Machine and Robot Builders Look Ahead to the New Decade

As a new decade dawns, machine and robot builder OEMs are looking to embrace new trends and put the past behind them. Recent economic travails seem to be lessening, especially in the developing world. The hope is for continued improvement in the world economy, spurring manufacturing and increasing demand for new and improved machines and robots.

Automation will play a key role in these improved products, but the old way of doing things will no longer suffice. Instead, new trends must be embraced to satisfy customer demands for increased productivity, greater reliability and lower costs.

The chief focus for many manufacturers in the past decade was high throughput delivered by low cost machines and robots. In the coming years, flexibility and low life cycle costs will become relatively more important.

It will no longer be acceptable for machines and robots to be controlled by isolated automation systems. Connectivity to other manufacturing cells and to higher level computing systems will become a must, and at least some of this connectivity will be delivered through wireless communication systems.

Automation hardware that delivers on these OEM customer demands will encompass the latest in developments from the commercial PC arena including multi-core processing, off-the-shelf operating systems and high-speed Ethernet communications.

Flexibility to the Forefront

The days of high volume single output machines are gone, replaced by a need for flexibility. “We see full and/or partially-automated changeovers as a key trend for our machines and their automation systems,” said Dave Zurlinden, the president of Pro Pack Systems in Salinas, California in Control Design’s December 2009 cover story, ‘What’s Next.”

Pro Pack makes case printer/erector/bottom sealers, case packers and case sealers (see Image). They focus on secondary packaging where corrugated shipping cases are used for cartoned, bottled and bagged products in the food and beverage industries.


“We implement changeovers via recipe storage and retrieval from the HMI. An operator simply selects the desired recipe at changeover, which commands servos to automatically
re-size the machine to the next case recipe,” related Zurlinden in the cover story.

“The obvious benefit is dramatically reduced changeover time, but the not so obvious benefit is repeatability in the changeover process via the elimination of human-induced setup errors,” concluded Zurlinden.

In the same Control Design cover story, a system integrator discussed how recipes enable flexibility. “Once a recipe is tuned in and programmed into the system, subsequent production runs can be made without the need for manual setup or production tuning steps,” noted Michael Gurney, principal at Concept Systems:
( in Albany, Oregon. “Recipe-based production improves repeatability, and recipe-driven human interfaces enable less skilled operators to run machines,” added Gurney.

“One important factor to consider when integrating a recipe management system is the equipment upgrades required to support the automated changeovers. Equipment not initially equipped with a recipe management system likely does not have the level of required automation, typically requiring additional mechanical and control system modifications,” cautioned Gurney.

One way to make automation systems flexible is through use of modern automation systems. “More flexible software and hardware automation platforms allow machines to be reconfigured or upgraded,” observed Lee Hilpert in the Control Design cover story. Hilpert is the president of system integrator HilTech Engineering, located in Tomball, Texas.

“Newer automation products are becoming much more flexible, especially on the communication side. On one of our projects, the end user continues to apply the control system in ways never anticipated during initial development. Flexible automation has allowed us to reconfigure communications and functionality without new hardware even though the application is completely different,” added Hilpert.

Lower Lifecycle Costs a Necessity

With the emphasis on lean manufacturing and low operating costs, manufacturers are simply not hiring large numbers of highly-skilled people to run their plants. This means that machines and robots must run without the need for extensive and ongoing maintenance. When maintenance is required, it’s often the OEM that will be asked to deliver. Machines must also be easy to operate, and automation will be a key to delivering on this demand.

“With intelligent design, automation can be used to make the human interface to machines more efficient. HMIs and PLCs can provide maintenance reminders and include signoffs to indicate when work is done. PLC programming can encompass predictive maintenance based on actual machine use and other measured parameters,” explained Zurlinden in the Control Design cover story.

Because they have fewer workers, OEM customers are demanding more support. “Our customers are looking for single source responsibility,” said Branko Bekic in the Control Design cover story.

Bekic is the electrical department manager at PMI Cartoning in Elk Grove Village, Illinois. His company makes cartoning machines and case packers for consumer packaged goods companies.

“Our customers need a machine builder that will stay involved with the entire packaging line from initial design through commissioning to after-sales service. We are now required to stock parts for our customers and perform other logistical services, freeing them from warehousing requirements,” added Bekic.

If OEMs are to support their products at customer sites in a cost effective manner, open systems and connectivity will be needed.

Connectivity is Key

It costs less to build a standalone machine or robot, but customer demands simply can’t be met without including connectivity. Open systems enable low cost connectivity by employing industry-wide standards and technologies including Ethernet, the Internet and existing communications infrastructure.

Connectivity is needed in three dimensions. First is connectivity among all of the manufacturing cells on the plant floor. One machine’s output becomes another machine’s input, especially in packaging lines. Connectivity eases and coordinates transitions between machines and robots, especially in flexible production systems.

The second aspect of connectivity is with the enterprise. Manufacturing engineers and executives want to know what is happening in their plants, and they want this production data delivered in real-time. The most practical way to accomplish this is through Ethernet links to enterprise wide computing systems, often delivered through middleware.

An emerging aspect of this trend is information delivered through the Internet via browser-based systems. If an automation component like a controller or an HMI has web server capabilities, then authorized users can access the component for both monitoring and control purposes.

Browser-based access doesn’t require users to install and support any specialized or proprietary software on their computing platform, and the platform can be anything from a PC to PDA to a smart phone.

The third dimension of connectivity is from the machine or robot to the OEM. Again, browser-based communication is stepping to the forefront. The easiest way to enable this type of connectivity is for the OEM automation system to have web server capability and an Ethernet port. Connecting this port to the Internet then allows OEM technical experts to access, troubleshoot and support their products worldwide.

Off-the-Shelf Trumps Proprietary

Myths from the days of yore told us that machine and robot controllers, HMIs and communication networks had to be designed from the ground up for industrial use. Today’s reality says that many off-the-shelf technologies developed in the commercial world are finding their way into industrial automation, albeit often with modifications and enhancements.

The aforementioned connectivity tools such as Ethernet, the Internet, web servers and browsers are a good example of how commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies are finding their way into the industrial arena. “Modbus TCP is one of the leading Ethernet standards found in today’s industrial market place,” says Jeff Payne, product manager of PLC, I/O and PC Based controls at AutomationDirect.

“By adopting Modbus TCP as our default protocol, we have inherently given our users a COTS communications protocol. Ethernet itself, as a transport protocol, brings many advantages by taking advantage of standard wiring and switches, making system design a much easier and less time consuming task,” adds Payne.

USB is another COTS technology used by AutomationDirect, in this case in their new Productivity3000 controller. “USB connectivity greatly simplifies initialization and eliminates the cost of expensive proprietary cabling for communications among controllers, PCs and other devices. Our Productivity3000 controller also offers a USB data port which allows communication with a removable mass storage device,” notes Payne.

Another example of COTS in industrial automation is via HMI software packages, most of which run on some type of Microsoft operating system. These operating systems were initially developed for office and home use, but are now being modified and applied to industrial automation.

In the case of PCs, the operating systems are virtually the same as those used commercially. For smaller scale HMIs, more compact operating systems are used, such as Windows CE and XP Embedded. These embedded operating systems are modified, more compact versions of commercial Windows.

The last bastion of proprietary control is the realm of the main machine or robot controller. Stringent requirements for reliability and real-time operation were once barriers to COTS products, but these hurdles have been cleared via two main technologies.

The first is PC-based control. As its name suggests, this method of control uses industrial versions of commercial PCs to perform real-time control of machines and robots. Multi-core processors increase performance in commercial PCs, and they’re also a great fit industrial automation.

“PC-based control now uses more recent technologies such as the Windows 2000, XP or Vista operating systems. Using off-the-shelf operating systems simplifies design and
implementation while reducing cost,” explains Payne.

The second way in which COTS technology are used in machine and robot controllers is via PLCs and process automation controllers (PACs). A peek under the hood reveals that many of these controllers are powered by Intel and AMD processors that were first designed for and used in commercial applications.

Open Networks Replace Hardwiring

Hard wiring used to be the only practical method for connecting I/O and sensors to machine and robot controllers. Most I/O was local, and even when remote I/O was employed, the network connecting the I/O to the controller was proprietary.

But as the song says, the times they are a changing. Rare is the modern controller that doesn’t have an Ethernet port for connection to I/O via many vendors’ various protocols. Similarly, standard sensor networks like DeviceNet, AS-i and CANopen are proliferating and are commonly supported by industrial controllers.

A modern machine or robot control system will typically employ a mix of hardwired and digital network communications. Local I/O will be hardwired to the main controller, often via a backplane. Remote I/O communications will be via one of the industry-standard digital networks, perhaps a particular flavor of Ethernet.

Some sensors will be hardwired to local I/O, others to remote I/O. For sensors where more diagnostic information is required or for machines where distances are significant, a sensor network will be employed. Communications to motor drives and other complex components will be via an industry standard network, and Ethernet protocols are again a popular choice.
In many developing countries, consumers skipped the hardwired phase and went straight from no phone to cell phone. Similarly, machine and robot builders of the future might be able to build a machine with no hardwiring or industrial networks.

These machines will instead employ high-speed wireless networks for communications among the HMI, the controller, I/O and sensors. These machines and robots will also be wirelessly linked to other manufacturing cells, to enterprise wide computing systems and to remote users.

By Dan Hebert
The Hebert Agency

Originally Published: Dec. 1, 2010