinCAT PLC and HMI system to a relatively low-risk application, so I finally have something to share. Those of you who know me also know I don’t pull my punches when I talk about products, so here’s an honest review of the TwinCAT system: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Benefits

Cost

What draws you to TwinCAT is its combination of low cost with a ton of features. I can’t publish prices, but I encourage you to compare prices from Beckhoff, Allen-Bradley, Omron, and others. Beckhoff offers a similar or better feature-set, with as many or more communication options than it’s competitors, for significantly less money (it’s real-time PC control instead of dedicated hardware). On specs it can do everything, and doesn’t bend you over the table when it comes to the price.

Scalability

First, Beckhoff TwinCAT PLC takes advantage of a PC CPU and memory, which means you can scale up the performance of your system for a fraction of the cost of scaling up to large PLC and PAC systems.

Secondly, if you use EtherCAT, you get to scale up your I/O sizes without as much impact on performance or price. The individual I/O slices are significantly cheaper than for other bus technologies, and the servo drives are less expensive because the bus speed is fast enough to close the loop from the PLC rather than in the device itself.

Where TwinCAT really shines is when you need to integrate it to the MES layer in your organization. Most other vendors require you to buy expensive OPC or other connection software, but Beckhoff provides a free DLL for Windows applications to communicate with the PLC over a communication protocol called ADS. (They also provide an OPC server as an add-on if you need it.)

What’s the Catch

Switching software vendors is never easy. If you’re used to your existing PLC software like RSLogix, you’ve got a bit of a learning curve ahead of you. Here are the things that down-right annoyed me about TwinCAT when I was coming from the RSLogix/PanelView realm:

  • When you do an online edit, it resets all of your forces. You have to reload your watch list to re-apply them. (Fortunately I always write perfect code the first time, so I never had to do an online change…)
  • The ladder logic editor doesn’t seem to auto-wrap (unless I’m missing a setting somewhere)
  • The HMI editor crashed a couple of times when I was modifying the HMI, and I had to restart the TwinCAT system (not the PC, just the software)
  • The English documention is lacking
  • The TwinCAT System Manager DeviceNET master configuration had a bug where it wouldn’t recognize EDS files where the Class value was stored as a 16 bit, rather than an 8 bit value. The EDS file was valid, according to EZ-EDS, but it wouldn’t read it. Changing the value to 8-bit made it recognize the parameter. This made it hard, but not impossible, to integrate an Allen-Bradley Point I/O DeviceNET node.
  • Even though the HMI will log an alarm history, there’s no alarm history control for you to view it in the HMI itself (it’s saved to a CSV file)

Here are some things that are just really different, but I’ve had no trouble adapting to:

  • You have to define all variables (tags) in a text syntax, instead of in a spreadsheet-like tag editor
  • I/O isn’t mapped directly. You define your hardware I/O and your program I/O and then you map them.
  • You don’t do online changes while you’re online with the PLC. You “log off”, then make your change, and then “log on” and tell it to upload your change. (You can do this while the machine is running.)

What’s Cool

Using a PC based controller opened up some interesting features, particularly in the HMI:

  • You can launch another application from a button click on the HMI (Excel, etc.)
  • You can configure some interesting alarm actions, like launching a program, or sending an email
  • There’s an (optional) add-in to let the PLC communicate in a limited fashion with a SQL Server
  • It runs on commodity hardware. PC hardware is cheap and you can get much larger touch screens for a lot less than the cost of an equivalent PanelView. The “fieldbus” card (EtherCAT) is under $100. Even a Beckhoff EtherCAT to DeviceNET master solution is cheaper than a straight-up DeviceNET card from another manufacturer.
  • TwinSAFE – a Safety Controller sitting right on your fieldbus for less than a stand-alone safety controller from another vendor.

Support

I had nothing but superb support from the local Beckhoff technical support guys during this experience. They respond to emails personally usually within a couple of hours, and they have no problem taking the two hour drive to see us if we have any issues that can’t be resolved over the phone or with email. We’re not a “big” customer in any way.

Summary

I’ve just spent about 2 weeks coming up to speed on TwinCAT, having come from an AB/Omron background, with a smattering of other PC based controllers like Phoenix Contact’s Visual Logic Controller (VLC) and MultiProg (formerly PCWorx).

The ease-of-use of TwinCAT doesn’t measure up to RSLogix, but it’s comparable to Omron, and it blows products like PCWorx/MultiProg out of the water (I think I was using version 3 of PCWorx, and I know there’s a version 5 now). Most of my issues with TwinCAT are that its ladder editor just isn’t polished enough compared with RSLogix, but that’s not surprising given its roots in Germany. North America tends to favor ladder logic, where Europe seems to favor instruction list, structured text, and function block diagram. It feels like the TwinCAT ladder logic editor was neglected a bit, but it is certainly workable. Comparing the TwinCAT sequential function chart editor with the RSLogix sequential function chart editor, they were actually reasonably close. I liked that I didn’t have to position individual steps in TwinCAT – it just auto-arranged everything for me.

Price-wise, TwinCAT is significantly less expensive than any other serious player in the industrial automation equipment space, particularly when you start ramping up the amount of I/O and drives you need, and it has similar (and in some cases better) features to offer. It’s even significantly less expensive than the Phoenix Contact solution (from my memory), and given that, there’s no reason I’d ever recommend a PCWorx/MultiProg solution from Phoenix Contact. The Phoenix offering is worse and more expensive.

If you’re in a position where your facility is in the market for a new automation platform, I definitely recommend including the Beckhoff TwinCAT platform in your deliberations. It hits a really unique sweet-spot on price, flexibility, and features that nobody else seems to be able to offer right now. Now that we’re a few weeks in, we have a running machine, it looks like the project will be successful and I have no reservations about saying: if you don’t mind learning something new, give them a try.

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