How to link machine controls to IT systems

Open systems and standard communication protocols continue to make it easier.

By Dan Hebert, PE, senior technical editor

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In the beginning, machines were either islands of automation or linked to other machines in a production line via a few hardwired I/O. Then came machine-to-machine communication, usually via some type of digital data link. Now, more and more machines are linked to IT systems in many different ways for a variety of purposes.

Connecting machines to IT systems provides a number of benefits for machine builders and their customers. In the past, this access was often hard to implement due to proprietary communication protocols and closed systems. But now, open systems are the rule, particularly when the controller or the HMI is PC-based. These open systems and their standard communication protocols are making it ever easier to connect machines to IT systems.

Connecting smart machines to enterprise-wide IT systems helps end users view their processes as a whole.

OEMs, their customers and their suppliers can find benefits in connecting machines to IT systems. “Linking our tools and machines to IT systems allows our customers to customize data acquisition systems to meet their specific needs and to monitor machine performance remotely and compare performance among multiple machines,” says Doug Putnam-Pite, director of software development, Owens Design in Fremont, California. Owens makes high-speed material handling equipment for the semiconductor, disk drive, solar and consumer electronics industries.

“Linking machines to IT systems provides a great deal of information about how and where to deploy idle machines, along with information about when it is safe to continue or when there is a need to stop a machine or process,” points out Richard Clark, Wonderware InduSoft technical specialist, Schneider-Electric. “This information can be used to increase uptime, reduce operating costs, and provide the ability to make decisions remotely. Interfacing with ERP and using JIT or other ordering or supply chain techniques can help match machine production to process line needs.”

Rockwell Automation also sees benefits. “Connecting smart machines to enterprise-wide IT systems helps end users view their processes as a whole,” observes Christopher Zei, vice president, global industry group, Rockwell Automation. “They can readily access information to make better decisions and improve plant efficiency. Preventive maintenance, diagnostics and issue resolution can all happen more quickly, decreasing downtime and reducing maintenance costs.”

Also read: The machine builders’ guide to remote monitoring

Improved quality is a goal of most every production process, and sending data from machines to higher-level QA/QC software for analysis contributes to this effort. Inventory control is often implemented by connecting parts and machines to ERP and other IT systems. And remote access to machines is a feature used by many OEMs and their customers, and it often involves linking machines via various types of IT systems, often cloud-based (Table 1).

Plants are now able to more easily establish and maintain links between machines and IT systems because of open communication hardware and software standards. Much of this openness is due to the PC, making machines with PC-based controls a natural fit for integration to IT systems.

PCs provide easy integration

Echo Hill Automation, based in Beamsville, Ontario, manufactures centerless grinding machines. It uses PC-based HMI and control systems from Beckhoff Automation and installs quality control software on the same PC used for control, greatly simplifying the required integration effort.

Albion Minerals is a vitamin and mineral supplement manufacturer based in Clearfield, Utah. It provides links from the plant-floor machines to its IT systems in one of two ways: through PC-based HMIs or through Opto 22’s groov, an embedded communications server.

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