PLC, PAC and EPIC. That is, programmable logic controller, programmable automation controller—and now—edge programmable industrial controller, new from Opto 22. The PLC ran on ladder language, replaced relays and wasn’t initially set up to deal with analog values—until analog I/O cards and new software also allowed for analog operation. The PAC fixed the issues with analog I/O and was versatile enough to work with varying I/O types and multiple communication capabilities, but it required interfaces to work with a larger automation system—gateways, on-premises and cloud applications.

Enter EPIC—a controller capable of handling analog and discrete I/O with direct connection to sensors and actuators, running real-time tasks on board and connecting safely to cloud-based and on-premises applications. Opto 22’s groov EPIC is elegant in its simplicity and extremely secure, providing real-time performance and a built-in HMI. How it came to be is an interesting story.

EPIC was anything but an overnight development project. Rather, it evolved in design and scope for about 10 years before it was released last May. Ken Johnson, vice president of engineering at Opto, selected hardware components and software that would be around for years to come—thus the choice of ARM processors and the Linux OS with real-time extensions.

I asked Johnson to fill in some details.   

FE: Who were the principal designers/developers of the EPIC?

Ken Johnson: groov EPIC was largely an internal group effort with input from Engineering, Marketing, Sales and of course our highly technical CEO, Mark Engman.

Externally, our existing customers provided significant input as well. Before EPIC, we offered the SNAP PAC control system and our groov Edge Appliance for web-based and mobile HMI and edge data processing. Both were successful products, so EPIC combined the best of both—based on customer feedback—into a single unified platform. Perhaps more important, our customers also gave us insight into capabilities they might want for the future, and we wanted to make sure the new platform would be a catalyst for growth via both hardware and software upgrades, with no need for our customers to move to a new platform to incorporate new features.

FE: Seriously, was EPIC really in gestation for 10 years before its introduction? Why?

Johnson: As an organization, we’re in a constant state of product evolution, recognizing trends in our industry, as well as outside our specific markets. Because we develop, manufacture, sell and support our products right here in Temecula, Calif., we have a unique ability to create and iterate extensively to achieve the right result. 

We’re huge proponents of using commercial off-the-shelf technology wherever and whenever we can. We were the first to market with a commercially available Ethernet I/O system in the ‘90s, machine-to-machine (later IoT) systems in the 2000s, and mobile and web-based systems in this decade. So, EPIC is a result of all we’ve accomplished in the past with an eye on the future of automation, and making sure it could incorporate any new advances via simple software upgrades was paramount.

FE: What controller problems were you looking to solve with the EPIC?

Johnson: Many of our customers continuously look for faster performance, more capabilities and software choices, and they want to use fewer components to accomplish a given task. Security, reliability and future-proofing are also significant concerns. Our mission was to create a controller platform that delivered the reliability and performance they needed, while also addressing future application requirements, such as IIoT projects, in a secure and manageable way.

FE: Why call it EPIC?

Johnson: Our new controller platform was clearly not just a PLC, or even a PAC. It wasn’t a traditional PC-based system either. The future of computing is very different from what it’s been in the past, and what we’ve built with EPIC didn’t fit the old paradigms. So, we wanted to address that head on and better define what this computing platform is capable of, thus the name Edge Programmable Industrial Controller, or EPIC. 

EPIC was designed to perform edge processing tasks, like data collection and analysis, data exchange with business and cloud systems, and data visualization. The edge is all about the data. 

EPIC also needed to be programmable, and not just in the traditional sense with a single development environment that tries to accomplish multiple tasks. Applications today and tomorrow require programming tools ideal for a given job, from control programming in known environments (IEC 61131-3 and flowcharting) to custom-developed applications in standard computer programming environments like C/C++, Java, Python and many more.

EPIC is also an industrial system, hardened for the challenging environments in which it is deployed, with wide operating temperature ranges, solid-state components, and ATEX and UL hazardous locations approvals.

FE: Why did you choose Linux as an OS?

Johnson: The choice was not driven by cost, but rather by flexibility and versatility. We are open-source advocates and prefer to use commercially available technologies—whether hardware or software—whenever possible. It was really a natural choice.

FE: How does EPIC simplify traditional PLC installations?

Johnson: EPIC was engineered from the termination connector, to the CPU, to the display, with the installer or instrumentation technician in mind. Simple, reliable terminations, single hold-down screws, test points throughout, modularity, isolation and ease of assembly all factored into the hardware. 

We also significantly reduced the effort to configure, test, troubleshoot and commission the system by placing a high-resolution, color touchscreen display on the front of EPIC. This display provides all installation information necessary without requiring a PC or separate software tool. 

FE: What about cybersecurity? Is it more secure than its predecessors? How? 

Johnson: Security was paramount in the new EPIC system. It’s one of the first control systems of its kind that requires user authentication over an encrypted network to gain access to the system. We’ve also added the capability to create user accounts based on the access needed for a given task, such as HMI access only or developer access only.

At a system level, we’ve added a configurable firewall to manage the incoming connections to the EPIC and block unwanted ones. A new VPN client capability lets users set up secure, encrypted connections through a managed VPN server, either on premises or in the cloud, preventing unauthorized access to the network interfaces. And finally, our firmware updates are cryptographically verified, preventing rogue firmware implants from comprising system integrity.

We went even further by implementing data exchange methods that don’t require insecure ports to be open on the controller at all. Instead, they use push technology (or publish/subscribe methods) to push any data in the controller to any authenticated user or system in a manageable way, and in ways IT departments understand. 

FE: What I/O types can EPIC handle?

Johnson: Opto 22 has been and always will be an I/O company, so a wide variety of I/O channels and types are available on the EPIC system. Virtually any voltage, current, relay, temperature and serial signal is supported, and since EPIC is fully compatible with our SNAP I/O line, nearly a hundred more I/O channel types are available.

FE: Can EPIC assume a supervisory status over other controllers?

Johnson: One of the more exciting features of EPIC is its ability to run many software applications on board simultaneously. One example is Inductive Automation’s Ignition Edge software, which includes embedded drivers to many popular PLC systems and OPC UA, making EPIC an ideal supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system in its own right. That, combined with a full-scale controller and I/O system, makes EPIC unique in this regard.

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