An interview of Yolanda Petre, Software Engineering Manager at Eaton
We have a team of approximately 25 software engineers, in the U.S. and overseas, developing software. We develop embedded software for hydraulic components, such as pumps, valves, and hydraulic systems, as well as a software development environment that our customers use to build their own applications for their specific needs.
Our software products enable customized control of our hydraulic components and systems. For example, in an electro-hydraulic steering system, the software controls the flow and/or pressure in the steering valve that determines the desired steering angle of the wheels. The software also monitors other system inputs and parameters and uses them to optimize operator comfort, manage faults, and improve the overall performance of the machine. Other software products enable valves to perform advanced control functions in industrial motion control applications, as in injection molding machines or presses.
Our Pro-FX® Control product is a collection of libraries and tools that can be used by customers to build their own applications running on our family of HFX programmable controllers and VFX programmable displays. Pro-FX Control is an open platform based on the CoDeSys programming languages. The product is distributed in a way that provides flexibility for customers. The different components within this product are offered either as a complete package – the Pro-FX Control software – or as separate components that can be plugged into an existing Pro-FX Control package that the customer is already using. This way, customers can download only what they need when they need it.
The Pro-FX libraries give customers building blocks for their custom applications. They range from simple mathematical blocks to complex algorithms, from generic functions to functions finely tuned to a specific component. The customer can download these blocks and use them to develop various applications with these components. They can use prepackaged joysticks or pedal modules, pump modules, or simple ramps or input conditioning functions. They can also add their own decision logic for starting or stopping a machine and develop a vehicle control, such as for a skid-steer machine. A number of libraries encapsulate control algorithms optimally tuned for Eaton components and ready to use in building applications with these components. Eaton is constantly adding to this collection of libraries.
On our end, we research market and customer needs and select the functions that seem to bring the most value to our customers. In general, we release two updates in a year, but we are careful to generate a new release only when we have a number of new libraries that together provide a good incremental value over our current package. A new release has to have significant value to justify an upgrade. Communication with the customer is key. We need to understand their needs and we need to support them to get the best use from our products. In addition to direct contact with customers, we have a Pro-FX forum for posting and discussing issues, and we also have a site available for suggestions. We keep track of these suggestions and create a backlog of potential upgrade features, then prioritize those features to be incorporated into the next releases.
On the customer side, when looking to update software, it is important to understand how this new software will meet their needs and how it will fit with their existing software and applications. The Eaton distribution site includes release notes for the software. The customer should always first check the release notes to learn what new functions are provided, to understand potential compatibility issues with older packages, and to get directions for software upgrading.
For users already using the Pro-FX Control environment, we sometimes release libraries separately from the Pro-FX Control package. When customers place a high demand on certain libraries, it is not practical for them to wait for the bi-annual Pro-FX Control release, so these stand-alone libraries can be downloaded and plugged into an existing Pro-FX Control.
A new release of the HFX/VFX Support package component takes place when we offer new features linked to a hardware change (additional communication channels, more memory, etc.) or when we update the CoDeSys platform with new tools (tracing and breakpoint capability for debugging, etc.). Occasionally an updated package may affect the compatibility with applications developed with an older package. The customer should check the release notes for the HFX/VFX Support package to determine if the new package has features of interest and how it will work with older applications.
Before downloading new software, customers should always ask themselves some key questions: Do I need the features that this software provides? Is this a stand-alone library or a hardware support package? Is it compatible with my current Pro-FX Control package? How can I use this new software with applications I have developed with older versions? The release notes can help provide the answers. Eaton also has experienced application and support engineers available to assist with any questions and advice. The Pro-FX forum is another resource where customers can place questions and get fast responses.
When developing applications, follow good software development practices, perform thorough testing, and maintain a version control system. In support of tracking applications, the Pro-FX Control environment tags applications with a unique ID number.