Acroloop introduced its first motion controller 10 years ago. Since that time, board-level motion control has steadily grown in popularity in OEM applications as diverse as machine tools and carousel staging systems. Tahir Khan takes a look at where the industry is heading and what developments engineers can expect in the future.
Design News: You have been involved in motion control since the early 1970s. What changes have you seen over time?
Khan: Acroloop's first board-level motion controller, which we introduced in 1988, was a product that was ahead of its time. Everyone's technology back then was relatively expensive and not all that easy to use, unless you were a servo expert. But like the PC market, over the past decade the performance of these products has gone up and the costs have come down. That's helped to boost sales. In fact, the motion control industry is growing approximately 10% annually. Acroloop itself is growing 20-30% annually.
We as a company made a philosophical decision early on that in developing our products we would focus first on performance, next on ease of use, and third on cost. So far, that has been a successful strategy for us.
Q: Although estimates vary, the market for board-level motion control is on the order of about $100 million today. What will it take to grow it to a billion-dollar market?
A: Technology breakthroughs obviously help to grow a market, and in motion control that's been true up to this point. As an example of the ongoing developments, back in 1994 Acroloop introduced a floating point DSP-based controller, which offered a 10:1 speed advantage over existing products. Since then, we have been releasing new products approximately every two years, each with enhanced capabilities. With each new introduction, sales have continued to increase.
But I think the real secrets to exploding this market are going to be competition and education. When companies face competition, that's when they are really forced to become innovative. As I travel around to visit companies, I am continually surprised at the number of firms that are still using the hammer and sickle (figuratively speaking). Obviously, competition has not pushed their backs up against the wall yet. But we don't think they should have to wait until that happens to do something. What we need to do is a better job of educating industry about the wonderful success stories in motion control and show companies how it can help them become more competitive.
Q: Is the industry making any efforts to standardize on technology?
A: Companies that are innovative also have an aversion to standards, and that has been a problem in this industry. But the lack of standards hurts the users, who have a mishmash of options to choose from, which may or may not be compatible or have staying power. Companies are naturally going to distrust any new technology, if they can't be certain it is going to be around tomorrow.
I think companies in this industry need to take it upon themselves and spearhead the effort to create a standard motion control interface language. With such a standard in place, a customer knows that what he has will work, no matter what equipment he or she ultimately buys.
Q: Can you give us a preview of some of the technology innovations in motion control coming down the pipeline?
A: Much of the development work in the industry today is geared to reducing costs, which equates to simplifying interconnection methods. That means designing machines with less wiring and defining standard network protocols that allow the sharing of wires. Two wires can do the job of 50. Currently, Firewire is a front runner standard operating at 400 Mbytes/sec and beyond. This is the next generation protocol that is worth serious consideration for distributing control intelligence over a network. Acroloop is going to be announcing some key products around that technology soon.