Integrated automation means a range of things to different people, but in general it is the convergence of previously distinct automation functions — bringing HMI functions into the logic, for example, or integrating safety into the main controller. An integrated platform uses one programming environment to handle all required functions, including control, HMI, I/O and motion. Some approach it as a shared core intelligence between automation and network devices. In other cases, the concept extends to the hardware realm, combining safety functions, for example, directly onto the main controller device.
The concept has been around for a few years, but it continues to increase in intensity, particularly as increasing processing power makes it easier to incorporate even more functionality into the main controller, including a move toward vision and power functions.
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By integrating more functions into the central logic, machine builders are finding it easier to expand their universe — introducing new machines to new markets with faster leadtimes and lower costs.
In the case of Thalmann Maschinenbau in Frauenfeld, Switzerland, integrated automation helps get the machine builder into different sized markets without having to reinvent the control system each time. Thalmann serves small craft businesses as well as large industrial operations with its standard and special machines for forming sheet metal.
The machines employ a complex process to produce edge bends on flat sheet metal. A bending beam rolls upward around a pivot point and on the material, without damaging the surface of the sheet. A bending machine usually consists of a bottom beam on which the sheet lies, a top beam that clamps the sheet on the bending edge against the lower beam, and a bending beam that is moved up to bend the sheet metal to the required angle. Thalmann's double benders have two bending beams so that the sheets are bent upwards and downwards without being turned or swiveled during the bending process. This speeds up the bending process considerably, but requires the control of nine axes.
Regatron, based in Rorschach, Switzerland, manages the automation of the Thalmann machines, and switched a couple years ago to an integrated and more-open PC-based technology. "The increased complexity of modern machines necessitated a generational change in the control system," says Felix Lanter, head of development, control and drive technology, for Regatron.
The first control systems that Regatron built were based on a hardware PLC. The integrator employed its first PC-based system with DOS computers in 1991, and its first industrial PC with Windows and Ethernet in 2003. However, the previous PC systems were not as open as the Beckhoff Automation system they switched to, according to Patrick Ruf, software programmer for Regatron. "All the hardware blocks that we added for an additional function were blocks by their own," he says. "Maintenance and diagnostics were therefore very difficult. With the Beckhoff system, all the modules communicate through one bus (in our case EtherCAT), and therefore the information of every module is available in the software."
Thalmann makes mainly custom machines, varying in size, length, functionality, etc. (Figure 1). "The range of customer requirements makes it necessary for us to use suitably adaptable components, systems and control systems," says Marco Cappello, global sales for Thalmann. And the complexity of the machine and control system must match each other, adds Stefan Kern, chief designer.
The programming of the control system must reflect the range of the machine requirements. "On the other hand, we intend to maintain uniform design as much as possible," Ruf says. "We have taken some care to design the structure of the control solution in such a way that we can easily expand the area of any individual function."