Manufacturing Integration Trends - Automation Controllers

  • July 11, 2012
  • Feature
July 2012
By Bill Lydon, Editor
New controllers are integrating automation functions, bridging business systems with the plant floor and creating greater efficiencies and performance – all in an effort to achieve the vision of the digital factory. They are being called IPC (Industrial PC) or PAC (Programmable Automation Controller), but I prefer to term them Automation Controllers. These devices provide a single hardware platform that integrate sensor I/O network interfaces, enterprise network ports, rack or slice I/O modules, drive controllers, motion controllers, and machine tool controllers. These platforms streamline and simplify the integration of control, automation, manufacturing and business systems interfaces with lower initial investment and less ongoing operating cost. Generally configurations are available that also incorporate a touch screen HMI display.
In the past, a wide range of devices had to be connected, programmed, coordinated, and integrated with PLCs, other controllers, operator interfaces, bar code readers, vision systems, weigh scales, and RFID readers. This new class of controllers leverages powerful high performance single and multicore processors delivering open architecture automation controllers. The integrated software on these controllers are aggressively conforming to industry software standards including IEC 61131-3, PLCopen, ISA95, MTConnect, PackML, and OPC UA providing a superior integration platform for users to achieve the greater efficiency of the digital factory. The automation controller platforms are a key building block to create sustainable new manufacturing business models and to respond to customer demands for high quality and “make to order” product delivery implemented with flexible manufacturing. These are some highlights of these controllers:
Robust Hardware
Since these controllers are built on open computer technology they can incorporate a number of industry standard options including built-in SC card slot(s), PCI slots, PCI Express slots, SATA RAID controllers for mirroring hard disks, and integrated UPS. Based on standard processor families such as Intel, AMD, and ARM, they deliver a range of computing power including multicore processors.
Standardized Control Software
These platforms have adopted worldwide software standards, most notably IEC 61131-3 along with PLCopen extensions. These standards provide common software syntax, functions, and XML interchange for applications with other controllers, business, and design & simulation software applications. For example, the need to interchange information between controllers and the enterprise has been significantly simplified with the PLCopen OPC UA function block where the control engineer simply provides information to this function block and it is transparently made available via OPC UA to the network.
Integrated Control
The integration of PLCs, drive control, motion control, machine tool control on a single powerful controller in a common software platform simplifies system integration and intercommunications across backplanes, therefore increasing performance. These functions are programmed in a single IEC 61131-3 integrated design environment (IDE). Furthermore, the direct integration of devices including operator interfaces, bar code readers, vision systems, weigh scales, and RFID readers simplifies application engineering and lowers implementation costs. This integration provides a platform for more holistic integrated engineering to improve manufacturing – an ability that has not been available in the past.
Predictive Maintenance
The automation controller has the information and computing power to perform real-time predictive maintenance allowing system owners to identify maintenance problems before they occur. The available information enables corrective action before a problem causes costly downtime.
Information Integration
Information is becoming part of the automation process for a number of reasons, including make to order manufacturing, real-time inventory management, real-time quality, WIP visibility, and predictive maintenance. These powerful platforms allow for data refinement and analysis at the point of acquisition, thus simplifying software and improving performance.
Multiple Networks
The reality is that manufacturing facilities have multiple industrial networks in plant’s sites.  Automation controllers have integrated interfaces on the controllers and they simplify building advanced automation systems. The alternative is multiple and separate hardware gateways to program and manage. These platforms easily support multiple industrial sensor I/O networks from twisted pair to Ethernet.
Users can learn more about these automation controllers and other new automation technologies at Industrial Automation North America (IANA). This year the IANA Show, held in conjunction with the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) 2012, provides a unique opportunity to see these new platforms first hand that are a critical part of the digital factory. The IANA Show has been conceived and implemented by Deutsche Messe, well known for their annual Hannover Fair that brings a world view to this event. Deutsche Messe manages 100 trade fairs and exhibitions in Germany and abroad every year, involving more than 36,000 exhibitors and 3 million visitors from over 100 different countries. The International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) was traditionally a machine equipment trade show but has necessarily broadened focus to be responsive to new manufacturing realities. ;The IANA and IMTS will occur on September 10-15, 2012 at McCormick Place in Chicago, IL. The IANA exhibitors will showcase all areas of industrial automation providing operating examples and insights into integration with the purpose of being more competitive. Attendees have the opportunity to explore solutions and meet with automation experts to discuss their applications and challenges.

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