A brief overview of The Big Three industrial controls platforms and the Rising Challengers

This article gives a brief overview of the top three PLC (Programmable Logic Controller) industrial controls platforms by market share and two platforms that may rise to challenge them. Distributed Controls Systems (DCS) platforms are not discussed. A detailed follow up on each platform will come in later articles.

The Big Three: Siemens, Rockwell Automation, and Mitsubishi

According to a 2018 market research report(1) , all three offer products and services needed for the majority of industrial automation and controls projects: PLCs, HMIs (Human Machine Interfaces), VFDs (Variable Frequency Drives), SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) software, servo drives and motors, IPCs (industrial PCs), push buttons, circuit protection, power supplies, etc.

The decision on which company/platform to utilize is based on a number of factors, such as: region, cost, distributors, industrial communication preferences, availability of skilled personnel, and spare parts availability.

Large manufacturing and process companies usually standardize on one of The Big Three due the ubiquity of their products and services.

Below briefly discusses the unique characteristics of each company, the industries they are most influential in, and their IIoT/Smart Manufacturing/Digitization platforms.


The automation division of Siemens dominates the European market and battles it out with Rockwell for supremacy in North America and everyone else in China.  If the PLC market battle was a Formula 1 Championship series, Siemens would be most comparable to Mercedes. Both are the quintessential German engineered platforms and  consistent leaders in their field.

Siemens is used in every industry category, with their biggest demand coming from the automotive sector and most likely the platform Mercedes (and every other German automotive company) standardizes on.

They have a strong foothold in the in CNC (computer numerical control) OEM market due to their Sinumerik 840D platform which utilizes an NC (numerical controller), PLC, and a communications processor packaged in a single component. DMG Mori, Grob, and Heller use the Sinumerik 840D platform for their CNC machines. Siemens’ strong position in the CNC OEM market naturally flows into the Aerospace and Defense segment due to their high quality requirements and bespoke nature of their parts.

Siemens is heavily pushing their AI/Machine Learning/IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) platform called Mind Sphere(2) which leverages data from industrial equipment to monitor and analyze the health of individual assets and the overall plant in order to detect anomalies, predict breakdowns, and optimize performance.

Rockwell Automation (Allen-Bradley)

Rockwell owns the second largest share of the PLC market and continuing with the Formula 1 comparison, they would be Ferrari on the track. Initially, when Enzo Ferrari started his company, their only focus was to win races, not sell cars.  Rockwell has a comparable singular focus: Industrial Automation(3). Unlike Siemens or Mitsubishi, in which their automation and controls divisions are just one of several products and services their companies offer, Rockwell solely focuses on industrial automation for every industry segment.

The majority of the controls hardware is sold under the “Allen-Bradley” moniker and the controls software products are under the Rockwell Automation name. Rockwell International bought Allen-Bradley in 1985. Rockwell International split into two companies in 2002, Rockwell Automation and Rockwell Collins. Rockwell Collins is an entirely separate entity that focuses on aerospace.

Just like Ferrari’s F1 dominance on the track in the early 2000s due to the driving performance of Michael Schumacher, Rockwell’s dominance in the North American process industries in the early 2000s came from their capability to implement fully redundant PLCs and I/O modules. At that time, Rockwell’s ControlLogix platform was the only platform capable of a “no blip” transition from the main PLC rack to the redundant PLC rack during an anomaly. This technological advantage was/is heavily utilized in “up time” critical industries such as: Nuclear Energy, Oil & Gas, Wastewater, Pharmaceuticals, etc.

Rockwell’s foray into digitization and IIoT are encapsulated in their “Connected Enterprise”(4) and their software suite under the “FactoryTalk(5) umbrella. Their partnership with PTC(6) will further bolster their AI/Machine Learning and AR (Augmented Reality) initiatives under the “ThingWorx”(7) platform to build the future of “smart manufacturing”.

Mitsubishi Electric

Mitsubishi holds the third largest market share in the world and to finish out our F1 constructor comparisons, they would be Red Bull. Besides Red Bull consistently being in third place in F1 from 2017 to 2019, they also use Honda engines and coincidentally, both the headquarters of Honda and Mitsubishi are located in Minato, Tokyo (Japan). 

Mitsubishi VFDs are heavily utilized in conveyor systems due to their relatively low cost, compact size, and unique capabilities such as dynamic tune compensation for changing load inertia.

Mitsubishi is the only company among the big three to offer their own line of industrial robot arms and controllers. The MELFA(8) (Mitsubishi ELectric Factory Automation?) family of robots are low load arms that are capable of high precision and high speed part handling and component assembly. Mitsubishi also has a sophisticated NC that is utilized not only by CNC OEMs, but by Mitsubishi itself in their own EDM (Electric Discharge Machining) and laser processing machines.

Mitsubishi’s push for smart manufacturing is encapsulated in their MAISART (Mitsubishi Electric’s AI creates the State-of-the-ART in technology) software platform which leverages deep learning, reinforced learning, and big data analysis to implement various cutting edge industrial automation systems such as: predictive maintenance, motion optimization, high fidelity vision, and robot anomaly detection.(9)(10). Mitsubishi and other influential Japanese corporations created the Human-Centric Manufacturing Innovation (HCMI) consortium to develop and implement manufacturing systems for new human-centric manufacturing(11).

The Rising Challengers: B&R and Beckhoff

B&R and Beckhoff have been in the industrial automation space since the 1980s and have a small share of the PLC market, but their  strategic direction, powerful products, and the rise of industrial PC technology have given them a technological edge on The Big Three.

Most new college graduates coming into the industrial automation space prefer text-based programming languages such as C++ and C# rather than IEC 61131-3 graphical programming languages such as Ladder, Function Block Diagram, or Sequential Function Charts. B&R and Beckhoff allow C++ to be utilized in their controllers and make it convenient to use IEC 61131-3 Structured Text in their IDE (integrated development environment).

On both platforms, no physical hardware or software license is required to test the PLC code. This enables quick and convenient debugging and allows for an agile project process without the high cost. This also reduces the high cost of entry for new engineers into the industrial automation space.

Both have high speed motion platforms utilizing fast real time field bus technology.

Their PLC platforms are highly flexible and have functions not usually found in industrial PLCs such as integrated highspeed data acquisition and simulation.

Both companies utilize powerful Intel chips in their IPCs which increase performance. Their IPCs are robust, reliable, cost effective, and can run Windows and their embedded controls runtime on the same hardware. 

Below briefly discusses the unique advantages of each company and how they are rising to challenge the Big Three.


B&R is used heavily in high speed motion applications such as packaging due to their motion controller’s μs (microsecond) reaction times and dynamic cam profile compensation abilities. Their reACTION technology allows for 1 μs response times using standard hardware! Generally, motion controller reaction times range from hundreds of microseconds up to milliseconds.

ABB acquired B&R in 2017 to bolster its PLC, IPC, motion, and software offerings(12). ABB and B&R now own approximately 6% of the PLC market share and may quickly grow due to B&R’s possible integration into  ABB’s other core products: Robots and VFDs. ABB has a large robot and VFD install base and it would be convenient to utilize an advanced PLC or IPC platform that can seamlessly integrate with them. 

B&R’s products are designed for modeling, simulation, and virtual commissioning(13). Their main automation platform, Automation Studio, can integrate with MATLAB, SIMULINK, MapleSim, industrialPhysics, and other third party simulation software. This focus gives B&R an advantage over other automation companies in implementing digital twins. 

B&R is also pushing to take the lead in the mobile automation sector (off-highway automated vehicles) with their X90 mobile controller which is specifically designed for harsh outdoor mobile applications and can interface with GPSs (global positioning systems)(14)

B&R’s Automation Studio allows users to utilize IEC 61131-3 standard languages, C++, ANSI C, and their own industrial automation focused language, Automation Basic,  to program their controllers(15). This flexibility allows for users in different industries to utilize B&R’s platform in a variety of ways.


Beckhoff focuses on high speed and high precision motion applications and cutting-edge automation using open systems based on PC Control technology.

Beckhoff’s TwinCAT (The Windows Control and Automation Technology) software system allows compatible PCs to run as PLCs with real time motion control capabilities. Beckhoff also offers their own embedded PCs and industrial PCs that are specifically made for industrial environments and demanding control requirements.

Beckhoff’s software-centric approach is shown in their vast array of software components available for TwinCAT(15) which include:

  • Motion: NC, CNC, custom kinematic transforms
  • Simulation: MATLAB/Simulink
  • Measurement: Data acquisition, analytics, condition monitoring
  • Machine Learning: Speech, Vision
  • Connectivity: JSON, OPC UA, XML, IoT, EtherCAT Redundancy

Beckhoff is positioning itself to be the industry leader in applied machine learning and edge computing by allowing trained models from TensorFlow, PyTorch, and SciKit-learn to be imported directly to TwinCAT to implement predictive maintenance and process control, anomaly detection, collaborative robotics, automated quality control, and machine optimization(16).

Beckhoff’s EtherCAT communication field bus is the fastest industrial Ethernet based field bus system(17). This is an integral part of the TwinCAT platform’s extremely high performance in data acquisition and motion control.  EtherCAT P (one cable for power and communications), EtherCAT G (data rates up to 10 GBits/s), and Safety over EtherCAT protocol allow for a “no panel” system architecture and a significant reduction in system installation time, complexity, and risk.

The time is ripe for competition

The Big Three enjoy a great advantage in resources and install base, but the Rising Challengers are adapting quickly to advances in software and hardware and positioned themselves to gain a significant market share in the future.


  1. “Market Share Of Different PLCs.” IPCS Automation, 7 June 2018, https://ipcsautomation.com/blog-post/market-share-of-different-plcs/.
  2. “MindSphere: the Cloud-Based, Open IoT Operating System.” Siemens.com Global Website, https://new.siemens.com/global/en/products/software/mindsphere.html.
  3. “Our Company.” RockwellAutomation.com, https://www.rockwellautomation.com/en_NA/about-us/overview.page?pagetitle=Our-Company&docid=d56238b9aed19ae573610a1eed5cd5ed.
  4. “The Connected Enterprise.” RockwellAutomation.com, https://www.rockwellautomation.com/en_NA/capabilities/connected-enterprise/overview.page.
  5. “FactoryTalk Industrial Automation Software.” RockwellAutomation.com, https://www.rockwellautomation.com/en_NA/products/factorytalk/overview.page.
  6. “PTC and Rockwell Automation Announce Strategic Partnership to Drive Industrial Innovation and Accelerate Growth.” PTC, https://www.ptc.com/en/news/2018/ptc-and-rockwell-automation-announce-strategic-partnership.
  7. “ThingWorx Platform IoT.” RockwellAutomation.com, https://www.rockwellautomation.com/en_NA/products/analytics/overview.page?pagetitle=ThingWorx-Platform-IoT&docid=3062fed0da1f161d321a6e69a801a785.
  8. “Industrial Robots-MELFA.” Industrial Robots-MELFA | MITSUBISHI ELECTRIC FA, https://www.mitsubishielectric.com/fa/products/rbt/robot/.
  9. “News Release Archives.” MITSUBISHI Changes for the Better, https://www.mitsubishielectric.com/news/2017/0524-b.html.
  10. “Maisart: R&D / Technology: About.” MITSUBISHI ELECTRIC Global Website, https://www.mitsubishielectric.com/en/about/rd/maisart/index.html.
  11. Oki Electric Industry Co., Ltd. “AIST, OKI, NS Solutions and Mitsubishi Electric to Form Consortium for Human-Centric Manufacturing Innovation: Press Releases: OKI Global.” AIST, OKI, NS Solutions and Mitsubishi Electric to Form Consortium for Human-Centric Manufacturing Innovation | Press Releases | OKI Global, https://www.oki.com/en/press/2019/04/z19005e.html.
  12. “ABB Completes Acquisition of B&R.” ABB Group – Leading Digital Technologies for Industry, 6 July 2017, https://new.abb.com/news/detail/1797/abb-completes-acquisition-of-br.
  13. “B&R Industrial Automation GmbH.” B&R: Perfection in Automation, https://www.br-automation.com/en-us/products/software/modeling-and-simulation/.
  14. “B&R Industrial Automation GmbH.” B&R: Perfection in Automation, https://www.br-automation.com/en-us/products/control-systems/x90-mobile-control-system/.
  15. BECKHOFF TwinCAT, https://www.beckhoff.com/twincat/.
  16. “BECKHOFF New Automation Technology.” Machine Learning, https://m.beckhoff.com/english/highlights/machine-learning/default.htm.
  17. EtherCAT Technology Group. “EtherCAT Performance Analysis.” EtherCAT Technology Group | EtherCAT Performance Analysis, https://www.ethercat.org/en/performance.html.
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