Water Jet Builder Connects With Unified Control Platform

New Architecture Improves Remote Diagnostics and Troubleshooting Capabilities

By Jim Montague

Most machine users are very data-driven, and those using waterjet cutters are no exception. "Our customers rely on our support and service, and that includes remote diagnostics and troubleshooting," says Brian Kent, global product manager at Flow International in Kent, Wash. "So they want more data that's more reliable, and they want to know the status of all devices down to exact positions."

To provide this detailed data more efficiently, Flow decided about three years ago that it needed to redo the control architecture on its waterjet cutting machines. "We used to have a PC from one company, motion cards from a second and lots of I/O boards from different suppliers, and so we had some problems with remote diagnostics and troubleshooting when we accessed them via the Internet," Kent says. "When there was an issue with an I/O card, and we tried to figure out whose jurisdiction it was in and who should take responsibility, many of the suppliers pointed fingers at each other. This meant less uptime for our users. Our technicians needed true run data ahead of time so they'd know what problem to fix and what parts to bring. We needed one control architecture."

So, Flow staged a control architecture build-off, invited three suppliers to compete, judged their performance and diagnostics in its waterjet cutters over a few months, and picked a winner. As a result, Flow decided to standardize all the controls, CNCs, PCs, drives and other electrical components in its machines on B&R Industrial Automation, and connected them all with Ethernet Powerlink.

"This new architecture is much simpler," Kent says. "We have one Cat. 5 cable for control and power, which means about two-thirds less wire, and less labor because we don't have to check our Cat. 5 connections with voltmeters."

So far, B&R Automation hardware and Powerlink networking are standard on Flow's year-old Mach 2 and Mach 4 waterjet cutting machines. B&R's solid-state PC allows it to run at up to 125 °F, which means few parts and more reliability, Kent says. "And, over Powerlink, we can observe the CPU and its temperature on our machines, and see our servo motors and drives and their temperatures more easily. This is a huge benefit to our support department. Previously, we couldn't do as much remote diagnostics because we couldn't see as many details, and so there was more trial and error. Now we don't have to send out technicians blind anymore. They can usually see problems online over a secure VPN that the customer logs onto. We can send out technicians with the right parts, and they can solve more problems right away."

This article is part of November 2012's cover story: "Connect Your Islands of Automation."