How Machine Builders Speed Up Design, Operations

Get There Sooner by Replacing the Many Paths of Automation and Control Functions With a Unified Platform

By Jim Montague

July 2013There are many paths that can take you from point A to point B, but the shortest distance between those two points, relativistic possibilities aside, is a straight line.

That's what more machine builders discover they can do by combining many formerly separate design, programming, configuration, interface, control, operations, maintenance, motion, robotics and other functions into a few or even one unified platform.

Thanks to the flexibility bestowed by more-capable software and faster microprocessors, control and automation platform can be integrated by preferred functions and applications, and not by the constraints of old technologies. This shortens the trip between A and B when designing, building and running machines and production lines, and it can aid competitiveness by saving considerable time, labor and revenue.

SEE ALSO: Productivity Through Integrated Engineering

Keep Up With the Customers
Located in one of California's biggest fruit- and vegetable-growing valleys, 19-year-old Pro Pack Systems in Salinas uses a combined platform to help build its case erectors, packers and sealers for the region's fresh-cut and prepared vegetable producers, who always need new designs and capabilities for packing new sizes, configurations and types of products.

"My dad, David Zurlinden, previously worked with hot-melt-glue applications, but branched out as an independent OEM when customers wanted erectors, packers and sealers to be built around their hot-melt and/or ink-jet printing systems," says Paul Zurlinden, Pro Pack's automation and controls engineer. "Shortly after the company was started, it was offered a hot-melt distributorship, and then a printing distributorship from Markem-Amaje. Probably the biggest innovation back then was integrating high-resolution inkjet printers into case erectors, so users could print four sides before erecting, which meant smaller footprints on their plant floors because they no longer had to covey to a printer after erecting."  

Because its users still require continually updated designs to streamline their machines, user fewer parts, run faster and cost less, Pro Pack previously had to apply and readjust separate automation and control software packages for its HMI, I/O modules, motors, robots and other functions. These varied and shifting platforms made it harder for ProPack to build, program and configure its machines, and made them harder for users to adjust and perform changeovers.

"We used to have PLCs, host controllers, motor and servos from different suppliers. There were many manual steps to integrate them all, and when one firm's device wouldn't talk to another's, we were stuck in the middle, and had to fight some battles," Zurlinden explains. "So, about two and a half years ago, we switched to B&R Automation's controllers, HMIs, servos and I/O because they all run in the same Automation Studio programming platform on the same screen, and are networked with Ethernet Powerlink, so we no longer need a widget to communicate from one platform to another. Now, if we need to change PLCs or move up to a bigger drive, we just map a couple of variables in Automation Studio, and install it without having to make major software, programming or hardware changes."

Zurlinden adds that Automation Studio allows integration with third-party controllers and components, so Pro Pack can mix and match motors, drives and servos to suit the ever-changing needs of its users. "We sell a lot of our EBS case erectors and bottom sealers, but as products get more varied, many users run a multitude of case sizes, and so they must be able to switch sizes in minutes," says Zurlinden. "In the past five years, some users began running a dozen different case sizes on the same line, and switching several times per shift."

To help speed up changeovers, Pro Pack also worked to ease the transition from manual to automatic recipe selection and adjustments, using servos and stepper motors to move components precisely. "If a customer wants to adopt automatic changeover, then we'll have to add three or four servo axes. Again, because these devices are configured in Automation Studio, all we have to do is add more names to our single HMI display."

Daniel Ghizoni, B&R's senior solutions engineer, adds that, "Many platforms are still segregated, but we've been integrating our HMI and other functions within our Automation Studio development package and Automation Runtime operating system for about 10 years. The main advantage of this integration is that it reduces the complexity of the whole system, so users no longer have to be experts in five different suppliers' software tools, and can do everything with one portable, scalable tool."   

Formerly Unfamiliar Elements
While combining separate platforms can save time and labor, gathering and integrating the required pieces can seem very counterintuitive, especially when first coordinating them to work more closely.

"Automation control vendors have standardized on the IEC 61131-3 programming language, and use similar approaches to accomplish control," says Reid Hunt, product line manager at Kollmorgen.  "Also, these IEC 61131-3 suites can include other standard tools to help integration. One example is PLCOpen for motion programming blocks, which allow an automation controller to also control motion components without managing separate machine code. It's an investment for the vendors to integrate these tools in the products, but it offloads the work from the user. Unfortunately, there are still major differences in packages, and they're not all created equal. The best approach is to start from the programming standpoint, and ask, 'How do I program this component to do what I want?' If your control system is running on a PC-based operating system, you may be able to use a vendor's library to make functional cells to utilize features."

For instance, Michigan Custom Machines in Novi, Mich., designs and builds customized, turnkey, end-of-line test machines for automotive and other industrial components such as fuel injectors and nozzles, transmission control valves and turbochargers for large diesel and mining vehicles (Figure 1). However, it needed a simpler, more uniform, less costly way to communicate between its PLCs and tailored HMIs than the fractious and restrictive dynamic data exchange (DDE) or OPC software-based servers it sought to use in the past, which required runtime license fees for each new machine and were often difficult to program and modify.

SEE ALSO: Easing Linear Motion Integration

As a result, MCM adopted InGear driver software from CimQuest InGear, which has a developer license and unlimited runtime distribution that has enabled MCM to reduce its PLC programming costs by $5,000 to $20,000 per machine.

"The usual HMIs were limited in what we could do with them, and OPC required a lot of typed-in configurations to tell all the tags what to monitor, while its polling and latency meant it couldn't run in real time," says Mike Schena, MCM's president. "We were just too customized for a cookie-cutter HMI. We write our own software from scratch to fit particular applications. Every machine we make annunciates its alarms, calibrates transducers, edits parameters for parts, and logs and displays test results."

InGear provides a program library for PLCs, which machine builders can use to create their own applications using Microsoft Visual Studio. InGear provides access to PLC memory, databases, I/O and communications, which lets programmers secure data from a PLC, process it in a PC, and send commands back to the PLC for control. Presently, all of MCM's HMIs have multi-core microprocessors, use InGear's latest .Net version, and interact with Rockwell Automation's ControlLogix platform via EtherNet/IP.

"Our software can even automatically master its machine," adds Schema. "This means validating that all heads and robots on each machine are set to operate correctly before running products, which would takes hours to do manually. We usually have one to three robots feeding the next available heads in each machine. For example, a couple of years ago, we built a machine with 84 heads for durability testing of fuel pump modules at different temperatures, pressures and fuel types, and we used InGear to calibrate the heads and monitor the performance of each part."     

Similarly, R&B Plastics Machinery in Saline, Mich., builds continuous, extrusion, blow-molding machines, which maintain high output rates with wheel and shuttle equipment and a calibrated, water-cooled neck finish. R&B's blow molders also accommodate multiple parisons, multilayer co-extrusion and in-mold labeling of containers from 12 ounces to 2.5 gallons. Parison-control programming is used to achieve optimum wall thickness, and so R&B also works with Rockwell Automation's Integrated Architecture to develop scalable parison-control retrofits, which can leave other machine control systems in place.

R&B reports its automation tasks are programmed in one, unified programming environment, RSLogix 5000 design and configuration software, and carried out by a common control engine, networking structure and communications service in ControlLogix or CompactLogix programmable automation controllers (PACs), which jointly handle discrete, process, drive and motion control, as well as safety and data processing.

"The controllers are supported through a lifecycle management system," says Jake Losee, R&B's electrical controls manager. "This level of support allows us to provide our customers with a machine that will for years without having to create downtime replacing or converting parts."

Capability in Controllers
One of the clearest ways that software, data processing and microprocessors aid platform integration is by creating more capable and multidisciplinary controllers.

For example, Burr Oak Tool in Sturgis, Mich., builds high-speed fin presses that run at 150-300 strokes per minute to serve the HVAC industry, but it was undercut by an Asian competitor.  It responded by redesigning and reducing the cost of its FP 400 entry-level press. To aid this effort, Burr Oak joined a pilot-testing program, and migrated to Siemens Industry's new S7 1500 runtime PLCs with TIA Portal.

"As an OEM manufacturer, we like it whenever we can set up and start a machine," says Eric Lund, Burr Oak's controls and software engineering manager. "So, we like S7 1500's screen because it allows electricians to see alarms, and diagnose and clear errors without having to call the software guy. "We also like the new PLC's ability to trace data, and hammer down into code to find problems. It takes about 15,000 lines of SCL code to control our fin press, and we were able to archive this control software as a project, move it all into a new program in the S7 1500, and redesign our press to cost less."

Lund adds that Burr Oak recently found a machine with the 65-year-old company's first serial number, which was especially significant because it always promised to support its machines forever. "Users sometimes send in old machines, and we strip them and send them back out with new controls. S7 1500 and TIA Portal will be able to help these projects a lot."

SEE ALSO: Choosing an Integrated Automation Platform

Similarly, VMS Maschinenbau GmbH in Engelhofen, Germany, specializes in machines that fill containers for dispensing liquids and pasty substances, such as dairy products, polishes, cosmetics, chemicals and other foods. To accomplish these often difficult tasks it combines several functions, including PC-based controls, EtherCAT communications and TwinSafe I/O points, in a stainless-steel, IP 65-rated panel PC from Beckhoff Automation.

All of VMS's machine functions and operating modes, such as final position monitoring or start-up from base positions, are programmed in its application software, which is based on TwinCAT NC PTP automation software, and uses its libraries and function modules. Also, some special metrology features are incorporated in the filling machines, such as a monitoring system for container fill levels, temperature measurements and sensor monitoring of the cleaning process. "Sterilization is a very sensitive issue because we have to reach 143 °C (289 °F) and maintain it," explains Roland Trittner, VMS's managing director. "To record the temperature during sterilization, we employ Beckhoff's measuring terminal with 16-bit resolution.

To achieve accurate filling, VMS also uses TwinCAT's motion control software and its camming functions. VMS reports its first operating preference in its filling machines is to use the piston-filling principle, in which the fill quantity is first sucked in by a piston and then dispensed through connected nozzles. This stroke-dependent filling process is controlled using TwinCAT NC PTP software, which also controls the VMS's filling bridge and worm feeder.

For example, VMS recently developed RX1000/4, which is a four-pump, five-cycle/minute machine for simultaneously filling four 1-kilogram plastic bottles with car polish paste (Figure 2). "This machine is a piston-filler, but it also uses a diaphragm," adds Trittner. "We're handling an abrasive polishing agent, which would increase wear in a typical piston-filler."

The diaphragm requires a special filling system for the piston because the filling process must be accomplished completely without direct contact from machine parts. As a result, RX1000/4's entire filling process, from feeding in the container to discharging after the filling process, is controlled by servomotors.

Machines, Plants on the Same Page
Just as formerly distinct functions and platforms are combined in machines, they're also integrated across larger industrial networks and even whole facilities.

For instance, Svensk Industriautomation in Jönköping, Sweden, develops robot systems for users in Europe and the U.S. These systems usually consist of robot-linked cells, which communicate with each other via DeviceNet over factory-floor settings. The core of each robot cell is based on SVIA's Pickvsion vision system, which detects how particular objects are oriented on a conveyor belt, and instructs a robot how to pick up the objects (Figure 3).

"However, a couple of years ago, we built a robot cell for a customer that promised access to their Profibus system, but after awhile it became clear that our system was only to be a separate node in their network," says Anders Mandorsson, SVIA's project and design manager. "That's when we found Anybus X-gateways from HMS. We tried installing one in our cabinet, and it handled the conversion between our DeviceNet system and the customer's Profibus network system. DeviceNet is the standard we use in most of our cabinets, so instead of handling the conversion to other networks ourselves, we simply install an X-gateway. It's cheaper and it makes it easier for customers because they get a clear segregation between our system and their own factory network."

Anybus X-gateways handle the data conversion between the two networks through built-in software that restructures the telegrams from one side, and makes them understandable on the other side. The configuration is made in minutes by using HMS' Anybus Configuration Manager software, which means no programming is needed.

"To be honest, we don't really think much about networking anymore," Mandorsson adds. "When we create a robot system, we simply order the X-gateway, which converts to the customer's industrial network. We plug it in and it works."

Upgrading Biological Brains
Despite the benefits that integrating platforms can provide, many potential users remain stuck in mindsets that software and microprocessors are as undependable as they were 10 or 20 years ago.

"We have to get people to see what an integrated platform is and what it can do for them," says John Kowal, B&R's business development director. "For example, we created a friendlier Ladder Logic environment by simplifying its software blocks for motion, so users don't have to do as much configuration. Likewise, users need to know that today's core processors and Windows 7 and 8 are much better at doing the heavy lifting in control and automation than previous operating systems and microprocessors.

"Originally, PC-based control meant running Windows first and control intermittently, and this gave it a bad name. If their hardware wasn't powerful enough to run multiple function blocks, then suppliers told users not to run multiple blocks because it would slow the system down. This was a real vicious circle for a long time. Now we have the processing power to make those blocks run."  

Keith Staninger, Rockwell's business manager for large controllers, adds that, "We view platform integration as many different functions coming together over one network and in one multidisciplinary controller, which has consistent diagnostics and troubleshooting, and one design and programming environment. And, we're seeing more users getting comfortable with this convergence, especially when they know that the business level isn't going to interrupt plant operations."