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Solutions spotlight: Beckhoff building process cred

June 9, 2021

While Beckhoff Automation is known traditionally as an automation supplier to discrete manufacturing industries, in recent years it's been steadily building credibility and relevance to the process industry's automation needs. Keith Larson and Jesse Hill, process industry manager for Beckhoff Automation, discuss the company's growing footprint in the process automation realm. 


Keith: When Beckhoff Automation was founded back in 1980, a bet that the PC architecture, which then was still five years away from the introduction of Windows, could challenge the purpose-built programmable logic controller 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, annual revenues of more than a billion U.S. dollars, and while Beckhoff is known traditionally as an automation supplier to discrete manufacturing industries, in recent years it's been steadily building credibility and relevance to the process industry's automation needs.

Hello, my name is Keith Larson, editor in chief of Control magazine and controlglobal.com. And welcome to the solution spotlight episode of Control Amplified: The Process Automation Podcast. Joining me today to discuss Beckhoff's growing footprint in the process automation realm is Jesse Hill, process industry manager for Beckhoff Automation USA.

Welcome, Jesse. And it's a real pleasure to have you join us here today.

Jesse: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here. Really excited to talk to you, [and] have our listeners get to hear this conversation. And I'm excited about this, not only the opportunity to talk to you, but I'm a subscriber and a regular listener to Control Amplified, so I think it's a great platform and a lot of good information out there. So excited to be here.

Keith: Longtime subscriber, first-time caller. Yeah.

Jesse: Absolutely. A great way to put it.

Keith: All right. Well, I have to comment as a journalist, I've been covering the automation space for some 30 years now, and I've certainly noticed a growing relevance of Beckhoff's portfolio to the needs of the process industry users over the past several years, especially. But I do think a lot of our listeners may think of Beckhoff primarily still as a discrete automation company. Can you go over a little bit of how the company has, kind of, realigned its focus to get more into the process control space in recent years?

Jesse: Sure, I think it starts with we've been doing business and servicing process customers for many, many years, specifically oil and gas machine builders on the drilling side, automated welding solutions, even some water/wastewater applications in some different regions throughout the world. So, we've been working in this space for some time, but it really probably started about 10 years ago, we started to make a bit of a more concerted effort to get into that space. I think Beckhoff recognized that we had a lot of products that fit into that space that customers are using, but of course, maybe we needed to have some product enhancements, go and get some specific approvals to make our products relevant in that space. But overall, we, kind of, had the products, we just had to get some approvals.

And again, about 10 years ago, we started making a concerted effort, hiring some process talent in Germany, and then starting to further expand our product portfolio to meet that space and meet those customers in that space. So, an example of that, I think one of the areas where the process automation market kind of struggles definitely is, kind of, interoperability, and there's lots of different protocols. So the fact that the Beckhoff input/output (I/O) system is so easily integrated with lots of different protocols and those sorts of things makes it a nice fit for those types of industries. So, not only calling on those customers, making the investment in new products and new technologies but, of course, also just getting those approvals.

And again, it's not just the products that we've had, we've really come out with some great new stuff. In 2017, we came out with our ELX intrinsically safe I/O, we have our CPX control panels for Class 1, Div 2, or Zone 2 areas. This is the beautiful, sexy, multi types panel PC that's absolutely beautiful. And we continue to add process technology within our twinCAT software to make that integration a lot easier as well. And if I could just plug a little bit more of our investment, we are committed to the process market. And one indication of that is we are right on the verge of finish line of opening our process technology center in Houston. So it's right in city center in the energy corridor, and we've got 10,000 square feet of space with a 50-person training room with a beautiful demo center. And so we're excited to open that up and welcome our customers and integrators and partners in that so we can collaborate better together, and have people learn more about the Beckhoff technology.

Keith: Sure, that makes a lot of sense. I'd imagine that also you've got to have the application engineers that are really familiar with process industry applications as well. I imagine that's been a continued investment over the years as well.

Jesse: Absolutely. And that's a big reason why we have such a big space. The vision is to really grow the process team here and add more of that engineering talent and expand what we're doing, and it's really been fruitful for Beckhoff. Not only have we been able to add products and add certifications, those things, to respond to our customers, but also, and those customers, again, traditionally have been a lot of oil and gas, but we're really starting to expand into a lot of different other verticals within the process world. We're doing a lot in the water/wastewater space, that's a strategic vertical for us. But even beyond that, we've done some really cool applications across the process industry from hydrogen refueling stations to modular CBD extraction plants. So we're, kind of, covering the gamut.

Keith: Those are two extremes of the process spectrum, that's for sure.

Jesse: Absolutely.

Keith: But speaking of oil and gas, and hydrogen as well, intrinsically safe and explosion-proof technologies obviously are a cornerstone of many of the process industry types of applications. How has Beckhoff addressed these demands with new developments in automation technology? I think I remember a series of new products over the last years that have really been focused specifically in that area that are new to the portfolio.

Jesse: Yeah, absolutely. I think it has in this area, approvals, first of all, is a non sequitur, right. So, in order to be in this space, you need to have those approvals, but going beyond that, the explosion protection part of that, having an explosion protection integrated into the automation system is just a huge step forward in that process. When you look at the way we traditionally like to protect stuff here in North America, we like the big, bulky, explosion-proof enclosures and those sorts of things. And those are great for a lot of applications, we can protect just about anything that way. But then you run into issues with, obviously, difficulty in wiring those, there's lots of rules and regulation as you wire the rigid conduit and how far away from the enclosure you can pour seals. So even though we can protect just about anything, it becomes a bit cumbersome and costly. It's also costly to work on those systems when they're inside of an enclosure, and you can't work on that hot.

And, of course, you've got other technologies like purge, which again, it can be great for the right application, you can purge an entire control room to protect it in a plant, but there's also, kind of, issues with that, right? You have to have that constant supply of inert gas. And in some situations, if you lose that air supply, you may have to shut down the process itself, and then you lose the whole batch. So, I've been in this explosion protection space for about 15 years, and it's near and dear to my heart, and I feel strong intrinsic safety and, kind of, the energy limiting way of explosion protection just really is the way to go when you can do it right. And it's not available for everything, you can't protect a motor using intrinsic safety, but where you can use it, quite frankly, it's the safest form of explosion protection, the only one you can use in the Zone 0 area, you can work on it hot. So I feel strongly that's the best way to do that explosion protection.

And then the way that we've incorporated that into the system itself, just really takes that a step further, right. Historically, you would have a control system with your I/O, then you'd have a second DIN rail, or maybe a whole second enclosure that's got your intrinsically safe barriers. And then, if it's a Zener barrier, now you've got to deal with an IS ground and all these different things. And you have a third-party barrier, now you've got twice as many terminations that can be screwed up. So when it's already integrated, right, it makes your enclosure smaller, you have half as many terminations. And we're also able to take advantage of a lot of the benefits of our I/O system and EtherCAT. So, the diagnostics with EtherCAT, being able to have explosion protection integrated into not only the control system, but the same control system, the same form factor as the standard stuff. We can have intrinsically safe I/O right next to non-intrinsically safe I/O, next to safety I/O, next to measurement I/O, [and] all in the same rack, it doesn't have to be a separate rack or a separate form factor. So I have really, again, a lot of experience in this space. And the way that Beckhoff has addressed this is really exciting, really fun.

Keith: Are there specific enhancements or changes within the TwinCAT platform, the software platform, that really address process applications?

Jesse: Yeah, so a number...I mean, to give you one example with the FET system, typically in a lot of cases, you may have to go to a third-party framework system like PAC where there is another software product on your computer that you have to learn. So the way we're able to integrate FET into TwinCAT and make those changes and configure devices directly within TwinCAT rather than having to go through a third-party system, as well as just being able to natively bring in those hard variables and those sorts of things within TwinCAT, absolutely. And we continue to advance what we're doing within TwinCAT itself even with MTP module type package, which maybe we could talk about that a little bit later, but we're integrating that into TwinCAT so that we can make modular type process applications much easier to deploy and things like that.

Keith: Yeah, that's, kind of, open systems at the highest level. But maybe we can talk a little bit more about open systems that control a networking layer for a little bit, which Beckhoff is obviously, by betting on the PC platform for all these years, they've been in that open system space long before it was sexy or even potentially viewed as a good idea. So, it's certainly been a long experience in that open systems space. What does it mean in practice for other types of applications processing at the control and networking layer?

Jesse: Well, I think you're absolutely right. It's where the industry is headed. There's some momentum behind that. And, yeah, I've got a little bit of a unique perspective in that. So, I come from the IT PC world 15, 20 years ago, and when I first made that transition, even then it's like, if you wanted to add a new device, let's just say it's a webcam or something to your computer, you plug it in, and you go find a driver and download it and it worked. And I remember like in my first entry into this automation world, process automation world, and I was working for a company that sold a particular type of transmitter, and I learned just to communicate to this thing to set the parameters, you have to download a piece of software to then download another piece of software and to install that software into that device. And then to actually connect to it, you probably have a media converter of some sort, then some sort of dongle that plugs into your RJ45. So, I had this perspective of, wow, this interoperability thing, this automation, and this process, this is not the same, right?

So, I'm firmly behind interoperability and open systems. And I recognize that for the automation world, the process automation world's going and that chasm between the IT world and the OT world, and that's where we live, right, as far as interoperability and open systems is quite wide and vast. So, I see that I'm uniquely interested in, and it's one of the first things I did when I came on board here, I knew that I wanted to...if we weren't a member of an organization like OPAF, I know that we wanted to be in, so we decided to join OPAF and help to drive that and support that as well.

Keith: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I mean, my time dates back to before OPC, and I actually wrote the very first article on OPC back when it was launched in the '90s. So I remember those days of very cumbersome setups between devices and software packages. Come a long way since then, no doubt about it.

Jesse: And one other thing, if I could, you mentioned, so we are in a PC-based control, right. And so we, kind of, come from that world. And a lot of the new technologies that we're starting to implement, especially with this whole digital transformation initiative, they're coming out of that space, right? It's connectivity to the cloud and it's IoT and those sorts of things. So they were inherently, kind of, in that space already. And a lot of this stuff is baked into our platform. I think it really makes it an easier transition for us to go into more of the open concepts.

Keith: Yeah, this is interesting because we're seeing more and more concepts like containers and dockers, and things like that, that may sit on what used to be called a PC, but it's some of that software is becoming more platform-independent all the time. And that's certainly the direction of what OPAF is going in that direction as well where you can bring in applications from any kind of different vendors and you're not as worried about all that plumbing behind the scenes that you used to be anyway. That's oversimplifying things quite a bit, but that's certainly where we're heading.

Jesse: No, no, absolutely. And a big key to this is interoperability, it's working together. And in these OPAF meetings, we talked about a lot about how do we engage with these other organizations that are also in a similar vision, whether it's the OPC Foundation, whatever because it's...I think I've heard you say this a few times, we're good at standards because we have so many of them. So, it's a matter of making all those standards work and talk and plug-and-play together. Absolutely. No doubt about it.

Keith: Well, speaking of standards, Beckhoff has really pioneered a number, especially the EtherCAT networking technology certainly stands out as a standard that they pioneered just because there were no other options really at the time. But when it comes to process applications, are there real practical benefits from using EtherCAT in the process world versus more than machine automation side of things?

Jesse: Absolutely. And you reminded me, one last thing, so that's a good point, the whole open architecture thing, that's really in Beckhoff's DNA and EtherCAT is a perfect example of that. EtherCAT is, kind of, a groundbreaking technology that Beckhoff invented, but we decided, Mr. Beckhoff decided, let's turn that over to an independent organization, the Internet technology group because this is great technology the world needs to have. So, yeah, that's a great point. And it's a fair question, right? Because I think a lot of people when they think about EtherCAT, they think it's fast. And in the discreet world, speed is king, maybe not completely but it's important.

Keith: Right.

Jesse: In the process world, it could be one second, that's plenty fast, right. So that's a little bit lost on a lot of it. But there's so much more than just speed in EtherCAT, right? There's flexibility and topology, there's processing on the fly. I think one of the biggest benefits for the process industries is the supreme built-in diagnostic capabilities. So, there's so many diagnostics built into EtherCAT, and when you think of a wide process plan, you could have thousands of points of I/O scattered over pretty big distances. So, being able to run a scan of that network and find diagnostics down to the field level, I think that's really one of the biggest keys to EtherCAT being adopted and useful in that industry.

Keith: Is that, kind of, this sweet spot for EtherCAT processes in the connection of remote I/O types of applications? Or does it work well with FOUNDATION Fieldbus or heart of other sorts of protocol as well?

Jesse: Yeah, so FOUNDATION Fieldbus, it's a little bit of a different animal. That was a really big deal when I first got into this industry, and we were chasing big FOUNDATION Fieldbus projects all over the place. And now, it's more of if you hear of one, it's a retrofit or something. And I think the reason for that is what this conversation is kind of framed around right now is it wasn't really an open system, there wasn't a lot of knowledge base around FOUNDATION Fieldbus.

Keith: Cumbersome. Yeah, yeah.

Jesse: Yeah, exactly, hard to integrate with, but EtherCAT is Ethernet-based, so there are ways that we could tie into a fieldbus system via if it's got some type of Ethernet port, OPC UA or something like that. I'm sorry, what was the second party question? I lost my train of thought.

Keith: I was just asking whether connection to remote IO, distributed IO is kind of the sweet spot for EtherCAT on the processing?

Jesse: Yeah, I think so. I mean, that's where we're going to see just a whole lot of growth for sure. And that's where we're putting a lot of our focus because we do have such an easily integrated I/O system. And I also understand the process where there's certain requirements from a control system that we're probably not going to go out and start replacing DCSs with IPCs anytime soon, but we'll add products to our portfolio down the road. But what we can really service those customers in that space is tying into whatever they're using right now with remote I/O systems that are scattered throughout the field. And there's lots of benefits to that, obviously.

But also, I think from an EtherCAT perspective in the process space, big data is a huge word, it's a buzzword, and every device out there generates some type of data now. So I think an example where you've got a lot of things generating data, whether it may be doing condition monitoring on a bunch of motors, whatever it might be, essentially, you'd be able to use that data and use the distributed clocks function within EtherCAT to analyze if you've got a number of motors, different things you're monitoring, and you know that you've got distributed clocks and are able to better analyze that data, whether it's going to do an energy measurement on that motor. We've even done some applications, doing scientific-type applications with my pulse telemetry and upstream oil and gas and stuff like that. So it's pretty versatile.

Keith: Right. And that kind of fits with the, well, kind of, number or concept around still having that control signal, but having a parallel connection that's for diagnostic data and stuff that's not part of the control process. And that seems like that's a good fit for what you're doing as well.

Jesse: Yeah, absolutely. And then, kind of, along those same lines within TwinCAT because it is versatile, our TwinSAFE SC, our safety product, we have a back channel for that safety data, they can basically send that on the same cable as the control data as well. So that also adds some flexibility.

Keith: Yeah, that makes sense. You mentioned earlier module-type package technology, and it is, kind of, an emerging topic here in the U.S. Maybe that's generous. Maybe it's not quite emerging yet, but it's starting to be talked to where it's a more major topic in Europe. Why should process engineers stateside be paying more attention to MTP? Can you talk a little bit about what it is and how it enables more modular manufacturing?

Jesse: Yeah, absolutely. I think you're right, MTP itself isn't really buzz-worthy right now, but the whole idea of modular engineering is, at least here in the States. And then that's really where we're going, right? Everyone is talking about modularity and being able to quickly adapt to changes. Just an absolutely great example for MTP technology is, let's say, you are a pharmaceutical facility that all of a sudden you have a really big demand for, let's say, it's a vaccine, for instance, seems relevant.

Keith: Real timely example.

Jesse: Yeah. Right. And so you want to reconfigure that plant to get it to now produce this. Historically, you would have to do a lot of reprogramming, recoding within the DCS and bring in different skids and that sort of thing. So, the MTP process, which is an open standard, it's vendor-independent, and it's handled and defined by the VDI/VDE NAMUR 2658 standard is basically to address that. So essentially, each MTP module, so each whether it may be a dosing module, a reactor, mixing, whatever it might be, would basically have its own controller rather than me at the higher-level system controlling that. And so then you can communicate through that, that controller can communicate up to the DCS, and essentially the DCS or whatever that higher-level control system is, it just does the orchestration.

Keith: Right.

Jesse: So in that case, you're not having to reprogram everything, most of the logic is implemented at the module, not at the DCS, and it really makes it a lot easier. And essentially there's a lot of details in the technology, right, but MTP within TwinCAT would be...it's an archive file that contains all the information to establish communications between the modules and the DCS. And that's done through OPC UA. These files include information on the services the module provides, as well as service relationships to other modules, and even provides HDMI templates. So, it makes it very easy to basically say, okay, now we're going to go from making this drug, or we're going to go from making this group of product to the next one, now we're going to bring in this other module. And it tries to become, kind of, a plug-and-play type of application.

So we're pretty excited about it. It is definitely newer here. It's getting a lot of traction in Europe. There are quite a few automation vendors that are on board with this as well. But we are one of the, I would say, early adopters to integrate this within our platform because we see this is a technology that is definitely headed in the right direction where the industry is headed. And so we're excited to be a part of that.

Keith: Yeah, it definitely brings that whole interoperability concept up from the controller or the instrument level up to the equipment level or the unit level, which I think is exciting. Makes a lot of sense.

Jesse: Absolutely.

Keith: So, speaking of food and beverage, you mentioned life sciences and pharma. Certainly, hybrid industries, like life sciences, food and beverage, consumer packaged goods (CPG), they've got both process and discrete packaging operations. So, Beckhoff is not as much a stranger to the process industries, if you loop those guys in, as some people may think. I think some of our listeners probably are using Beckhoff technologies in those downstream areas as well. How does that domain expertise help to really inform the applicability of the Beckhoff products on the upstream side coming at it from the packaging, the stuff that's moving around side of the business?

Jesse: Sure. Yeah, that's a message I've been telling our sales teams since I got here is you guys already have customers in the packaging side, just go upstream and let's talk to these folks. But we have very loyal customers. And I see that if we do have a customer that's using us in that space, they understand the value of Beckhoff, and when you have that domain expertise, I mean TwinCAT of course, it's based on open standards, IEC 61131 and stuff like that, but still, you've got some learning curve with any type of software package. So, when you've got that in-house knowledge and within TwinCAT, I think it makes it an easy migration just to, kind of, go upstream, especially when you talk about some of the technologies that we have to offer specifically for that process and that we can easily integrate technologies that those guys in the processing facility that their systems are turning valves and measuring temperatures, it's similar than the guys downstream that are looking at proximity sensors and twists and gaps and things like that. So, it's relatively similar. We have the technology for really both sides of the house. So it's just a matter of, kind of, migrating over there and making the upstream part of the enterprise or organization aware that we have these technology solutions.

Keith: Great. Well, I have to wish you best of luck in your ongoing efforts, Jesse, in making new friends and customers in the process space. And obviously, good luck with your new center down there in Houston. It sounds like that's a very exciting thing that should really help connect with more potential customers down there. So best of luck and thank you for joining us and sharing your insights today.

Jesse: Yeah, thanks, Keith. This was a pleasure. And I hope all of our listeners enjoyed as well. Really appreciate it.

Keith: Yes, and thank you for tuning in, all of our listeners. Thanks also to Beckhoff Automation for sponsoring this episode. I'm Keith Larson and you've been listening to Control Amplified. Thanks for joining us. And if you've enjoyed this episode, you can subscribe at the iTunes Store and at Google podcasts. Plus, you can find the full archive of past episodes at controlglobal.com. So Keith Larson again, Control magazine, signing off until next time, and you've been listening to Jesse Hill with the Beckhoff's process industry initiatives here. Take care and thanks for joining us again, Jesse.

For more, tune into Control Amplified: The Process Automation Podcast.

About the Author

Control Amplified: | Control Amplified: The Process Automation Podcast

The Control Amplified Podcast offers in-depth interviews and discussions with industry experts about important topics in the process control and automation field, and goes beyond Control's print and online coverage to explore underlying issues affecting users, system integrators, suppliers and others in these industries.

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