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Low-code for machine control

In high-tech mechanical engineering, low-code software development is on the rise. Additive Industries works with Cordis Suite, which, from a graphical model, enables digitization steps such as dashboard analysis, data integration, simulation and augmented reality in addition to PLC code. Cordis Suite works seamlessly with Beckhoff hardware and software.

Low-code has been known in IT for decades: developing software by building models and defining configurations in a graphical environment. Code is automatically generated from the models taking those configurations into account. Well-known low-code IT development environments include Mendix, OutSystems and Microsoft Power Apps.

Modular systems

In OT (operational technology), low-code is still much less common. Eindhoven-based Cordis is a forerunner with their development platform Cordis Suite. Customer of the first hour is Additive Industries, also from Eindhoven, which builds modular systems for 3D metal printing on an industrial scale. To control its machines, Additive uses hardware (industrial PCs, motion and i/o) and software (Twincat) from Beckhoff Automation. Application software functionality for control and digitization is generated with Cordis Suite.

At Additive, software is now equivalent to hardware, explains Merlijn van Minderhout, team leader for software. 'In the past, we were enablers; the machine had to run and that required software. Now it is no longer just a cost item, but software features are sold to customers. Of our thirty people in r&d, half work on software.'

An Additive Industries employee controls the machine using a Cordis dashboard.
Seamless interface

The Beckhoff-Cordis combination suits Additive, explains Stijn de Bruin, site manager Eindhoven at Beckhoff Automation. 'Our software is easy to build modularly and PC-based. The user can work on an industry-standard PC with a familiar operating system and familiar interfaces to both the machine and information systems. Our software is then the soft-plc, with which functions such as hmi, motion controller and vision system interface; no more separate devices are needed for that.' In addition, Cordis Suite's "single button deployment" allows for easy software deployment, seamlessly integrating applications into Twincat at the touch of a button.

Modelcentric

Cordis coo Jan Peter Meeuwse explains: "Our low-code development layer, integrated with Beckhoff's environment, is enhanced by a generic server application that works together with the generated Twincat applications. This acts as a bridge between IT and OT systems, simplifies linking IT applications to PLC software, and facilitates logging and storing data in the database. This improves security and analysis capabilities. Our model-centric approach ensures that changes to the model, such as new sensors, are immediately reflected in all systems. This enables real-time, dynamic updates and contributes to a more efficient workflow - essential for Industry 4.0.'

Smart sensor

Something like data integration is important for Additive, reports Van Minderhout: 'Customers want to be able to monitor our machines, for example, from their MES system, especially if they run series production. And regulated sectors like aerospace and automotive need to collect data for certification and traceability of their products.'

Meeuwse: "Traditionally, software does allow you to extract sensor data from the process, resulting in graphs of temperature, for example. But with Cordis Suite we go a step further by offering not only standard sensor data, but also insight into the historical state behavior of all components, or extensive execution logs that record the runtime behavior of the software. This provides deeper insight into the internal functioning of the software. This makes the machine a "smart sensor" that provides a wealth of additional data. This advanced data, which gives more context and meaning to the sensor signals, marks a significant advance in our data analysis and interpretation, but this requires powerful hardware, such as that from Beckhoff.'

Assembly hall at Additive Industries in Eindhoven. Non-software engineers can access all functions and variables in the machines via a Cordis dashboard.

Open

Low-code took off much later in OT than in IT, Meeuwse explains. 'This is because manufacturers shielded their hardware for a long time. There are many different types of PLCs, and of these, Beckhoff is one of our favorite platforms, mainly because of its open nature and modern, modular architecture. Although customers can theoretically move a model developed with Cordis Suite to other platforms, in practice they stay with Beckhoff because of its unique advantages, such as its excellent performance.' In addition to Beckhoff, Cordis Suite can integrate with other platforms, including Weidmüller, Bosch Rexroth, Siemens and Codesys, as well as embedded controllers running on C# Linux/Windows with Visual Studio.

Advantages

Low-code offers significant advantages in both the development and management phases, Van Minderhout outlines. 'The total size of our code is about one million lines, more than half of which is generated from Cordis Suite. We maintain this plc code with only two to three people, while ten people are needed for the remaining PC code. This ratio indicates the power of modeling with Cordis Suite: it not only reduces the labor required, but also increases the quality and adaptability of the code.

Just as importantly, the low-code models are very accessible, Meeuwse adds. 'The knowledge and machine behavior is in the models, so software engineers know very quickly where to go if they want to change something.' Van Minderhout: 'Indeed, we can also share the models with non-software engineers, the people who have knowledge of the functionalities in the machine. They can look along with the software development and co-specify the behavior of the machine. There are no complicated translations in between. They only need to learn to interpret state models. Basically, anyone who has sufficient technical affinity and knows how Cordis Suite works could do software modifications.

De Bruin applauds that accessibility. "With customers who don't work with Cordis Suite, we often still see a separation between the software and mechanical engineers. They just speak a completely different language. Then you hear a mechanical guy say that software has invented something that mechanically cannot do at all. We try to make the PLC code as transparent as possible for our customers, but Cordis Suite goes a step further. With their transparency, they remove a barrier for companies to choose our platform.'

Machine panels open, laptops unfolded

Speaking of accessibility, when a machine at Additive is under maintenance and all the machine panels are open, Meeuwse sometimes sees as many as three laptops there with the Cordis dashboard unfolded. 'Non-software engineers can use that to tune their own module. In the Cordis dashboard, you have access to all the functions and variables of the software. Everything in the model, from motor to module to whole machine, you can access and influence; you can call any function and change parameters.'

Van Minderhout: "Here, too, everyone can watch, which allows us to work in a very multidisciplinary way. And in the phase when a machine is being assembled and the hmi is not yet available, people on the production floor can still look into the modules via the Cordis dashboard. Only when things get really tricky do they call in a software engineer and they then use the Twincat environment to solve low-level i/o problems, for example. However, those are exceptions; most troubleshooting we do through the Cordis model or with simulations.

AI and verification

As low-code matures for the OT, is ai (artificial intelligence) the next step in automation of software production? Beckhoff is already capitalizing on it, reports De Bruin, with the launch of Twincat Chat for ai support for software development. Cordis' Meeuwse notes, "While ai, such as ChatGPT, can be useful for supporting small code segments, the true power of ai lies in supporting and shaping software models. Ai has significant potential for improving software design, especially in complex systems, and extends beyond code support. Of course, this process always requires an additional step of verification.'

Anyway, formal verification is high on the agenda at Additive and Cordis. Van Minderhout: "Our models generate error-free code, but the crucial question remains whether this code does exactly what we expect. Is the model formally correct? Currently, this verification process still requires human effort.' Meeuwse adds, "We have been developing formal verification for some time. This will be a crucial part of the Cordis Suite, especially for ensuring the reliability and accuracy that developers put into their models.'

Van Minderhout: "Here, too, everyone can watch, which allows us to work in a very multidisciplinary way. And in the phase when a machine is being assembled and the hmi is not yet available, people on the production floor can still look into the modules via the Cordis dashboard. Only when things get really tricky do they call in a software engineer and they then use the Twincat environment to solve low-level i/o problems, for example. However, those are exceptions; most troubleshooting we do through the Cordis model or with simulations.

Third generation

Additive, meanwhile, is working on the third generation of its machine, the Metalfabg3, Van Minderhout says. 'It will have a new module, which unfortunately I cannot tell you about yet. That requires quite a bit of PLC development again, but we can reuse a lot from our Cordis models.'

This article was produced in close cooperation with Beckhoff Automation.

Source: https://hightechsystems.nl/artikel/low-code-voor-machinebesturing/

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