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Beckhoff building process cred

July 6, 2021

When Beckhoff Automation was founded back in 1980, a bet that the PC architecture—which was then still five years away from the introduction of Windows—could challenge the purpose-built programmable logic control (PLC) platforms of the day was anything but a sure thing.

But fast-forward more than 40 years and the leader in PC-based automation technology has a global footprint of 4,500 employees and annual revenues of more than $1 billion USD. And while the company is traditionally known as an automation supplier to the discrete manufacturing industries, in recent years, it’s been steadily building credibility and relevance to the process industries’ automation needs.

To learn about Beckhoff’s increasing focus on process industry manufacturers, Control recently caught up with Jesse Hill, process industry manager at Beckhoff Automation USA.

Jesse Hill

Process Industry Manager, Beckhoff Automation USA

www.beckhoff.com/process

Q: How has Beckhoff’s portfolio shifted in recent years to address the needs of the process industries?

A: We've actually been serving process industry customers for many, many years—especially in such niches as oil and gas equipment manufacturers on the drilling side, automated welding solutions and water/wastewater applications in different regions worldwide. But about 10 years ago, we started to make a more concerted effort. We recognized that we had a lot of technologies that fit process applications; we just needed a few enhancements and industry-specific approvals to expand our appeal. More recently, we've done some really cool process applications ranging from hydrogen refueling stations to modular CBD extraction plants.

But we've also come out with some great new products with specific process industry relevance, such as our ELX Series intrinsically safe input/output (I/O) modules. We have our CPX Series control panels and panel PCs for hazardous area installations. And we continue to add process functionality to our TwinCAT software to make that integration easier as well.

Yet another indication of our commitment to the process marketplace here in the U.S. is our new process technology center in Houston. Ready for ribbon-cutting, this 10,000-square-foot facility, right in the energy corridor, includes a 50-person training room and beautiful demo center. Now, with the lifting of COVID restrictions, we're anxious to welcome in our customers, integrators and partners, so we can collaborate better together and have people learn more about Beckhoff process technology.

Q: Hazardous area technologies are must-haves in many process industry verticals. How has Beckhoff addressed these demands with new developments in automation technology?

A: Having explosion-protection technology integrated into the automation system is a huge step forward. Here in North America, processors traditionally go for big, bulky, explosion-proof enclosures. You can protect just about anything that way, but these methods are frankly cumbersome, costly and difficult to maintain. Purge also works, but the need for a constant supply of gas puts you at risk of shutdown if that supply falters.

When practical, the energy-limiting, intrinsically safe approach to explosion protection is the way to go. It can't protect all types of devices, such as motors, but you can work on circuits without shutting down the process. Plus, it’s the only method you can use in a Zone 0 environment.

Q: Beckhoff has placed a major emphasis on open controls and networking for decades. What does this mean in practice for applications in the process industries?

A: Open architecture is really in Beckhoff's DNA. EtherCAT, the industrial Ethernet networking technology that Beckhoff invented, is a perfect example of that. It was a groundbreaking innovation in its day, but Hans Beckhoff decided to turn it over to an independent organization for all to use and benefit from. We’re also a member of the Open Process Automation Forum (OPAF) and are helping to drive that movement forward.

Q: Are there practical benefits from using EtherCAT networking in process applications?

A: When most people think about EtherCAT, they think it’s fast, which is king in the discrete world. But there's so much more to EtherCAT than just speed; there's flexibility and topology, there's processing on the fly. And I think one of the biggest benefits for the process industries is the built-in diagnostic capabilities that can pinpoint field-level faults among thousands of I/O points scattered over large distances. Our I/O may not replace DCS control system I/O any time soon, but it’s a great fit for all those new IIoT measurement points for big data applications, such as predictive diagnostics, emissions monitoring and energy optimization.

Q: Modular Type Package (MTP) technology is a major topic in Europe today, and more folks in the U.S. are just starting to learn about it. Why should process engineers stateside be paying attention to MTP?

A: While MTP itself hasn’t caught on yet in the U.S., the central idea of modular engineering has. Everyone is talking about being able to quickly adapt to changes, and that’s a great case for MTP. Say you’re a pharmaceutical manufacturer and all of a sudden you have a really big demand to shift production to a vaccine. Historically, you would have to do a lot of reprogramming, recoding within the DCS, and bring in different skids and so on. But with skids designed to the MTP open standard, each skid has its own locally resident controls and defined interfaces, so that it can effectively coordinate with adjacent skids or modules.

So, with control logic implemented at the module level, you're not having to reprogram everything, just provide the overall module orchestration instructions, which is a whole lot faster and easier to do. Quite a few automation suppliers are on board with MTP, especially in Europe. We see it as a technology that's headed in the right direction, and we're excited to be a part of it.

Q: Clearly, the hybrid industries such as food and beverage, life sciences and CPG have both process and discrete packaging operations, where many of Control’s readers may already be using Beckhoff technologies. How does Beckhoff’s domain expertise help to inform the applicability of your products further upstream?

A: That's a message I've been telling our sales teams since I joined the Beckhoff organization. Many of the companies they’re calling on already are using Beckhoff solutions in downstream applications. While on the one hand you’re looking at proximity sensors and line speeds, turning valves and measuring temperatures isn’t all that different.
We have complementary, interoperable technologies that fit the needs of both sides of the house, and it’s just a matter of making the upstream part of the enterprise aware that we have these solutions.

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