Last month industry giant Schneider Electric agreed to acquire the venture firm nxtControl. Based in Leobersdorf, Austria, nxtControl develops control software design/deployment products that use the IEC 61499 and IEC 61131 standards. nxtControl had just celebrated its 10th birthday as a company, being founded in 2007 by refugees from the acquisition of an earlier startup software firm by a global automation supplier. “Why did Schneider Electric bother?” one may ask, and that is a fair question. What can a tiny firm like nxtControl contribute to a firm the size and complexity of Schneider Electric?
- IIoT Management – When an IIoT gateway or app starts to change conditions in a plant (“actuate” in automation parlance) the plant owner-operator is going to want to know what it is doing, why and also make that interface as standardized as possible. This is a pain point. Control application configuration information is not well served within software engineering, and nxtControl 61499 products can help with this.
- Industrial strength IEC 61499 – The state of control application software portability is poor. Though it is no magic bullet, IEC 61499 is a big help in this direction and solutions to the portability nxtControl has a lot of experience using 61499 in real world industrial applications (as opposed to academic research). They have encountered the good, bad and ugly parts of IEC 61499 in order to build an industrial software product based on it.
- Prometheus – This is Schneider Electric’s visionary automation configuration tool, released last year at their automation User Group meeting. Prometheus software is functionally pretty similar to nxtControl products. Integration of these two (outstanding) software efforts is likely the main value proposition.
- OEM experience – nxtControl customers are primarily OEMs and integrators and building automation/energy has been their most common application.
- Open Process Automation Forum – End user firms who are members of this initiative have been impressed by nxtControl. As the software evolves, Schneider Electric may target it for Open Process Automation systems.
The risk factor here is size mismatch. Schneider Electric as a firm is roughly 20,000 times larger, and a small set of human resources represent the sustainable value of nxtControl. They will need to become part of an appropriate organization within their giant new owner.