Cyber Physical Systems (CPS)

CPSOne of the things that humans are really good at is naming things. The more archaic, the more obtuse, the more cloaked in secrecy the name is, the happier we are. That’s probably because we want to feel special. We want to be the ones with the special handshake that others don’t know.

Recently I found a name I’ll admit I hadn’t heard before: Cyber Physical Systems or CPS. It’s a new one and it describes the emerging digitization of manufacturing. It’s an all-encompassing term that includes other somewhat vague terms like Smart Machines, Smart Processes and M2M Communications.

Traditionally the manufacturing world is controlled by higher level systems known as MES Systems. These systems translate the orders developed by a business into manufacturing plans and instructions. An MES system might look at the incoming order stream and download the recipe for Blue M&Ms into Line 2, download the recipe for Red M&Ms into Line 3 and not send any instructions for Brown M&Ms. The machines themselves are not very intelligent. They would only understand how to decode the recipes and activate the components that start that instruction process.

In an advanced Cyber Physical System, this process is very different. In that kind of system, as soon as a customer noted a decreasing supply of M&Ms, the conveyor system would be alerted to send M&M bags into the production process. The conveyor might then alert each of the other components of the machine that bags are on the way and pass on the requirements of the customer. At the end of the process when boxes are ready to ship, the end customer would be notified that a box with this many bags is shipping.

In this example, the filling station may note that it is getting low on blue coloring and order more. The conveyor may note that it’s been 100 hours since the machine was oiled and notify a technician to perform that maintenance.

Cyber Physical Systems is a complete integration of the manufacturing process. It’s external integration with suppliers and customers. It’s internal integration between machines and components of machines. It’s smart machines effortlessly passing data and information about the process and operating status to other smart machines. It’s a continuation of the digitization of our world.

The benefits of Cyber Physical Systems are many. They include incredible flexibility – the ability to easily alter the production flow or implement new processes. It includes mass customization – the ability to create individually customized units within a mass production process. You also get reduced time to market, higher quality and lower marginal cost.



Industry4History can always be sliced and diced in different ways. The history of the Civil War can be told focusing on the North, the West (west of the Appalachian Mountains that is) or the East. It can be told focusing on the immigrants who fought in it, the spies who crossed between North and South, or the Generals who directed it. It can be classified, categorized and carved up in an endless variety of ways.

The history of manufacturing and industry is like that too. You could talk about inventions like the water wheel or the spinning jenny or the Francis Turbine. You could talk about people that made it happen from Alexander Graham Bell to Henry Ford to Dick Morley, the father of the PLC.

When I think of the history of manufacturing and industry, I like to think of it in the following sequence:
Pre-Industrial Era – this is the era of the artisan. Energy was available from the water wheel, human power, or draft animals. Most everyone, even those skilled as artisans, farmed for their own needs. Information from any more than a few miles away was passed orally by infrequent travelers. There was trade, but little in the way of ongoing, contractualized international trade.

The 1st Industrial Revolution changed everything. Steam energy and much more advanced hydroelectric power became available. These energy sources powered the cotton gin, automatic textile weavers and steel processing (the Bessemer process). Information traveled orders of magnitude faster along railroads, telegraph lines and telephone lines, enabling vast economic expansion. The powered printing press enabled the wide dissemination of printed contracts and books that spread the ideas of the Industrial Revolution even further. The nature of work itself was transformed. Raw or semi raw labor was replaced with labor that could run machines, though manufacturing was yet to be very organized.

The 2nd Industrial Revolution ushered in mass production and the integrated manufacturing system. The new energy of this age was electricity. AC current enabled the electric motor, radio and television, and indoor and outdoor lighting that conferred the ability to work after dark. Information traveled even faster. Photographs and video could be transferred over satellite from remote locations. Vast industrial concerns were created to deliver specialized goods around the globe.

The 3rd Industrial Revolution was the age of electronic controls, computer controlled manufacturing and digital communication. Electronic logic embedded in a PLC became the standard way to develop machine operating logic. Data became an asset, and the ability to move it became important. Standard networks like RS485, CAN and Ethernet were developed. Protocols like EtherNet/IP, DeviceNet, Profibus and ProfiNet IO were developed to integrate data throughout a manufacturing system.

The 4th Industrial Revolution? That’s the revolution starting now. It’s called the Cyber Physical Systems revolution. It’s the integration of the factory floor into the IT environment. An age of seamless integration between the back office operation and the machines of the factory floor. An age in which machines can discover other machines, …

BFR3000 Launch

ModbusrouterI read today that when Alexander Graham Bell said, “Watson, come here, I need you,” Watson replied he’d be right there after he finished installing his newest Modbus Meter.
OK, Modbus and Metering haven’t been around for that long, but it’s got to be pretty close. Modbus is so old that it has blue hair and drags oxygen along when it goes to the casino.

But is it in danger of death? The answer is an emphatic “NO!”

Modbus is with us forever. In 2260, when the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701) is cruising the Milky Way Galaxy with that day’s version of William Shatner on the bridge, I am sure that there will be Modbus devices on board providing data from some simple device someplace on that ship.

Why? There’s a number of reasons for it:
1. It’s simple – nothing is simpler than Modbus RTU. It’s just RS485 with a few simple commands and a simple data representation.

2. Anyone can build a Modbus device interface. If you’re the most inept programmer around and know nothing about networking, you can get a Modbus interface working in a few days (a few weeks if you’re truly incompetent).

3. It’s cheap. RS485 interface hardware costs next to nothing. The electrical drivers are small – they don’t waste a lot of board space, and they’re only pennies on your BOM.

4. It’s easy on your processor. Any processor can afford the few K of code space needed to implement it. RAM space can be even smaller if you restrict the size of the Modbus messages. And the cycles to process Modbus messages, even at 19.2K baud, are nothing to concern a systems designer.

5. It’s easy to understand – there’s only two data types; registers and coils. Everything in a device is either a series of 16-bit register or coil.

It’s such a staple of life on this planet today (and into the future) that I had our engineers build a new Modbus Router to make life easier for those of you using both Modbus TCP and Modbus RTU and for the few using Modbus ASCII.

In the past year, we’ve done some customer projects and needed a Modbus Router. They were either impossible to configure or buggy or cheaply made or sometimes all three. So I gave our engineers the mission to build something different. I wanted the Best Friggin Router (BFR) on the planet (to be truthful, I didn’t use “Friggin”).
Here’s what I wanted:

A. A really easy-to-use, sleek and customer friendly user interface. If you’ve been paying attention to my blogs and my newsletter, I am obsessed about this. There’s no excuse for hard-to-use user interfaces in personal devices and applications or industrial ones.

B. A straightforward way to move data been Modbus TCP Clients and Modbus RTU Masters. That’s what most people want to do. I have something over here in this Client or Master and I want it over there in that Client or Master. A simple …

Virtual Private Networks


Every industry has its share of arcane technical terms. Accountants have their terms, jargon like WIP, LLC and LCM. In baseball, you can call a hit all sorts of things including a rope, a dinger or a Texas leaguer. In automation we certainly have our share of technical jargon. There’s one in particular that I’ve been meaning to write about for a while, because while everyone uses VPNs, I’m not entirely sure that everyone really understands what a Virtual Private Network really is.

A VPN is what its name implies, a private network that doesn’t exist within the walls of your facility. A VPN is a private network that uses a public network like the Internet to connect remote sites or users together. It exists in cyberspace, linking remote computers together as it they actually were within the walls of your building. And it does it securely, encrypting all your network traffic, so that your security isn’t compromised.

Historically, companies have connected remote offices and factories using leased line connections. Leased lines, unlike the Internet, are dedicated to your data and provide more secure connections, but you have to pay a premium for them. With the current security, reliability and performance of VPN connections, many companies are now switching from leased lines to VPN using very fast Ethernet connections.

VPNs use tunneling protocols to implement the secure connections. Data is encrypted at the sending end and decrypted at the receiving end and sent through a tunnel. No one can enter that tunnel without the proper authorization. For additional security, the originating and receiving network addresses are also encrypted. That also makes it possible to conceal your actual Internet identity if that’s important to you.

VPNs have a lot of benefits:

1. VPNs can extend intranets worldwide to connect remote facilities together, or they can be used to make your home network available when you’re out of the house.

2. VPNs employ sophisticated encryption to ensure the security of your data. One of the least used benefits of VPNs is to connect to the Internet through the VPN instead of directly through the local WIFI connection. With the VPN, your data is encrypted and a local snooper isn’t going to be able to monitor your traffic or use the IP address of your traffic to access your computer.

3. VPNs are essentially free. A VPN Client is included in Windows, though there are a lot of commercial offerings that provide even better security and functionality.

4. VPNs allow for flexibility. A VPN can be used wherever there is an Internet connection, improving productivity for remote employees

There are a couple of downsides to VPNs that most people aren’t aware of. One is that your performance is at the mercy of the Internet provider. There is no Quality of Service (QoS) management over the Internet, and you can have packet loss and performance issues.

Another is that there are no standards for VPNs. Hopefully, you have engaged a competent …



Last month I attended the 2015 AHR Trade Show in Chicago. 62,000 attendees from almost every continent on Earth. Contractors, facility managers, engineers, distributors, manufacturers, integrators, every title, every position imaginable. Anybody and everybody having anything to do with heating and air conditioning was there.

They might speak different languages. They might have different religions, ethnic backgrounds, cuisine, habits and values, but they all know one word; BACnet.

What’s BACnet you might ask? Well, to quote from the ASHRAE (American Society of Heating and Air Conditioning) Website:
“BACnet – A Data Communication Protocol for Building Automation and Control Networks. Developed under the auspices of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), BACnet is an American national standard, a European standard, a national standard in more than 30 countries, and an ISO global standard. The protocol is supported and maintained by ASHRAE Standing Standard Project Committee 135 whose members have created and provided the content for this Website.”
[There’s more of that if you need some help sleeping at:]

BACnet was all over the show. There were BACnet meters, BACnet controllers, BACnet enabled gizmos of every shape and size. BACnet devices from big companies, little companies, foreign companies, domestic companies. Boilers with BACnet. Data loggers with BACnet. T-Stats (us cool cats use “T-Stats” as short for thermostats) with BACnet.

And for those people that somehow don’t have BACnet, RTA was there with gateways and modules to BACnet enable your fan, meter or anything else for BACnet operation.

Of course, it’s never as simple as all that. There are various types of BACnet. There are various flavors, different capabilities, and users have to sift and sort through the terminology to figure out what they need and how to use it in an application.

Today nearly all new applications use the BACnet protocol over RS485 or Ethernet. In BACnet’s early days, that wasn’t true. Ethernet wasn’t used in building and industrial application like it is today. At that time there were a number of data link / physical layers used in those applications. To meet the needs of the widest possible set of applications, BACnet was designed to support a whole host of physical and link layers including:

PTP (point-to-point) – PTP provides for inter networked communications over modems and voice grade phone lines. PTP accommodated modem protocols and direct connections using RS232.

MS/TP – A version of BACnet using RS485 signaling. MS/TP uses shielded twisted-pair operating at speeds from 9.6 kbit/s to 76.0 kbit/s. MS/TP is very much in use today.

ARCNET – A token bus standard using single-source chips to handle network communications. ARCNET runs on a variety of media at different speeds – from 150 kbit/s on RS485 up to 7.5 mbit/s over coaxial cable or fiber optics.

LONtalk – A proprietary technology developed by the Echelon Corporation and the only LAN type that requires special development tools and a proprietary chip set to implement.

Luckily, today we’re past much of that nonsense and the majority …