Software defined machines – As smart as you need them to be

Posted on: February 17, 2016 by Wolfgang Thronicke

The term software defined machines is often used in combination with the digital transformation of industry and automation. This term does not denote that machines are now completely realized in software, but with the appropriate software a machine can be “supercharged” with new functionality.

The concept of a software defined machine (SDM) is the externalization of the control and processing of functions which implement additional functionality accessible for the user of the machine. Limited computational resources of certain machines have been the reason for the development of this concept and the fact that they are maintained for a life time sometimes exceeding ten years. This is owed to the substantial investment that a machine necessitates, but also the tax relevant write off periods (e.g. min.8 years in Germany). Since the life-cycle of software is much shorter a machine owner soon ends up with a machine with outdated and limited functionality.

Consider a plotter that understands only the simple commands “pen up”, “pen down” and “move pen”. Its limited cpu and memory cannot support much additional functionality. Installing advanced software is thus out of question. However, it is quite simple to create a software that uses the machine interface and offers functions for drawing and plotting text and provides these in addition through this new software layer. For the user of such a machine it seems that there is an advanced machine available and this advancement is defined by the new software service.

Based on this example it becomes clear why SDMs often refer to “externalized brains”.

When we go one step further, we can also track the distance plotted so far and estimate when the pen is likely to be empty (if the “standard” pen is known).

Sounds familiar? Yes, now we have established a very basic predictive maintenance functionality for the machine. And – because it is software – these new functions can be deployed without any physical changes to the machine and no visit of maintenance personal. This means that every plotter sold can be upgraded in an instant through the deployment of new software.

Using the approach of turning a machine into an SDM is a strategy for the digital transformation as such. This is equally interesting for customers who for instance want to upgrade their machine park to the Industry 4.0 level at a reasonable cost, and for the providers which are enabling traditional systems for the digitized future. This is also more sustainable than having to replace the machine for a new model, so there is an ecological aspect as well to software defined machines that should be taken into account.

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About Wolfgang Thronicke
Chief Technology Officer and member of the Scientific Community
Wolfgang Thronicke is CTO, group and project leader in national and European projects in the German ATOS innovation centre C-LAB. Since 2012 he is member of the Atos Scientific Community. With a 12 year background he is expert for software engineering, project definition and management for public funded and commerical projects. His current work topics include industry 4.0, cloud, IoT, and AI.

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