With the Introduction of Siemens’ Virtual PLC, Manufacturers Must Revise Their Automation Architectures

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By James Prestwood | 3Q 2023 | IN-6997

Soft Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs), software that carries out PLC functionality on hardware other than a PLC, are growing in usage within the automation market. This trend is displayed by Siemens’ launch of its new virtual PLC, the SIMATIC S7-1500V, and is a key sign that vendors are identifying that software-based solutions are the primary drivers of digital transformation. Manufacturers need to identify to what extent they can digitalize their automation portfolio and vendors need to ensure that they are taking an active role in guiding customers in deploying hybrid automation architectures.

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SIMATIC S7-1500V, Siemens' Virtual PLC


Siemens SIMATIC S7-1500V, an entirely virtual Programmable Logic Controller (PLC), was announced at the 2023 Hannover Messe trade show. The solution runs on the company’s Industrial Operations X portfolio and can be easily integrated into a manufacturer’s Information Technology (IT) environment through an app-style download. Customers can easily increase and decrease the number of instances used according to production demand, alongside being able to access PLC functionality via mobile devices from anywhere, allowing operators to detect and fix failures remotely. The solution is compatible with Siemens’ comprehensive Totally Integrated Automation Portal (TIA Portal) solution, allowing engineers to continue to work with the same platform as when deploying traditional hardware solutions. Furthermore, previous automation projects used in the past can be brought over, allowing for a seamless transition of hardware to software deployment.

The virtual PLC is currently designed to support customers with more IT-driven automation concepts who are looking to add flexibility into their architecture, rather than replace critical automation hardware in high-end solutions. It provides a simple and cost-effective way for manufacturers to scale up automation capacity within their IT environment, not requiring any additional hardware. SIMATIC S7-1500V is a strong addition to Siemens’ soft PLC offerings, with the SIMATIC S7-1500 Software Controller remaining a high-end automation software solution, running as a Personal Computer (PC)-based controller with integrated safety and high system availability.

Hard and Soft PLCs


The distinction between hard and soft PLCs has existed for some time within the automation market, with vendors like Siemens, Advantech, and Beckhoff offering soft PLCs that can be run on Industrial PCs (IPCs). A hard PLC is defined as a hardware asset that only runs automation logic. Its counterpart, the soft PLC, is software that carries out PLC functionality on hardware other than a PLC. The primary differentiator is where the location of the Central Processing Unit (CPU) processing the logic is found. If the CPU is located on a logic dedicated asset, then that asset would be considered a hard PLC. If the logic processing occurs on an asset that runs other software, such as an IPC or server, then this would be considered a soft PLC.

Hard PLCs currently retain their market position due to reliability in mission-critical situations and retained operator expertise built up around their dominant usage in the automation market for the last 50 years. However, there are a distinct number of benefits to leveraging soft PLCs, such as their cost effectiveness due to lower installation and maintenance costs, easy networking with a large number of sensors and actuators, and simpler redesign to adapt to fit to changing automation needs as production processes evolve. As more experienced engineering personnel retire and digital transformation becomes increasingly adopted by manufacturers, soft PLCs may begin to erode hard PLCs’ market hegemony more significantly.

Increasing Adoption and Deployment of Soft PLCs


Manufacturers that are implementing comprehensive automation solutions must leverage as much software-based PLC functionality as possible. Soft PLC solutions can be deployed on central IPCs or even directly in an IT environment, allowing manufacturers to easily scale up and down the number of automation “assets” they are using at any given time. This is significant, as manufacturers need to increasingly change their production processes to respond to mercurial market conditions, and therefore, being able to easily adapt automation architecture is critical. To respond to and encourage this new demand, vendors like Emerson, Mitsubishi Electric, and Omron must not only bring new innovative software-based offerings, such as Siemens’ SIMATIC S7-1500V, but also play an active role in guiding manufacturers in deploying effective hybrid automation architectures. Due to the significant number of legacy solutions in place, technology vendors must effectively highlight the simplicity of deploying soft PLCs to augment and digitally transform production processes.



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