Adding machine controllers to the factory floor

08 September 2020

Martin Gadsby explains how factory automation projects can leverage the most suitable machine control solutions.

Machine controllers are at the heart of Industry 4.0 applications. They allow factories to run automated processes while ensuring product quality, consistency, efficiency and high throughput. This is why choosing the right solution and implementing it correctly can make a significant difference to the success of an industrial automation project. 

Having a clear overview of the intended automated application and what it needs to achieve are the first aspects to consider when selecting a machine controller. This helps determine the equipment’s operational needs and the desired results expected from its control system. Based on these, businesses can identify controllers that meet these requirements and functions.

The right capabilities
Traditionally choosing a controller would come down to whether programmable logic controllers (PLCs), programmable automation controllers (PACs) or industrial PCs (IPCs) were most suited for a given application. However, the boundaries between PLCs, PACs and IPCs have now blurred, as their functionalities are often overlapping. So now it is important not to focus on identifying a type of controller, but rather choose a product with the capabilities to address the application’s known key requirements. Also look for solutions that have the ability to grow in the future to address the need for change.

For example, when the position or velocity of machines needs to be operated with high accuracy and precision, it is necessary to implement high-performance, high-speed motion control solutions. Therefore, the controller should offer appropriate response times and dynamic tracking, independently of whether it is a PLC, PAC, IPC or dedicated controller. 

Similarly, if an application requires the use of Proportional Integral Derivative (PID) algorithms to regulate a machine or process, such as temperature control, choosing a solution with built-in PID functions can be helpful, making it possible to reduce the time, cost and resource utilisation associated with programming these functions.

Systems integrators should be able to help navigate the variety of solutions available and helping to determine the best controller for a particular application. 

Consulting an expert from the very beginning of a factory automation project, i.e. from the very start of the process design before control platform vendor discussions start will help lead to the specification of the correct control platform and also to the optimisation of factors such as product and production quality, efficiency and ease of use, all of which can have a direct effect on return on investment (ROI). 

It is important that the initial process design is completely agnostic in relation to control system vendor, however it is critical that an automation expert is involved, to point out at an early stage a function or feature that may have a significant financial impact and help direct the design into a highly effective solution. By working with skilled specialists, companies can ensure they are opting for a compatible and cost-effective solution. 

The right controller
Even after the optimum machine controller has been selected, correct programming will also play a central role in ensuring the best performance in operation. In effect, machine or process availability is optimised through good coding. The right code can provide a solid backbone to make automated solutions scalable and flexible. 

It is important to program controllers in a way that is straightforward, that minimises complexity and is easily maintainable. In addition, documentation should be created and associated with the code. This helps to make a programme easier to understand and modify. As a result, engineers looking to modify functions or upgrade the system can do so in a short space of time.

Depending on the process, compliance with standards such as International Society of Automation’s guidelines ISA88 for batch process control and ISA95 on automated interfaces between enterprise and control systems should be considered. In addition, the code should be modular, well structured, well annotated, robust and easy to analyse to allow engineers and operators to quickly troubleshoot it. Well documented stress testing, such as factory acceptance testing, is strongly recommended in order to achieve a seamless site installation. 

To benefit from reliable, accessible and highly effective controller codes, businesses should rely on a specialist with experience in programming the selected control system.

A system integrator should also be able to provide key insight into the requirements to connect machines and controllers with other components or facilities. As Industrial IIoT-driven applications become increasingly popular, it is important to make sure that the installed controllers are not simply self-contained islands of automation. They should be integrated in order to share data with different machines, units or enterprise systems. 

Control engineering plays a crucial role in the development of industrial automation solutions. Involving a system integrator from the earliest stages, when specifying the automation strategy, gives the best chance of creating an efficient and effective solution. In addition, businesses can leverage flexible and scalable control set-ups as well as well-orchestrated and seamlessly integrated solutions, to reap the full. benefits of Industry 4.0 applications. 

Martin Gadsby is director at Optimal Industrial Automation.

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