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  • Writer's pictureEric Reiner

Fill in the Blanks of Advanced Machine Control with Many-core Technology

As machines incorporate more complex components and software, many-core Industrial PCs offer the processing and core isolation capabilities to realize smart factory and Industry 4.0 concepts

Beckhoff manycore Industrial PC
Many-core technology is really defined by how the processor is optimized for parallelism and throughput.

When many-core technology became available for industrial machinery, engineers had questions. “What can you do with all of that processing power?” some wanted to know. “When would you even need it?” others asked. At the time, running a PLC program in PC-based automation software required one core. Even with HMI and a few extra programs, industrial servers with dual 16-core processors, for example, appeared excessive. There were blanks strategically built in for additional programs in the future, but engineers at the time were not sure how to fill them in and with what. However, production machinery is no longer what it once was.

Constant advances in automation technology (AT), combined with the greater convergence of AT, operation technology (OT) and information technology (IT), continually create more efficient, reliable and complex machines. The data acquisition and responsiveness necessary for smart factory and Industry 4.0 concepts have also led to significant changes. Systems that once used a few PLCs, stepper motors and a basic fieldbus, for example, have undergone serious updates in motion control with robotics and mechatronic linear transport systems, EtherCAT communication, machine vision systems, operator interfaces with voice commands and mobile HMI and, recently, machine learning (ML). These, along with many emerging technologies, continue to fill in the blanks and justify the integration of many-core technology today.

Basic PLCs and PACs have not kept pace with the resulting massive influx of data. Multi-vendor, distributed control architectures have not always proven effective due to the “handshakes” required to make the systems work together. Although the problem is complex, the answer is simple: Advanced machines require advanced controls. PC-based control has proven its capabilities for many years, but these abilities have grown through the introduction many-core CPUs. Today, multi-core Industrial PCs (IPCs) still meet the majority of machine control requirements, but the rapid increase in requirements in recent years and the opportunity to gain competitive advantages make a convincing case to explore many-core options for upgrades and future machine designs.

What are many-core IPCs?

Beckhoff C6670 industrial server
Centralized control systems that run many machines and programs across a production line provide significant value for manufacturers and machine builder OEMs.

The key difference between many-core and multi-core control is not so much the number of processor cores as it is the actual processor structure. Many-core builds on the principles of high-performance computing (HPC), using embedded processors that are optimized for greater explicit parallelism and throughput. Parallel data stream processing on a large scale means lower power consumption for concurrent completion of tasks due to the tasks’ unique spatial layout. Many-core also relies on enhanced thread synchronization to resolve data bottleneck issues that are inherent in most low-range CPUs.

In the majority of applications, multi-core technology can simultaneously carry out numerous complex tasks with ease when paired with suitable automation software for standard machine control logic and advanced functions. Many-core CPUs are specially engineered to extend this ability to the most taxing applications with the same high scalability and flexibility. As a result, many-core control principles could actually extend to a range of devices from DIN rail-mountable embedded PCs with quad-core Intel® Xeon® processors as easily as they do to industrial servers with dual 20-core Xeon boards and beyond. No matter the size, a key strength of the technology is the use of PC-based automation software for core isolation.

Core concerns for advanced control

Industrial PC software with core isolation allows engineers to dedicate specific tasks to individual cores or clusters in software. The processor’s memory affinity leads to faster processing times, with task data cached in specific locations for higher performance. Demanding programs, such as integrated ML or real-time simulation with MATLAB®/Simulink®, can take up multiple cores located near each other and run concurrently with similar tasks. This is also true for advanced motion control architectures, such as linear transport systems and recently introduced planar motor systems with levitating movers that require their own neural networks. Similarly, multiple cores could be required for sophisticated analytics and oscilloscope software, especially with the quantity of data available through Gigabit Ethernet and 10 Gbit/s communication speeds on the horizon. Less taxing tasks can be confined to a single core to avoid slowing down other processes.

IPC selection depends on the amount of tasks and systems supported as well as the cores available, rather than simply which boasts the highest clock speed. For production environments, durability also is a concern. It is important, then, to choose vendors that provide scalable solutions in rugged form factors.

On the lower range of many-core controllers, some vendors supply PC-based controllers in standard, DIN rail-mountable form factors. Some embedded PCs, for example, offer four to 12 2.2 GHz Intel® Xeon® processors, 8 – 64 GB DDR4 RAM and operating temperature ranges of -25 – 50 degrees Celsius. On the higher end, a select few industrial servers, like the Beckhoff C6670, boast dual Intel® Xeon® processors featuring six to 20 cores, with clock rates varying based on core count. These can offer hard drive capacities from 240 GB SSD up to 4 TB, 1,024 GB of DDR4 RAM and a working range of 0 – 50 degrees Celsius. Scalability is very important in these cases; not every application calls for 40 cores of processing power, of course, but a reasonable number could require more than four cores.

Workload consolidation for smart factories

The proven benefits of centralized control systems are within reach with many-core IPCs. Innovative many-core machine controllers create the ultimate multitasking device by consolidating all tasks, while limiting hardware, minimizing footprint and increasing performance. The scale of improvement from previous systems that divided processes between various PLCs, motion controllers and network PCs, creating communication delays due to handshakes, is so extreme it’s frankly hard to quantify.

Beckhoff many-core industrial PC
With CPU options up to dual Intel® Xeon® with 20 cores each, the Beckhoff C6670 Control Cabinet Industrial server uses core isolation to effectively run a range of processes and programs concurrently in TwinCAT 3 automation software, including everything from the PLC and HMI up to integrated machine learning and vision.

While the IPCs can also connect to the cloud, their vast storage capacity and ability to run numerous programs on the device make the controllers more self-sufficient, benefitting manufacturers and machine builder OEMs across many industries. Some OEMs may choose to develop their own intellectual property to handle advanced machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) by running their own proprietary software on the many-core device. Manufacturers may also be wary of cloud if, for example, their machines process extremely volatile compounds, such as in the semiconductor industry. Even without an internet connection, engineers have access to a more efficient platform for implementing Industry 4.0 and smart factory concepts.

Of course, the automation software used by these controllers has a crucial impact on the overall performance gains and capabilities. With both multi- and many-core architectures, OEMs and manufacturers can face countless new challenges, because the PC-based controllers evolved and expanded capabilities over time. Software that is equally as advanced should be similarly tested and proven to adapt to these challenges. When selecting systems, engineers should ensure that both software and hardware show the results of years of experience in the field and preparation specifically for use in many-core controls.

The processing power that even contemporary machine architectures require today has caught some vendors off guard. However, many advanced machines and systems on the market show the value of many-core technology. Forward-thinking automation and controls vendors recognized the need for these systems years ago. Although many-core automation controllers seemed like overkill at first, a select few vendors recognized the need before the industry began filling in the blanks.

Interested in making Industry 4.0 concepts the real deal in your applications? Contact your local Beckhoff sales engineer today.


Eric Reiner is the IPC Product Manager for Beckhoff Automation LLC.

A version of this article previously appeared in Control Engineering.


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