Demystifying industrial automation and my attempt on navigating it


3 min read

Thermal image of automated greenhouse LED driver unit

Thermal image of the automated greenhouse LED light controller.

I've ventured through various realms of technology, from the early days of VMS on DEC VAX during Estonia's renewed independence, to tackling hardware intricacies at Skype, and navigating the nuances of early 2000s mobile networks. But the world of industrial automation, which I've delved into while building our vertical farming automation company, has presented an entirely different level of challenge. Especially if you come from very modern software engineering world.

The domain of industrial automation is fascinating: affordable, efficient, and surpassing bespoke tinkering in getting things done. The emergence of SoftPLCs, Raspberry Pi-based industrial computers, and readily available fieldbus couplers and IO modules has revolutionized the field. However, harnessing these technologies is akin to riding a rollercoaster, often heading towards seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Despite the progress, the automation industry remains frustratingly opaque, dominated by large players, plagued by scant documentation, perplexing software practices, and bewildering licensing models. As someone with a penchant for simplicity and clarity, I often find myself at odds with this landscape. Industry 4.0 and 5.0 are nice buzzwords being thrown around and corproate boardrooms, approach which does not really align with my change the world and fix the probles worldwiev.

For example, which fieldbus system to use - all following are ethernet/IP based - ModbusTCP, EtherCAT, Ethernet/IP, ProfiNET. It depends on your use case, but not only. Am I tied to specific vendor or can actually choose to use Wago or Weidmüller instead of Siemens or Omron in my system for automation components? The latter usually also want to enggage on exclusive enterprise contract level for any meaningful support.

Software options are also quite limited. From this perspective Codesys has a lot of credit for having a store where you can buy items with credit card and transparent pricing model on licensing. Only software suite in this area that you can get without navigating a labyrinth of salespeople with opaque "call us for quotation and sales broschure" business model. A complete area I need to write up at some point as well, why we decided to choose them instead of any open source options.

Final trigger for all this was of course spending whole day today getting the CoDeSys TimerSwitch to work. It's very very nice feature. When it works. And I really need to write it out somewhere, how it really doesn't work and how to work around this. For my own sake. And for others. Maybe.

"It is easy to see," replied Don Quixote, "that thou art not used to this business of adventures; those are giants; and if thou art afraid, away with thee out of this and betake thyself to prayer while I engage them in fierce and unequal combat." - Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote