Technology Trends Ahead

Evolution, Not Revolution. Machine Automation Trends Point to Ever More Use of Faster, Smaller, Smarter Components

By Loren Shaum

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When we look at the breadth of technologies involved in automating a machine, no single technology jumps out as a divine, comprehensive control solution. Again this year, we have no magic bullet to offer.

Get used to it. Machine control excellence is a grind-it-out quest to find the right combination of emerging and established technologies that must combine seamlessly and systematically to assure machine automation success.

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]The help we offer here is to unearth a few trends that seem to have the momentum to influence the choices you make in machine controls in the coming years.

HMI and Network Connectivity
Every machine needs an operator interface of some type, even if it runs lights-out. Machine size and complexity determine the degree of sophistication required.

“We see a definite trend to services for the HMI on our legacy systems,” says FKI Logistex’s controls engineer, Mark Chrismer. Based in St. Louis, FKI builds a multitude of material handling and sortation machines for all industries (Figure1). “In fact,” says Chrismer, “this is emerging so fast that we’re now consolidating our service activities into one location in Cincinnati. We no longer see machines as self-contained islands of automation. Every machine needs connectivity to other machines and to the enterprise.” He says FKI currently ships a modem embedded on every machine, and that many customers are adding virtual private networks (VPNs) for access-security purposes.

“ODVA standards on EtherNet/IP and DeviceNet now allow connectivity from machine to machine,” says Chrismer. “We find a trend in industrial automation to move to EtherNet/IP for connectivity, including distributed I/O.”

Services is one of three trends Wonderware believes are impacting automation and controls implementation for large machine and system builders such as FKI. “First, OEM business is moving toward a service business because of the large installed base,” agrees Rashesh Mody, vice president of Wonderware’s HMI and SCADA division. “Second, machine builder HMI solutions must be extendable to the degree they must connect machine parameters to sources beyond the machine environment. And third, HMI packages must be unified such that the operator interface portion of the HMI package must be interconnected seamlessly with data-collection software and networking software.”

Wonderware says it takes this further with its Industrial Application Server platform that now includes intelligence and control capabilities operating as a layer between I/O and its HMI software.

When it comes to operator interfaces for small machines, connectivity certainly is a growing requirement.

Operator interfaces have a permanent future in industrial automation because machine builders today are demanding a window into the process,” states Phil Horner, president, Horner APG. “However, this window is going to change to a machine-based operator interface that provides an Ethernet-centric, plant-wide window. Connectivity is a critical piece to the next-generation of solutions.” The company’s OCS products can collect data and store it on compact flash, an indication, says Horner, that the market is enjoying a significant improvement in data collection with this architecture. “SCADA solutions historically filled this market need,” says Horner. “However, for most machines, the PC-based SCADA package has to be connected in some fashion to a PLC. The new architecture doesn’t depend on the network because it’s being collected and stored in a local environment.”

Horner says there’s been large growth in the all-in-one control environment that provides a modest OI capability, some measure of logic control, and expandable onboard I/O. “Most of the players are in the lower end of the market, and I see this continuing for the near future,” says Horner. “Watch for more powerful displays being integrated to allow the customer more options for his applications.”

Figure 1: HMI Needs to provide more
FKI Logistex sees services availablity as an increasingly important component in the HMI on its legacy material handling and sortation machines for all industries.
Source: FKI Logistex

Machine Intelligence
Over the years, most machine-intelligence platforms centered on the venerable PLC. There are so many flavors  of PLC available that many engineers view the traditional PLC hardware platform as a commodity, and have thought so for several years. Just look what’s selling on eBay these days. Going forward, PLCs still will have their place, but as Horner suggests, it’s reasonable to expect more movement to an all-in-one architecture.

DynaPath Systems, Livonia, Mich., implements PC-based controllers for its family of machining centers and its new K3 knee mill (Figure 2).  “We needed a control architecture that’s small enough for machine mounting, but fully functional,” says Paul Barnhardt, DynaPath’s vice president. “There’s little room to mount controls on our new K3 knee mill, so we must incorporate the total machine control in a pendant-mounted package.”

For medium and larger machines, PC-based control still draws a level of machine-builder interest. Jacob Pien, president, HA Controls (HAC) states, “PC-based machine control has strong roots in Asia and Europe, so it’s just a matter of time before this global trend will be embraced by machine builders in North America.” Not surprisingly, HAC offers a family of multi-functional, PC-based controllers. It supplied the CNC package on a PC-based platform for Dynapath’s knee mill. It incorporates a soft motion kernel and a machine interface board. The machine interface board includes both motion and I/O interfacing.

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