The need for speed

Beckhoff Automation Pty Ltd

By Harry Mulder, Principal Automation Engineer, Beckhoff Automation
Tuesday, 20 February, 2024

The need for speed

Have you ever spared a thought for how hard modern‑day computers are forced to work? Our society simply would not exist without computers being as powerful as they are. And as life becomes ever more digitised, it’s certain that the computers we’ll need for tomorrow will have to be far more powerful than the ones we use now. Conversely, if we had to rely on the computers we had just a decade or so ago, society as we know it now would not be able to function! Put simply, we don’t just need computers, we need fast computers!

Moore’s law states that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles every two years, thereby giving a two‑fold increase in overall computing power. This observation was made by Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel. That this statement was made in 1965 yet remains true today is quite remarkable given all that’s happened in the world of computers.

Whether such exponential growth in processing power can be maintained in the longer term remains to be seen. But what is clear is that recent developments, such as the quest for digital transformation and the rise of AI, will require an order of magnitude increase in computational power.

The world of industrial automation is no exception to this. We’ve already seen a sharp rise in demands for computing power, as users strive for faster production rates to achieve ever greater efficiencies — just to remain competitive.

Fortunately, much hardware development has occurred in computing, especially in the consumer market. Costs for PC hardware have however plateaued, mainly due to the large market size and the intense competition between suppliers. These factors combined have seen buyers get ‘more bang for their buck’ over the years, and the industrial sector has been able to take full advantage of the latest innovative techniques.

The introduction of multi‑threading into industrial controllers has enabled programs to be broken up into tasks, which can in turn be executed cyclically at predetermined intervals. In this way, certain tasks are allowed to execute more regularly than others, whilst maintaining real‑time performance.

Similarly, the advent of multi‑core CPUs has greatly improved processing speeds by allowing applications to be distributed across several cores within one CPU. More advanced industrial PCs allow programmers to time slice these cores between the operating system and control program. Certain control tasks can then be assigned to specific CPU cores and executed when the control program is active.

Intel’s ‘Turbo boost’ feature, where the speed of individual cores can be set, represents a game changer. Thus far, all CPU cores needed to be clocked at the same rate, but by allowing the rate to be set for individual cores (while monitoring their power consumption and temperature), speed improvements of up to 50% can be achieved.

The constant improvements by CPU manufacturers like Intel and Ryzen are providing new techniques that greatly enhance process automation technology. By utilising CPU resources more effectively, faster execution speeds and better throughput can be achieved. We’ll need this even more in the coming years.

Harry Mulder is the Principal Automation Engineer at Beckhoff Automation. He has been involved in industrial automation for over 30 years and is fascinated by how new innovations keep affecting the direction of the industry. He really enjoys the practical element of his job, where he has a chance to get his hands dirty!

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