Introducing the company to the public on its website, Aagard, a small packaging equipment manufacturer in Alexandria, Minn., makes a pretty bold statement about motion, noting that it creates, controls and analyzes motion "in ways not seen before." When it comes to innovating motion, there's no standing still.
"It's fairly easy to build a mechanical mechanism, but how the motion is controlled with other mechanisms is the key to our unique approach," says Brad VanderTuin, engineering manager at Aagard, adding that the company is able to build equipment that's smaller and faster than its competitors' equipment.
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To achieve this, Aagard's engineers plan out a machine's motion carefully early in the design stages, using tools developed internally for timing charts and motion analysis, VanderTuin says. "We get both our mechanical and controls engineers involved in that discussion so that it works for both disciplines."
Brenton Smith founded Aagard 16 years ago. His plan was to create a company that could focus on more innovative systems; that would create completely custom designs for the packaging industry.
Aagard's key market is food packaging, and machinery includes cartoners, sleevers, case packers, palletizers and horizontal form/fill/seal machines. With more demand for new and different package designs that continue to evolve, the food industry comes to Aagard for custom solutions.
"That's been a strength of ours — being able to look at each application a little bit uniquely, and not trying to take a standard piece of equipment and make it fit into a situation," VanderTuin says. "We have some standard approaches; concepts that we try to implement and reuse. But we take a little bit more of a clean-slate approach to a project when it's needed."
To help achieve customization at a reasonable timeframe and price point, Aagard has largely modularized its design. "Going to a more modular approach to programming lets us reuse code from previous projects more," says Daren Myren, controls engineer. "Because we reuse our own machine assemblies, we're able to reuse the majority of the programming for that portion of the machine as well."
Aagard began working on modular concepts in the early 2000s when it developed its original controls platform, and it's been evolving ever since. A couple years ago, the machine builder switched its machine control from a PC-based platform to Rockwell Automation's PLCs, including its Integrated Architecture system with Power Programming. "We had ideas on what we wanted to change to make programming easier," Myren says. "We evaluated Rockwell's architecture, and it fit very well with what we were looking for. It allowed us to be more modular and reuse more code."
Until recently, PLCs couldn't achieve the necessary scan time with the axis count needed in Aagard's equipment, which is why the machine builder relied on a PC platform. "It was not a good fit for PLCs because they didn't have the capacity we needed," VanderTuin says, explaining that the situation has since changed. "The advancements in PLCs are significant. They're now at the level that would support our equipment."
Newer, faster processors, along with more available tools, have a lot to do with the PLC's increased capabilities, according to Myren. "We can now have coordinated motion across multiple PLCs," he says. "The PLC is really becoming more flexible. I don't want to call it a PC, but it's going in that direction. Yet you have the security of a PLC. The PC has some security risks, and the PLC is a more stable controller."
As Myren notes, Rockwell has changed to calling its controllers PACs, which incorporate more than just logic control, integrating PC functions into the controller. "From my standpoint, it does not matter to me whether it is called a PLC or a PAC," Myren says. "It's the functionality that I care about."
As an example, Myren points to a machine that Aagard's engineers are working on now — it has 52 axes controlled by three PLCs. "Because of the speed of part of the machine, we're limited on the number of axes and the amount of programming we can have," he explains. So the machine coordinates motion across all three of the PLCs.