Smartphones and tablets have already been hitting the plant floor as a method for monitoring machine performance, system status, and process data. But now automation control suppliers are developing a next level of hardware and software development tools that will speed up and extend the power of mobile factory apps.
By providing easy access to machine control information and an almost unlimited capability for displaying process data, these solutions will likely spawn a new generation of iOS and Android web apps focused on mobile machine monitoring and (eventually) control.
Machine accessibility apps
Peter Fischbach, industry manager handling automation for Bosch Rexroth, told Design News:
We are seeing that machine builders want to build more accessible machines, and get more information into the hands of the operators. As machines get more complex, information available in the motion controller or PLC control need to be connected to mobile devices. Traditional machine HMIs are morphing into the mobile world.
New mobile apps are being designed to combine traditional PLC process control with the IT world and factor networks, with the goal of enabling users to easily get process data from machines on the manufacturing floor.
(Source: Bosch Rexroth Corp.)
He said that applications at this point are more targeted at monitoring, visualization, and data evaluation, and not directly controlling a machine because of security risks. But as machines get more complex, there is more of a focus on visualization, data information exchange, and not necessarily on controlling the machine.
What Bosch Rexroth is trying to achieve with its Open Core Engineering technology is to combine traditional PLC process control with the IT world, factory networks, and enabling users to easily get process data out of a machine. This is accomplished not just by connecting the field bus to an OPC server, but also by implementing a core communication feature in their controls, which allows a higher-level access.
Higher level means that access could be implemented using a smartphone (iOS or Android), or a Windows-based PC running Visual Studio. Fischbach told us:
We are allowing access by higher level development environments to our motion control core. In the past, you always had to go through a field bus. It's all Ethernet TCP/IP-based using high data rates which is really great for visualizations, but also for machine control. The key issues we are trying to address are efficiency in software engineering by offering customers development kits. Options include Eclipse for Android, Xcode for Apple IOS, and Microsoft Visual Studio.
By allowing customers to develop real-time applications and run them on the Bosch Rexroth control, there is an ability to communicate with machine or motion controllers typically using Wind River Workbench Real-time or VxWorks. "That is the part of the efficiency and software engineering goal that we try to address with Open Core," said Fischbach. "We try to address future availability of the solution. Many manufacturers implement their own solutions, but we try to work with open standards and use an open automation platform."
The strategy enables machinery builders and system integrators writing application software to build a new level of software support tools for their machines using mobile devices. And the unique part of the approach is that the tools enable users to reach into the core software within the automation system.
In the past, machines typically had a PLC controlling a series of motors and applications running in production. But today, quality and productivity has become more important. So the machine builder wants machine information available on the machine control system, which is often PC-based but could also be a mobile device.