Control software opens up, prices come down

Senior Technical Editor Rich Merritt showcases the latest software offerings that are becoming more open to the web, networks and fieldbuses in this month's Product Roundup of control software products.

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 By Rich Merritt, Senior Technical Editor

As with most new products we’re seen over the past year or so, there are no revolutionary developments in control software. Instead, like every other vendor whose R&D funding has dried up, software suppliers have limited themselves to just making enhancements to existing products. Enhancements generally involve adding Web capability, more networking, and better compatibility with a wide variety of hardware from across industry. Software is getting more “open” every day.

Web capability typically means that the software product can be accessed from a web browser on a conventional PC, laptop or PDA. We think the Web trend is a direct result of the resistance we’ve seen from end users, OEMs and machine builders who are tired of having to pay $3,000–$5,000 for a “seat license” on their HMIs, operator panels, monitoring systems, and other software packages.

After all, once a single system with a web server is established, PCs using browsers can access the information over the Internet or a company intranet. An extra seat shouldn’t have to cost anything. This is especially true in the CAD industry, where user companies can lease the software, and are then charged by the functions they use, not by how many seats they have. We expect to see big-ticket software in our industry, such as ERP and supply-chain management, going this way in the future.

The true indicator of this trend will come when we publish our HMI roundup in a few months. Although we have a few client/server web-based software packages in this roundup, HMIs are extremely vulnerable to price pressures. HMI/SCADA vendors will be forced to adopt the Web model faster than any other kind of software producer.

In fact, we predict that web-based client/server software will be the dominant trend in control software across the board. Vendors who cling to per-seat pricing will get hammered by web-based vendors.

ARC agrees that control software is getting more open. “The future of industrial automation will be a blending of PC-based open architecture, embedded systems, web services, XML, next generation PLCs, communications standards like Industrial Ethernet, and software-based component technology,” says ARC. “It will not be based on a business model of mutually exclusive hardware and software.”

We’ll add “and cheaper” to ARC’s assessment, for two reasons: First, some of the upgrade packages we see are now free to owners of earlier versions, which is a major pricing policy turnaround. Historically, software vendors made a fortune by forcing their customers to pay for unnecessary upgrades just to keep their service agreements intact, and end users are starting to rebel. Users are getting tired of having to pay huge amounts of money to upgrade ERP, CRM, supply chain and similar software to get functionality they didn’t need. The anti-upgrade rebellion has already started on the IT side of the business, and we will soon benefit from the fallout. Maybe we already are.

Second, purchase prices are starting to tumble. We see several sub-$1,000 packages in this roundup, which means at least some software vendors have decided they can make money by selling thousands of systems for hundreds of dollars, instead of selling a few dozen systems for thousands of dollars. This is how consumer software is priced. It was just a matter of time before control software vendors learned the realities of Software Economics 101 and started pricing their software more realistically.

Control Software
For more information about any of these products, click on the description of the product below to view a longer description and all contact information, including phone numbers, e-mail addresses, websites, and a photo where available.


Test & Control Software Works over Web
WEDAQ web-enabled real-time software provides simultaneous viewing and graphing of multiple data channels in real time, and lets users view test data via a standard web browser. Users select which channels to monitor, the sample rate, and software filters. The selection of data to be viewed at a remote location does not affect data acquisition and file creation at the test site. Test parameters can be adjusted from both local and remote locations.
Electro Standards Laboratories

Loop Tuning Software Goes Web
Enhancements to Intune version 5.0 process monitoring and loop tuning software include web-based reports that notify managers, engineers, or operators via e-mail, phone call, or alarm if process performance violates certain pre-set conditions. The software also monitors all loops without intruding on the process and automatically generates reports that identify poorly performing loops. End users can develop plant-specific key performance indicators to be used with the diagnostic tools.

Control Over the Web
Enhancements to Automation Studio software include the ability to monitor and control machines and systems from remote locations or the home office over any TCP/IP connection, including modems, intranet or the Internet. The remote display only needs to be started more than once on the remote PC. Clients are available for both Windows and Linux operating systems.
B&R Industrial Automation    

Networked DAQ Software
MAQS software lets any PC or laptop be set up as a client to control multiple digitizer channels via an Ethernet connection, simple crossover cable, or any networked environment over Ethernet. A remote control interface allows client-server control and monitoring of data acquisition systems from multiple locations simultaneously, and to access test systems located at dispersed sites. Users can manage complex experiments through a Window-based environment. Prices start at $1,990; a free demo is available.

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