Machine control for today and tomorrow

18 December 2017

Suzanne Gill collects the thoughts of solution providers relating to current trends and the most important requirements for successful machine control solutions today.

Many machine control end users are currently in a transitional state, moving towards the requirements of a more connected, smart, industrial environment. This means that machine builders now need to be delivering solutions that are capable of going on this IIoT journey with their customers.

Paul Davies, solutions architect – Architecture & Software at Rockwell Automation, believes that, in addition to this new requirement, it is still vital for machine builders to take a customer-centric approach to machine building and to take the time to truly understand the very specific needs of every customer.

According to Davies there are three machine building requirements that should be considered as central tenets in meeting the needs of the market as it is, and as it is becoming. “These requirements can be thought of in terms of design, development and delivery,” said Davies. “From a design perspective, there is a need to produce machines as quickly and cost-effectively as possible. The production process of the machines being built should be under constant scrutiny to ensure they are as efficient and simple as possible.”

From a development perspective, Davies says that machines need to be flexible enough to fit existing customer environments and infrastructures. “The use of open architecture for control and engineering requirements, where possible, is vital. The machine must also meet the needs of evolving end user and consumer demands for flexibility. Giving the end-user the capability to, for example, change the size, shape, flavour or packaging varieties will make a machine more valuable to them. Combining the hardware to achieve flexibility, with open control and software applications that allow for quick change-overs of product lines will result in a compelling package which can help the end user meet the demands of modern production.”

Finally, from a delivery perspective, Davies says it is important to remember that end users do still have a variety of more traditional requirements, such as machine availability and efficiency, in addition to the more recent considerations based around connectivity, such as visibility of machine data that will allow users to further improve the yield or reduce the costs of running their machine. “To that end, building-in analytics packages that feed data back to the end user (and potentially to the machine builder) is important. With remote monitoring dashboards containing information about the machine's OEE, machine builders can offer servitisation models, as well as improving the design of the machine according to experience of how equipment performs in real terms.”

So, wherever an end user may be on their IIoT journey, they will need to know that the machine they are buying has a degree of future-proofing built in. By nurturing the relationship with their end users, exploiting IIoT connectivity and striving for open flexibility, machine builders could benefit from the shift towards calculating total cost of ownership when making purchasing decisions.

Michael Thomas, head of production machines at Siemens Digital Factory Division, believes that plants and machines need to be flexible, simply to use and quick to modify or retrofit, while, at the same time helping end users to minimise costs. “Every machine or plant is different in terms of system performance needs and complexity,” he said.  “Increasingly intelligent motion control solutions are now merging performance and modularity and connecting powerful hardware with efficient engineering and innovative software to help achieve all of these goals,” said Thomas.  

Digital twins?
Thomas highlighted another important development for the machine control designer – the creation of a digital twin to act as a precursor to the actual machine. “This digital representation helps to facilitate easy and cost-effective testing and optimisation of the machine before it is physically created – resulting in big time saving,” he said. “One possible key to success in this area is virtual commissioning,” suggests Thomas. “A digital twin can facilitate easy and cost-effective testing and optimisation of a machine or plant. In addition, alternative control concepts can be investigated at the planning phase without too much effort. In this way, efficiency checks also become an integral component of the design, and this solution also allows for subsequent adaptation of the machine.”

?Benny Magrafta, head of software R&D at Unitronics, has been involved in automation for over 25 years. “In this time two machine control requirements that have remained constant,” he said. “These are cost and time. More recently, another imperative has joined these needs – a requirement to deliver solutions that are smart factory-ready.

“Cost is an age-old issue, said Magrafta. “Customers will always want a Mercedes for the price of Volkswagen. They want solutions that stay in budget but which also meet all of their requirements.” He goes on to say that the cost of the controller should never be the most important factor in a specification decision. “Select a PLC that is rugged enough to meet the needs of the application environment and which also has sufficient memory to support I/O and execute the programme,” he said.

Magrafta goes on to highlight the importance of software, particularly when it comes to helping speed up time to market. “Consider whether your choice of controller has the ability to store code and functions; or whether it includes HMI screens that enable you to re-use your work and save time. Look for software that has a short learning curve and maybe even advanced tools for collecting and manipulating production data, recipe management, built-in alarms, and multi-language support.

“The right software should allow an engineer to create HMI screens worthy of a graphic designer! Setting up and implementing communications can be a major time-waster, so look for software that enables rapid set up and implementation of a broad range of communication protocols – from fieldbus to advanced communications.”

In conclusion, Magrafta said: “Machine builders need to ensure that their choice of controller helps to ensure them ensure that their offerings are Industry 4.0 ready. For example, with a built-in PLC webserver for remote production monitoring and management; SNMP to integrate the PLC into IT infrastructure as an IT asset; and SQL to interface with factory ERP/MRP servers to communicate directly with a facilities’ backend systems.”

David Randall, business development manager at Lenze also commented on the requirements for today’s machine control systems. He lists what he believes the top three considerations should be:

• Fast, flexible programming – In the pursuit of competitive advantage, end users want more capable, flexible and highly customised equipment, putting greater pressure on machine builders and system integrators, requiring the rapid, reliable development of complex, bespoke control applications.

The advent of pre-developed and tested function blocks – such as Lenze’s FAST blocks – eliminates much of the heavy-lifting in control software development, reducing programming time by up 70%. This allows more time to be spent on the machine features that really make a difference for their customers.

• Seamless connectivity – In the modern production environment, data is king. Smart data analysis techniques are delivering significant improvements in the areas that matter most to equipment owners – including quality, reliability, productivity and efficiency. For machine control systems this means the ability to record detailed information on equipment performance, and to share that data via fieldbus connections, are now basic requirements.

For machine builders, however, the big opportunity comes not simply from the generation of data, but from the ability to transform the data into something that adds value for the customer. This can be achieved in a number of ways – from remote monitoring and troubleshooting to the development of automated intelligent predictive maintenance solutions.

• Simulation and augmented reality – Machine builders and end users both want solutions that work right first time. Rising complexity and tight development timescales are relentlessly squeezing the time and money available to build prototypes or fix issues that emerge during testing and commissioning.

Virtual prototyping, of individual machines and even complete factories can now offer a way to evaluate new concepts and identify issues or improvement opportunities. The advent of virtual and augmented reality technologies means that operators can participate in the simulation too, allowing the ergonomics and human interface details to be evaluated earlier and more effectively. Motion and control equipment makers need to embrace this trend and support their hardware offerings with digital models and simulation tools.

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