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Control software becomes more user-friendly

Sept. 9, 2022
Equipment and device integration provides more functionality and reporting for easier fault-finding and diagnosis

Mark Lee is CHP technical manager at Prinovis, a print service provider in Liverpool, England.

Tell us about your company’s state-of-the-art machine-controls technology for manufacturing.

Mark Lee, CHP technical manager, Prinovis: Our Siemens Simatic PCS 7 distributed control system (DCS) is interconnected with various machines and equipment throughout the site. Whilst it is not the most up-to-date version of Siemens PCS, thus no longer considered state-of-the-art, it still serves as the heart of our site automation.

Also read: How IEC 61499 can standardize interoperability

With various systems interconnected, we can send and receive signals to other machines, and this has enabled us to implement a lot of automated changes so equipment can stop/start or change setpoints automatically. With reducing staffing levels, we can no longer be reliant on human changes to systems throughout the shifts and a lot more automation is required to ensure machines run as efficiently as possible. The DCS has enabled us to implement better cross-site controls, and thus has enabled us to run machinery more efficiently than we have ever done before.

What have been the biggest improvements to machine-controls technology in the past five years?

Mark Lee, CHP technical manager, Prinovis: Whilst our DCS is now outdated, from my experience, I know how it can be difficult to integrate new equipment when needed. With IT infrastructure, different communications protocols, integrating old with new—Profibus and Profinet, for example—it can make new integrations problematic, and we’ve often resorted to unorthodox methods internally to make things easier.

Integration between equipment and devices is becoming much more standard and with more functionality and reporting too, for easier fault -finding and diagnosis.

What’s the most innovative or efficient machine-controls technology application you’ve ever seen or been involved with?

Mark Lee, CHP technical manager, Prinovis: Whilst we still have a lot of Siemens S7-300/400 on site, when newer equipment has arrived using the more up-to-date S7-1200/1500 PLCs, it’s allowed us to utilize Siemens TIA portal much more.

TIA portal has pretty much everything in one package that you will need when making program and human-machine-interface (HMI) modifications, making it simpler to configure devices, create connections and manage the projects and software required.

This makes it more efficient for the user to create, modify and maintain projects without the need for various software that would only run on certain versions of Windows, hence removing the need for multiple virtual machines.

How has machine-controls technology benefitted from remote monitoring and connectivity?

Mark Lee, CHP technical manager, Prinovis: Where possible, we rely on remote connectivity to our site DCS. We have only a handful of people who are skilled in PLC programming and modifications and when something goes wrong, on-site engineers can remotely liaise with a skilled PLC engineer to either help carry out diagnosis or, where required, make program changes. However, remote access introduces security risks and, at times, remote access can be difficult due to IT changes in security policies.

Can you explain how software development has changed machine controls in manufacturing?

Mark Lee, CHP technical manager, Prinovis: Software for developing/managing machine controls has become a lot more user-friendly over the years. It has needed to. Whilst in the past, a lot of expertise has come from understanding the software—how to connect and get online—which created experts in certain fields, such as Siemens. For the end user and its own engineers, such as me, this could be frustrating.

You either send a lot of staff on expensive courses, and they could later leave for specialist roles, or you’re reliant upon external support who may not be able to attend immediately.

As software has developed, it seems to have become more user-friendly allowing for a greater number of people to utilize it, enabling more able on-site engineers and also enabling engineers to understand multiple systems, with the ability to support on Siemens, Rockwell Automation and Omron Automation, for example, rather than just one system. However, I do think there’s still a long way to go to make the systems even more user-friendly.

How do control technologies figure into digital-twin platform models being used by manufacturers?

Mark Lee, CHP technical manager, Prinovis: It’s great to see digital-twin technology developing. From experience, it would be costly and slow to develop a new system or try to implement a modification on an existing system that would require testing and potential production impacts.

With Siemens PLC simulator, it is possible to create some simulations before actual machine implementation, thus helping verify things before any impact on production. Coupling that with a printing-press digital twin, for example, would take that verification process a step further, again without impacting production. It’s exciting to see this technology develop.

When will machine controls become IT-friendly enough that engineers are no longer required for installation and operation?

Mark Lee, CHP technical manager, Prinovis: Where is the line now between IT and engineering? We often clash with different requirements and needs for setting up and integrating systems.

Would IT ever take over completely from engineering to install, maintain and operate machine controls systems? I’d argue that it would be the other way around. I think engineers are having to learn more and more about IT systems—protocols, firewalls, security—to install and operate machine-control systems.

What future innovations will impact the use of machine-controls technology in manufacturing operations?

Mark Lee, CHP technical manager, Prinovis: There is a long way to go before machine-controls technology becomes truly user-friendly. As it develops further, machines control will be more available to more technicians and engineers, even operators with simple interfaces to make required changes.

With manufacturers and developers creating very similar things and with IoT growing, everything will become interconnected, or at least can be easily interconnected.

Machines will have much more AI functionality, so they can self-maintain to a certain degree and report back issues before they show up as breakdowns. This will create a factory that requires less-skilled engineers and technicians and fewer overall inspections, and it will put more ownership on the operators, creating a leaner manufacturing environment.

However, there will still be a need for very specialized engineers who will be needed when things need to change and expand as the on-site and now less-skilled engineers wouldn’t have the ability to do this.

About the author: Mike Bacidore
About the Author

Mike Bacidore | Editor in Chief

Mike Bacidore is chief editor of Control Design and has been an integral part of the Endeavor Business Media editorial team since 2007. Previously, he was editorial director at Hughes Communications and a portfolio manager of the human resources and labor law areas at Wolters Kluwer. Bacidore holds a BA from the University of Illinois and an MBA from Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. He is an award-winning columnist, earning multiple regional and national awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors. He may be reached at [email protected] 

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