Windows CE for manufacturing

As Microsoft signals its intent to dominate manufacturing as it has come to dominate office systems, Intellution UK’s general manager, Andrew Ballard, looks at the introduction of Windows CE, and discusses why we should welcome this development

From its position of strength in the office environment, Microsoft is now pushing very hard into real time control. It is doing so with Windows CE – a deterministic, multitasking operating system with a low cost platform and small footprint that is built on the backbone on Microsoft’s de facto Windows standards.

Being a true relative of the Windows family is the key to the unstoppable march of Windows CE into the manufacturing environment. Because it is based on the Win-32 API, users can develop applications using exactly the same tools they are already using.

CE continues the Windows tradition of making the operating system virtually transparent. This means that users and application developers spend more time concentrating on functionality and less time learning the operating system.

As a true Windows platform with its underlying COM technology, designers have inherent connectivity for transmission of data between nodes around the plant floor, and vertically through the enterprise hierarchy. This means that the reliance on fieldbus protocols and proprietary bus standards are dramatically reduced.

Microsoft says that CE is now its operating system of choice for deterministic, real time control – something of a change of tack for the company. Microsoft had previously thrown its weight behind partners developing embedded NT based, real time applications. But Windows NT is limited at the control level on the plant floor. NT and a couple of applications will fill hundreds of megabytes of hard disk space simply installing. Once the data collection begins in earnest, that figure shoots up. Today’s manufacturing environments can generate gigabytes of data.

In the domain of machine control and of standard interfaces to smart devices, the inherent NT overheads of size and cost are unacceptable. There has to be a strong base architecture, but this cannot come at the expense of a small footprint or low cost.

Windows CE holds the key to extending the connectivity of Windows down to the plant floor. It will take two routes into this arena, which are at the same time separate and yet inherently intertwined.

On the one hand, as a relatively inexpensive operating system, there will be a natural momentum for its use in embedded control. This spells trouble for many manufacturers of conventional PLCs, drives, valves, single loop controllers, and the like.

Comparing the cost of Windows CE enabled soft logic controllers with that of PLCs, for example, the cost of conventional PLCs becomes prohibitive – especially in high volume OEM applications. The soft controller adds value to the machine, and the Windows platform makes it inherently simple to develop the application, and to extract data from, or write data to, the system.

On the other hand, HMIs based on proprietary operating systems and proprietary hardware must give way to CE systems that will be dramatically simpler, faster and less expensive. It seems inconceivable that proprietary technology will not be overwhelmed by commercial hardware and eminently more flexible software.

Where proprietary HMIs cost thousands of pounds, Windows CE systems can do a better job, and more, for just hundreds of pounds. The CE advantage in HMIs also extends up through SCADA applications. Here, CE systems can provide inexpensive, real time monitoring tools that offer full scalability and modularity – regardless of the plant size or configuration.

From a machine control and operational point of view, Windows CE will accelerate the acceptance of soft logic, as well as increasing the productivity of the user by providing powerful tools for the production environment. It is easy to foresee a time when an engineer can walk up to a soft logic control system, and plug in a Windows CE handheld target resource to perform on-line diagnostics and trouble shooting.

In addition, he will be able to look at the code to see whether it needs to be optimised for the application. These tools may lack some of the functionality provided by a dedicated workstation, but they will have a level of portability and ease of use which is thus far unimaginable.

Intellution Tel: 01908 325200

{{Useful sites for Windows CE Developers

Windows CE magazine

Official site for the Microsoft Windows CE Newsgroup FAQ

Windows CE Lair

Windows CE On-Line

Windows magazine

Windows CE product catalogue}}