Machine Builders and Integrators Address the Future of Automation

March 11, 2015
The Control Design Editorial Advisory Board discusses the state of technology.
About the Author

Mike Bacidore is the editor in chief for Control Design magazine. He is an award-winning columnist, earning a Gold Regional Award and a Silver National Award from the American Society of Business Publication Editors. Email him at [email protected].

Jim Barry, Michael Batchelor, TJ McDermott and Rick Rice—these are individuals you need to know. Four of the most expansive thinkers in the machine-building technology space, these engineering veterans comprise the Control Design Editorial Advisory Board.

As an introduction, they shared their thoughts on a variety of topics, from motion control and wireless sensing to control platforms and cybersecurity. 

Meet the Editorial Advisory Board

Rick Rice is applications specialist, engineering, at Crest Foods, an Ashton, Illinois-based company with more than 60 years of experience in dairy stabilizers, manufacturing and contract packaging. Rice has more than 25 years experience in the packaging industry, with expertise in custom machine programming. Rice specializes in line integration, including other vendor’s equipment as part of a total packaging solution. He’s particularly adept at packaging applications, machine programming and on-site troubleshooting. Rice supports and mentors team members in day-to-day operations and focuses on lean-manufacturing initiatives and standardization. He holds associate’s degrees in controls engineering technology and electrical engineering technology from FanshaweCollege.
TJ McDermott is project manager with Systems Interface, an integrator in Bothell, Washington, where he’s responsible for design of electrical panels/enclosures and the controls programming for them, covering all ranges of industrial automation, including motion control, VFDs, PLCs and HMIs. McDermott is an engineer with 20 years of experience in all aspects of machine design, specializing in mechanical, electrical, motion control, programming and safety. He holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering, aerospace engineering, from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
Michael Batchelor is instrumentation and controls specialist at Automation Electronics, an industrial electrical design-build contractor with strong automation and communication departments in Casper, Wyoming. He has more than 30 years of industrial experience in control systems design, data architecture, system implementation, start-up, operation and management of projects in power generation, electronics, data processing and business intelligence mining. Batchelor has specific expertise in MES database design and implementation and plant-floor-to-business interface layer development. He’s experienced in Web-based solutions, desktop-based client/server solutions, and OPC-based solutions. He is an FCC-licensed commercial general-radiotelephone operator, with certifications in a variety of Schneider Electric Wonderware solutions, and a reactor operator from the U.S. Navy Nuclear Power School.
Jim Barry is director of engineering at Arpac, a packaging-machinery manufacturing and service organization in Schiller Park, Illinois. He is experienced with 21 CFR Part 11 validation and has strong vision-solution design and programming skills using Cognex, DVT and NI LabView vision systems integrated with PC and PLC control systems. Barry has special expertise in database design and interfacing for industrial applications using Microsoft SQL Server and RSSQl, as well as experience automating very difficult processes including fiberoptic alignment. He holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Southern Illinois University.
CD: Big Data and the Internet of Things have dominated the boardroom buzz for the past year. What is your organization doing to enable that type of contextual information via the control system? And how do you see that type of connectivity playing out in the forthcoming year?

TJM: We use Ethernet connectivity in as many of our projects as possible. Some customers do not want control signals passed via network, preferring instead the traditional hardwired approach. However, my company believes the robustness and reliability of current Ethernet hardware is not a great risk to system control, especially when one plans for network failures and how to deal with them.

We’re using mobile network technology more and more so that even remote panels can be accessed via Internet for data acquisition and even control.

In the next year, use of Ethernet network in systems and machines is only going to continue to grow. The only downside to such connectivity is security. Something drastic has to happen to stop the explosion of data intruders. I hope that a group of businesses comes together somewhat in the manner of the origins of the NFPA to actively hunt down and prosecute data hackers wherever they are.

JB: We are looking at technologies that would allow us to track the performance of all of our installed equipment where our customers allow cloud access. The idea is intriguing; however, for 2015, we will be in the investigative stages.

MB: I expect we will begin seeing standardized interfaces for devices become more common as devices can begin communication. For example, some years ago it was thought of as very forward-thinking that an SPC data set trend of part variances could trigger an automatic tool change on a cutting head. But all of that had to be designed and hand-programmed by the system integrator. In this coming year and accelerating thereafter, I expect to see more manufacturing functions to become generically specified to a degree that standardized interfaces can be exposed to foreign devices to facilitate linkages.

RR: Technological advances now allow us to connect to our production environment from the comfort of our home office, but what do we do with the wealth of information that is available to us?

We have been in business, in some fashion, since 1946. Starting out in what is now a laundromat, we have grown over the years from a filler with manual bag sealing to 40 lines of production, ten 5000 lb blenders and nearly 750,000 sq ft of warehouse space spread out over two major properties in rural Illinois. Somewhere along the journey we transitioned from being a small dairy-ingredient supplier into a major contract packager without realizing that we continued to think like that small-town business.

We didn’t start out, all those years ago, with even an inkling of an idea that we would, one day, want to connect all these various production machines together. Sure, since the 1980s, there have been machines that networked devices together on a machine level, but who could have imagined the Internet of Things would give us the ability to not only look at our whole facility from a single access point, but to drill down to individual devices and collect all sorts of health-related data?

For an established manufacturing facility, I see the first challenge as how to get the network to the plant floor. Big Data and the Internet of Things don’t exist without a means to connect things together. We didn’t lay out our manufacturing floors with networks in mind. As a contract packager we move equipment in and out of a production area based on the needs of the product to be produced. There isn’t an easier corridor in which to lay down the physical media to spider signals around the plant floor.

Beyond the physical connection, I see an even bigger challenge in making 40-year-old machinery talk to the network. Traditional thinking was to network the devices on the machine together but link to other associated machines on the line via hardwired signals. To leverage the advantage of the Internet of Things and, by association, Big Data, we must get everyone talking to each other. It isn’t enough to just tell the upstream equipment that we are OK or running. We need to tell it how we are running. Are we producing? Are we producing well? Are there pending issues, such as a low magazine or low glue supply, that will impact our ability to produce?

Also Read: Do We Future-Guard Machine Designs?

Most major packaging machinery made after 1980 makes use of PLCs, but not all of them do. For many manufacturing facilities, the relay logic control panel is much easier to maintain because we don’t need someone with a college diploma to troubleshoot it. Even if our machine has a PLC, can it talk to other PLCs or exist on a network? Many of our older machines do not. So, how do we talk to the machine manufactured in 1970? The decision becomes a capital concern—do we buy new equipment or do we upgrade what we have? If we decide to upgrade, do we have the ability to do this in-house or do we spend money to have others do it for us? Ultimately, to implement the Internet of Things, everything must be able to reach the Internet.

Finally, I imagine the challenge of deciding what data is important to us. Big Data means exactly that—a wealth of data available to be crunched and manipulated. Maintenance wants to know what is broken. Engineering wants to know when it will break. Operations wants to know what it produced. Finance wants to know how much money we can make versus what it cost to fix it. Having these vast sources of information presents a large quandary. How do we know what we want to know? I liken this to Carl Sagan inviting us to imagine the vastness of space. All of those sources of light out there are other planets, solar systems, galaxies and universes. Imagine what we can imagine. Are we interested only in the planets of our own solar system, or are we interested in how these planets interact in our solar system. Do we want to know how the packager, cartoner, checkweigher, metal detector, case packer and palletizer are doing, or do we want to know more? With Big Data comes big considerations.

CD: What is the current or future paradigm for bringing controls engineers and IT personnel together?

MB: This has been a rant of mine for quite a few years, often met with skepticism and criticism. Certainly not within the next year, nor within the next 10 years, but I expect that sometime in the future all IT, from hardware to software design, will become part of an organization’s engineering or technical staff. But this requires a substantial organizational change which will be resisted by existing stakeholders. The way forward for the engineering and control systems groups is to repeatedly and doggedly apply good solid engineering practices to all projects that present opportunity to clash. Do your stakeholder elicitations, do your design and review, and then roll out working systems. 

RR: This subject is near and dear to my heart. I have always looked back on what I call my formative years with a fondness for those who took the time to share their knowledge with me. I can’t imagine where I would be today if it weren’t for my then 55-year-old father opening my eyes to a vision of the future when he bought me a TRS-80 computer from Radio Shack. Remember 40 kilobytes of memory and a tape machine for program storage? Remember using a modem to connect to other computers? It’s hard to imagine such archaic items these days. They seem like objects from the Stone Age, and yet they happened in our own lifetime.

Today’s manufacturing environment not only utilizes leading-edge technology, it necessitates pushing the leading edge of that same technology. I remember feeling like such a geek to the electricians who I worked with fresh out of college. I came out armed with my newfound knowledge of microprocessors and programming into a world that was still primarily relays and timers. Where would we be if not for the forward-thinking pioneers in our field who embraced the future of digital electronics, fuzzy logic and, gasp, handheld communication devices?

The thing I remember most about college was coming out of it feeling like I know everything and realizing I really didn’t know much about the world of controls. It turns out that college really prepared me to learn. It was in my first job, and the ones after it, where I truly became a controls engineer. Standing in front of the plant manager of a major automotive manufacturer, being told that his factory not producing was costing him $10,000 a minute in lost production, I finally realized the impact that we controls engineers have on the world around us.

It is nearly impossible to imagine control design today without merging the concept of a traditional controls engineer with the duties of an IT professional. Those of us who have survived in this field did so because we learned to combine our education in controls with the coming wave of IT. The very possibility of the Internet of Things would not exist without the imagination of a computer nerd wondering how to bring the plant floor to the boardroom.

In my opinion, it is incumbent on us all to provide a pathway for the controls professional of the future. Much in the way that apprenticeships served to develop skillsets of a world that was dependent on manual labor, I see a healthy, cooperative effort between manufacturing and educational institutions as the key to the future of our profession. We have recently started working with a local community college to develop a curriculum that will produce people capable of stepping into our facility with a skillset that straddles the bridge between machine controls and information technology. We need folks with the knowledge of networks and infrastructure, but they must possess the skills to make their way around a panel with a PLC in it. Educational institutions find it challenging to keep ahead of the curve, and, if we don’t agree to work with them, then we won’t find the human resources necessary to keep us successful.

In addition to working with the colleges, manufacturing facilities need to embrace the age-old concept of apprenticeships. What better way to develop talent than to mentor a young person? Take a curious mind and provide the right exposure to develop a passion that will last a lifetime.

JB: Historically many controls engineers have tried to stay off of the IT staff’s radar. With improved networking capability at the machine level and an IT appreciation for the control network’s needs, we see controls and IT personnel working together more often and more effectively.

TJM: Right now their jobs are somewhat contradictory: controls engineers want data accessible from anywhere on the planet, but IT personnel want to lock down access into a factory to the point that it’s impossible to get at needed data.

It’s going to take a huge change in thinking to both free the data and protect it at the same time. There’s a market, I think, for companies to hunt down and prosecute data intruders. In a mental image that might be better suited for Hollywood, such a company would have almost vigilante status: track down those responsible, raid them, destroy their hardware, capture the perps and deliver them anonymously to an FBI field office.

CD: Robotics have become a common component in a variety of machine applications. Any examples of robotic integration that your organization has worked on recently? What are some of the larger benefits you see in integrating robotics?

RR: I have had the fortune of working a fair bit in the robotics industry over the years. Earlier experiences were with gantry robots picking parts out of molding machines in the plastics industry and windshield placement and welding robots in the automotive industry. They seem a far cry from the robots of today. Multi-axis robots moving at great speed in a very small footprint have made it hard to ignore the impact of robots in manufacturing.

Implementing robots in our facility presents a number of challenges, primary of which is footprint. We are truly a byproduct of the previous generation where labor was cheaper than automation. While we have since embraced technology, the makeup of our plants, the layout of the lines, doesn’t lend itself to fully automated lines. Automation needs space.

One place we have successfully integrated robots is in palletizing. Robots allow for the unitizing of different products on different pallets within a common workspace. We have many different SKUs and today’s generation of robots allow for an easy implementation of changes as the needs of our client change. As we continue to expand our operations to meet current and future needs, the use of robotic unitizing is pretty much a given.

I couldn’t have a discussion about robots without mentioning a significant consideration that robots imply on a work environment. Robots don’t have all of the sensory input that humans do. As a result, they demand a more accurately formed product. The faster a machine goes, the more precise the parameters of the package must be. People can adapt to a less-than-perfectly formed case by flipping it around if it stacks on a pallet better. I bring this up because older equipment, while still functional, doesn’t always produce a product that suits the exacting needs of a robot. Technology works best when working with other technology of a similar vintage. Integrating robotics can’t be done just because the industry has embraced it. It must be right for the application, and, remember, someone has to support that new technology. The investment has many impacts beyond the faster-and-better objective.

TJM: Robots do repetitive drudge work or dangerous work. They have to be integrated into a system; they don’t work alone in a vacuum. Well, some do, in space, but that’s not what I meant. Robots have their place for repetitive work, which can be programmed. The robots used on automobile assembly lines illustrate this. Robots used for bomb disposal are a different matter. I would not really call them robots. There is no way anyone would let a preprogrammed robot deal with a bomb, so a human teleoperates them; in my mind they are simply remote-controlled machines, not robots.

There is always a place for human beings though. Robots don’t have the adaptability that humans do. Outer space may be dangerous, but there are so many places where a human on site saved the mission where if only robots were available, the mission would have been lost.

JB: Arpac traditionally supplied individual packaging machines to the market. With the addition of robotic palletizers, we are now able to supply completely integrated packaging solutions to our customers. We are currently working on next-generation projects that combine robotic depalletizing, packaging equipment and robotic palletizers that allow our customers to recombine products in valuable ways.

CD: The past few years have seen dramatic improvements in vision sensing and the ability to integrate it with robotic capabilities. What applications of this have you heard of or have you developed in the equipment you’re building or integrating?

JB: We are leveraging vision integrated with robots heavily with our depalletizing systems. Systems with integrated vision allow much greater variability in the way product is presented to the depalletizing system.

TJM: We’ve not done much with machine-based vision. We’ve mainly integrated barcode scanners or imagers into material handling systems this year. It’s not sexy like robotic vision, but companies such as Amazon, UPS, USPS and FedEx would not be the companies they are without such scanners or imagers to do package sorting and handling.

RR: Vision gives the robot another sense. Robots traditionally rely on the condition of the packages they are handling to perform the job. The addition of vision to robots provides for the human element. The ability to assess the situation as it exists instead of what we expect. Vision allows robots to pick up irregularly shaped packages in a fixed manner from an irregular position on a production line and place it into a specific position in a container.

While we don’t have any of this technology in our facilities as yet, we have used vision to do things that were previously not imagined possible. We recently had an opportunity to package a product for a client that required the inclusion of a clear plastic bag in the carton with the dry ingredient pouches. These bags are inserted by hand, as are all the other components of the carton. The presence or absence of the major components is relatively easy to distinguish by using the net weight of the finished product. However, how does one determine that the bag made it into the carton? Well, we can’t absolutely guarantee the presence of the bag in the carton but we utilized vision to determine if the bag made it into the infeed conveyor before the components were pushed into the carton. By requesting that the manufacturer of the bag include a colored spot on the bag, we were able to utilize a camera with a lighting and lens filter system to highlight the spot and make a positive identification that the bag made it into the bucket of the infeed conveyor.

Another place where we were able to utilize vision was to more positively identify low-profile pouches in the same bucket conveyors as the previous example. Traditional photoelectric sensors have been used to look for pouches in a stainless-steel cavity with limited success. The sensor needs to be able to distinguish the difference between ribs on the bottom of the cavity and the thin pouch laying on top of these ribs. Diffuse or background suppression sensors just don’t have the capabilities to accurately and repeatedly pick out the pouch from the background. Through-beam sensors, mounted on the side wall of the moving conveyor, have limited success because the pouch is very slim and the sensor often looks over the pouch. The solution was to use vision to pick out the contrast of the pouch from the surrounding cavity, an easy thing for a vision sensor to do.

CD: Simulation allows faster development and deployment with a major reduction in resource costs and safety issues. How has your organization leveraged simulation?

JB: With simulation in our applications, we are able to comfortably quote robotic systems with regard to cycle time and robot sizing. Simulation engineering allows us to iterate end effector tools without cutting metal.

CD: What sort of impact will 3D printing or additive manufacturing have on machine building?

TJM: 3D printing is still in its infancy. There are many inexpensive 3D printers that can be had for home use, but what will you do with something that only makes nylon parts? The novelty aspect wears off quickly when all you can make are novelty items.

3D printing will come into its own when they become fabricators – fabbers, if you will. When you can program a fabber to crank out a part whether it is aluminum, zinc, magnesium, stainless steel, plastic or any combination of materials, then I think machine builders will be lining up for them.

RR: I was rather skeptical about this technology at first. It seemed like a nice toy for those who had money. It seems like it was only about 18 months ago that I first heard of this tool in the bag of designers. The concept sounded like something out of Star Trek, some sort of replicator for the rich folks. In what seems like a very short time, the cost has come down dramatically while the number of materials available for use has grown significantly. 3D printing has truly become the way of the future for machine building.

Also Read: What Manufacturing Facilities Need to Know About Network Security

The biggest challenge facing a machine builder is the time required to bring a concept or innovation to reality. With the advent of 3D or additive manufacturing, we have the ability to create prototype or even finished components directly from the design software. There is no need to mock up a part out of a substitute material. These sorts of operations often require hours, days or weeks to produce, especially if the capability is not something that we have in-house. The complexity of components has always been limited by the ability of manufacturing. We couldn’t create a cavity inside a component until now. So, now a component can be designed to be functional and suit the application, not the limited means of manufacturing.

CD: How much are your customers asking you to design in capabilities to monitor energy consumption or even connect to the Smart Grid? Any instances you can share?

RR: Energy consumption has always been a primary concern of my designs. The monitoring of energy consumption, in my opinion, should be focused on facilities as a whole before drilling down to the individual machines. Just like your home where you have an old refrigerator humming away in the garage and you are consuming unnecessary energy, old systems and machines in your factory are going to be the same hogs of the energy grid. By virtue of the attrition of older machines out of the manufacturing environment, we will reduce energy use.

One of the worst consumers of energy is the production of air. There has been a push in recent years by my clients, in my former role as an OEM, to eliminate or greatly reduce the use of pneumatic elements. Sometimes the cost of elimination isn’t exactly realized as the client finds out that the air cost is replaced by the cost of the additional electrical utilities. There is, with all things in life, a healthy balance that we must find in the pursuit of an optimal machine or process.

JB: Many of our machines include large energy-consuming heat tunnels that shrink plastic films. In the past year, we have developed our EcoTunnel, which uses upwards of 50% less energy than previous designs. With our tunnels, we optionally provide integrated energy monitors that provide our customers with detailed energy usage information.

CD: What sort of impact do modular designs have on I/O decisions?

TJM: Modular designs mean you need modular I/O. Even small PLCs which used to be considered fixed-size or “brick” type now usually have the means to expand via I/O slices or modules.

The companies who make I/O modules which can be added to a fieldbus coupler or directly to a logic processor as local I/O have taken this design philosophy to heart. Their approach is perfect for modular machinery.

RR: Modular designs dictate the base control system. Depending on the complexity of the design, the I/O may not be a simple matter of plugging things together. Modules that can be left out of the machine setup add a level of planning because most distributed I/O systems don’t allow us to simply unplug a section of it and keep the rest of it happy. More complexity means a higher-level skillset will be required to configure, maintain and operate the resulting system.

MB: I expect equipment will transit to standardized interfaces that expose well-defined data and interfaces to foreign equipment. From this perspective more traditional I/O, such as RIO, needs to be shrouded from the exposed interface. Although I think the transition will not be fast, I think I/O will become more bus-oriented and, in the end, more generic.

CD: Wireless connectivity is no longer a toe-in-the-water technology. What kinds of new applications have you been able to design and build with the use of wireless networking?

MB: Currently all our new tank level installations in the Bakken, at least with the group I am working with now, are wireless. Connectivity so far has been decent, with a few hiccups. But connectivity between process centers is still either wired or fiber. I expect this will change on the next generation.

In a more general sense I expect increasingly modular machine designs will be pressed to create reconfigurable manufacturing facilities, where cells connected wirelessly will rearrange logically for production runs of different products. Hence, the need for those standardized interfaces with exposed data.

TJM: We’re involved with a manipulator arm which has an extension axis. A spring-loaded reel with 15-channel slip-ring assembly permits signals to get to the effector on the end of the extension axis.

The spring-loaded retraction reel and the slip-ring assembly are weak points of the overall design. They have to be considered high-wear maintenance items and must be stocked as spare parts. Low-voltage, low-power signals are susceptible to noise and signal interruption from the slip ring.

We’re exploring a hybrid approach where all the control inputs and outputs of the end effector land on a block of I/O which connects via a Wi-Fi Ethernet connection back to the main processor. 24 Vdc power and dc return conductors are passed through multiple redundant channels of a slip-ring assembly. A buffer module gives several seconds of power capacity to ride through even a short complete interruption of 24 V power.

RR: I’m not all that sure that wireless technology is where it needs to be in automation. While I recognize that it’s a coming force to be reckoned with, I think that there is room to improve. There’s much nondeterministic Ethernet, but wireless introduces a serious element into the mix. We are counting on the air space around a machine to maintain control over a function. How do we know that the device we are talking to got the message we were sending?

We are comfortable connecting to our headset from our phone. If the connection stops working we can always pick up the phone. We have a reasonable confidence in printing to the wireless printer in the next room. My concern is these aren’t mission-critical functions. If you don’t get your printout then you can always send it again. Stopping and starting a machine doesn’t have that luxury.

CD: What about power over Ethernet (PoE)? Where does this make the most sense?

TJM: PoE makes a lot of sense when the power demand is low. In fact, I’m surprised it’s not more widely used in industrial applications. Why run a power cable and an Ethernet cable when just one will do nicely? I’ve successfully used it on mobile equipment this year, and with very good results. The only drawback I’ve found is that often the cable needs more consideration—stranded wire, proper connectors—than is usually given to simple Ethernet.

RR: Power over Ethernet only recently jumped into my field of view. I was working on a machine rebuild where we integrated a barcode reader into our machine architecture. The particular camera-based system utilized a hybrid of old technology with new when it came to connectivity. The camera uses a 15-pin connector for power and signal. The manufacturer then added an Ethernet connector to the housing. It was this connectivity that attracted my attention as I could now imagine the possibility of an integrated quality control point to our machine rebuilds.

The great part about a device that connects on Ethernet is all of the programming functions and interactions are now integrated via the programming connection. You don’t need to add extra wires to get more function. There was no longer any need to use the hardwired interface on the 15-pin connector, except for power. I need the 15-pin connection and associated cable running along in the same wire harness as the Ethernet media just so I can provide power to the device. Wouldn’t it be nice if this device had power over Ethernet? It would make sense.

CD: Power and motion control are essential to working machinery. How many requests are you getting for more energy-efficient solutions? Do those requests tend to ebb and flow as energy costs fluctuate in different geographic areas?

RR: I find that energy-efficient and technological advances seem to go hand-in-hand with something even more impactful—fiscally efficient advances. Newer technology brings with it the implied advantage of energy-efficiency and, usually, a cost increase. As the technology matures, the price tends to normalize. Around the time that it becomes fiscally practical to utilize a technology, the next great thing comes along.

As a machine builder who now builds systems for the end user that is myself, I find that the determining factor becomes a battle of technology versus financial impact. I want to get the most bang for the bucks that I am assigned. As an OEM, I would have designed a system based on the best technology that was available and then sell it to potential clients.

An astute OEM will recognize the benefit to all clients. Regardless of the geographical area, an efficient solution will still save money for the end user. The impact might be more on a client in an area of higher utility costs, but there is still an impact.

We should also look at the carbon-footprint impact of what we build. We speak in terms of financial gain or technological gain but not of the impact on our environment and the world around us. Hardware providers are being forced to consider their impact, and I think this is a good thing because we machine builders will be doing the right thing by default.

TJM: Industrial motion controls today are not all that inefficient. Yes, requests like that do ebb and flow. The requests for high-efficiency controls seem somewhat superficial; wouldn’t you expect companies with such requests to turn off lights and machinery when they’re not in use? How often have you seen that happen? I’ll take such requests a bit more seriously when companies turn off unused lights the way most people do in their homes.

CD: How much remote monitoring or support are you offering for the machines you build? Through what technology is that remote monitoring or remote support enabled?

JB: We consider remote monitoring and support on every piece of equipment that we sell. Working with our customers we use three primary methods to remotely support our equipment: a hardware device that allows us to connect to our machine with little customer IT involvement, but certain customers’ IT departments are not comfortable with this method; a customer-supplied VPN; and remote control of a PC within the customer’s facility.

RR: We stumbled upon this topic by being in the same neighborhood. We were looking for an HMI package on which to standardize our current and future machine builds. With specific purpose, we didn’t go to our usual suspects for inspiration. This was a serious corporate effort to determine the ship that would steer our company for the foreseeable future, and we didn’t want old bias or familiarities to cloud the view.

The results of our search found us with a hardware selection that provided not only the HMI-to-PLC connectivity and the built-in functions we wanted, but also added the benefit of being a client/server for other HMIs or a higher-level data collection/monitoring system. The key element in this is the higher-level system isn’t bothering the PLC for information. The link between the HMI and PLC is undisturbed by the client/server activity. An added bonus of this is we could combine these HMIs with their really well-planned communications drivers to interface with legacy PLCs on their older network technology and still offer Ethernet connectivity to the data collection/monitoring system.

TJM: Because more and more of our systems use Ethernet to connect the various sub-systems together, adding remote monitoring is almost always added, as well.

In some cases, it’s as simple as having an HMI send an email to a cell phone. In others, there’s complete system monitoring or control, sometimes over a wireless network because the system is really remote.

CD: What types of applications might benefit from sensing devices that can be powered by energy harvesting?

RR: The immediate, and perhaps obvious, answer to this would be remote sensors. For the same reason that wireless sensors would be of benefit, a sensor that can derive power from the objects around it would be of great value. However, much like wireless technology in automation, where is the guarantee that the sensor will continue to get power by harvesting from other sources?

Also Read: How the Industry Can Leverage New Skill Sets of Generation Y

Asking such questions makes me feel old. Am I no longer able to embrace the future? I suppose, like most things that have happened to automation in the past 30 or so years, it will take time to build that confidence in the new developments. If I think much about it, I have been a machine builder most of my adult life, but I only recently jumped into using I/O distribution blocks with great confidence. The technology has been around for years but I never really looked at it until I became an end user and I witnessed my maintenance techs troubleshooting I/O issues. It was only then that the significance of utilizing the technology made sense to me.

TJM: Any application where a regular reliable source of power is difficult to obtain or unfeasible would benefit from energy harvesting. Any application where the only way to power a sensor is via ridiculously long cables would also benefit. Sensors involved with marine applications might use wave action or solar power. Sensors mounted to rotating machinery could make use of that rotation to generate power for themselves.

I’ve seen demonstrations of push buttons using the mechanical energy of pushing the button into a wireless signal back to an I/O receiver.

CD: What are some of the big trends in machine automation and controls that you’re foreseeing in 2015?

TJM: I think 2015 will be another expansion year for all industry, possibly near record high. Companies are coming out of the depression and need to both expand and to replace old equipment. 2015 could be the high point. 2016 is an election year, which will definitely slow down growth as corporate leaders wait to see the way the country will swing.

JB: For 2015, we continue to see a push for machines that provide better OEE with ease of use.

RR: Automation will continue to move forward in the field of vision. The Internet of Things and the realization of big data will continue to drive the industry by bringing us more and more items that connect to the grid.

I think there will be advances in connectivity, particularly in the field of network architecture. With the advent of Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6), we will find more technology that opens up to the connectivity of things. Every single item out there can be connected to the grid. It is frightening and exciting all at the same time.

An overlooked aspect that I think will gain momentum is the wiring system. NEMA is being replaced by IEC, primarily due to size considerations. Control system requirements continue to demand better performance in a smaller package.

Finally, look to see a continuation of the development of the micro-PLC. After a spate of manufacturers offering up their versions, the main line automation companies are starting to pay attention. Excellent functionality from so-called smart relays is improving the options for small control systems. High quality micro-HMIs interfacing to these smaller PLCs is making these products much more attractive to machine builders.

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]