Arnold Zankl on the history of Simatic

18 November 2008

“Back then, we had no idea of the development we were triggering," says Arnold Zankl about the beginnings of Simatic.

Arnold Zankl
Arnold Zankl

The retired Siemens veteran and author of the book "Milestones of Automation” was in charge of Strategic Development Technology at Siemens. He accompanied the development of Simatic technology at Siemens for many years.

SPS Magazin ( interviewed him on the milestones in automation. (This translation was provided by Siemens Industry Automation.)

SPS-Magazine: Mr. Zankl, why are 50 years of Simatic a reason to celebrate for you?

Arnold Zankl: Well, now that you ask, I would say that 50 years of Simatic are worth being celebrated and an important milestone for Siemens, but 1958 also marks the year when electronics moved into the world of industrial production for the first time – and I stress the term “electronics“, since definitely nobody back then was thinking of microelectronics and its later development at the time. And that is why many people could not imagine how such a sensitive 24 V technology could be able to function in a rough industrial environment. Fortunately, the optimists turned out to be right in the end.

SPS-Magazine: Which tasks were handled by the first electronic controllers?

Mr. Zankl: Siemens showcased an electronically controlled revolver lathe at the EMO, the European tradeshow for machine tools, in Paris back in 1959, but it was no comparison to the CNC machines in use today. The first “automatically operating machines” were still very primitive – the controller basically handled logical links and switching tasks.

A second, very early application was with welding timers, which were also very simple machines which just automatically placed welding spots while the workpiece was entirely guided by hand. Interestingly enough, these two machine types are still the focus of production automation today.

In the 1960s, Simatic and the wired controllers of competitors quickly found use in numerous applications in all sectors of industry.

SPS-Magazine: And how were these controllers programmed?

1959 transistor and relay
1959 transistor and relay

Mr. Zankl: In those days, only regular and process computers were programmed. Controllers were usually wired independently of the respective tasks at hand - in general mechanically at the vendor’s supplying factory. Therefore, location changes were only possible under certain conditions and involved a huge investment of resources. This all changed with the dawn of programmable logic controllers.

A fascinating aspect is that there were two completely different approaches taken in Europe and the USA: the European PLC manufacturers aimed at employing their PLCs mainly in applications in the upper performance range of wired control engineering. The American PLC manufacturers had nothing to do with the phase of wired technology at this level of sophisticated design and diversity. They took advantage of the simplicity of the PLC structure to implement sturdy, industrial-standard devices right from the start.


Relays and transistors in 1959.


The struggle for the fitting design and the remarkable advances in programming devices then provided the ultimate breakthrough for PLCs, in the case of Siemens with the legendary Simatic S5, launched on the market in 1979.

SPS-Magazine: When did the next trends in automation start developing?

Mr. Zankl: I would say sometime in the mid-80s. You should realise that automation providers were mainly the ones driving development to that point. There was an abrupt change in the mid-80s, though – suddenly, the automotive industry was driving the progress. Automotive manufacturers in Europe and the USA wanted to steel themselves against competition from Japan and needed more flexible production solutions to do so; ones where they could produce a wide range of models. This required a higher degree of automation.

I can remember, for instance, a technical article that Siemens published in 1986. The article described the requirements of industry – requirements which still sound very modern today: greater flexibility with lower costs, and a quicker transition from the idea to product launch – faster “time-to-market” is the term used today. Both then and now, it was clear that these requirements could only be met with intelligent and powerful automation solutions.

SPS-Magazine: So what effects did these requirements have on developments in automation?

Simatic G
Simatic G

Mr. Zankl: The automotive industry at the time was focusing its efforts on networking its increasingly intelligent production equipment with the concept of Computer Integrated Manufacturing. This was only possible using vendor-independent standards, especially in the area of communications. Openness became a primary customer demand for vendors of automation systems. This led to the standards for fieldbuses on the one hand and greater openness for the automation systems on the other. Both of these aspects were then united by Siemens into one uniform system range for the first time with Totally Integrated Automation.


In the first SIMATIC G, the germanium-based functions were individually potted in blocks.


SPS-Magazine: What do you consider to be the greatest achievements of automation?

Mr. Zankl: At present, automation is the dominating technology in virtually every industry. And with this global and universal coverage, automation certainly represents a socioeconomic phenomenon. Vendors of automation systems were often confronted with the accusation that their systems were destroying jobs. That may have been true in some areas, but detractors often overlook the positive effects that automation has in industry. Today’s standards for product quality are impossible to meet with manual labour. Crankshafts produced in China or India must meet the same quality requirements as those made in Japan or Europe; otherwise, they cannot compete.

Another theme covered by automation in all countries is the core task of safety – in the chemicals industry, for instance, but also in production areas, protecting people from injury and machines from damage. To me, it is a great achievement that automation has made dangerous work safer to perform. So you see labour costs and jobs are not the only measures of the socioeconomic worth of automation technology.

Click here to read the interview with Dr. Gerd-Ulrich Spohr, head of Strategic Development Technology for the Siemens divisions Drive Technologies and Industry Automation " Simatic Family: We have not yet achieved the goal"

Click here to read the article "Fifty Years of Simatic Automation Revolutionises the World"

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