It may be the weather that attracts people to California,
but it's the business climate that keeps them there.
Home to 31-million people, California boasts an annual
gross state product of $533-billion. By either measure
it's larger than Canada. And, were it a country, the
economic output from this land of gold, silver screens,
and silicon chips would be the ninth largest in the
Within this thriving framework--forming what might
be called an "economy of motion"--are dozens
of motor and controller companies. Many of them lie,
strangely enough, alongside some of California's largest
earthquake fault lines, dotting the state from San Diego
to San Francisco. And they produce everything from sub-fractional-horsepower
motors to turnkey machine control systems.
To uncover some of these companies' latest innovations,
Design News journeyed to five firms and interviewed
their top engineers. We quizzed them about recent developments
occurring in the motion-control industry, and challenged
them to dazzle us with a selection of their most recent
products. What did we find? A range of trends, including:
? Motion control is riding the same processing-power
wave that fuels the computer industry.
? As the capabilities of the hardware soar,
users have found it almost impossible to write the massive
amounts of required software themselves. Thus, several
companies have focused their efforts on developing tools
to ease the programming burden.
? New, easy to setup motion-control cards
will begin to take advantage of the plug-n-play features
incorporated into operating systems like Microsoft's
? Ultra-high speed milling machines, being
put into service by companies like Detroit's Big Three
automakers, require ever more sophisticated motion-control
systems to take advantage of the new-found speed.
So sit back and enjoy the view as the Design News
technology tour travels the state from south to north
to take in California's best motion-control scenery.
Oriental motor steps in
Just outside the City of Angels, in Torrance, lie several
of the largest Japanese motor manufacturers in the United
States. Two of these "motor" companies, Honda
and Toyota, produce engines of the internal-combustion
type. The third, Oriental Motor, has spent the last
eighteen years in the US supplying high-torque, low-noise
step motors and drives. What the company hasn't made
is controllers. Until now.
The SC8800 and SC8800E are a pair of easy to use step-motor
controllers. They program via a standard RS-232 connection
to a computer or ASCII terminal, and are identical,
except for the model E's inclusion of an encoder input.
Most uniquely, the controllers are the first Oriental
Motor products engineered and manufactured entirely
in the United States. "There is the possibility
they might even be exported to Japan," says Philip
Santarelli, manager of marketing and sales promotions.
With "simplicity" as their guiding principle,
engineers imbued the SC8800 with onboard software saved
in 64k of non-volatile memory. This design eliminates
setup diskettes and the need to learn a proprietary
input program. An intuitive language consisting of extremely
abbreviated commands--some just a single letter--appeals
to the low-volume customer that might not be familiar
with elaborate motion-control systems. "We found
that people were using programmers to set up this kind
of product," says Nick Johantgen, engineering manager.
"We don't have programmers to work with; some of
our customers are machinists with a high school diploma."
Development spanned several years, and the SC8800 is
actually the second iteration of the product. The first,
never really offered for sale, boasted eight optically
isolated programmable outputs, eight programmable inputs,
dedicated limit switch, step and direction signal, fail-safe
magnetic brakes, and onboard power for all those devices.
"It was very expensive," Johantgen says. "We
tried to do too much."
The experience, however, allowed him to create the
SC8800 in just four months. He also leveraged the knowledge
of Seiberco, Braintree, MA, a motion-control company
that is now a subsidiary of Oriental Motor and is manufacturing
Specifications for the new controller include four
programmable inputs and two programmable outputs, all
optically isolated. The SC8800 is eight times as fast
as the first-generation device with a maximum velocity
of 800,000 steps/sec. It also offers linear S-curve
and parabolic acceleration/deceleration profiles.
Johantgen emphasizes that the SC8800 will be a powerful
tool to help the company sell its strength--motors and
drives. Users who prefer to buy from a single source
now can. "If you need a motor and drive, you also
need a controller," says Johantgen. "So why
let customers walk somewhere else?"
Staking out the high end
Up the road in Northridge--more earthquake country--the
120+ employees of Delta Tau Data Systems quietly turn
out what they claim are some of the most sophisticated
motion-control cards in the world. The company specializes
in difficult applications, especially those requiring
several coordinated axes. Its core product, the PMAC
or Programmable Multi-Axis Controller, can command up
to eight axes of motion simultaneously. And while other
companies produce products that can equal the PMAC's
raw speed and resolution, Delta Tau has striven to stay
one step ahead with the "little details" that
make the difference between success and failure for
Curtis Wilson, the company's vice president of engineering
and research, notes that Delta Tau was the first to
use digital signal processors (DSP) and the first to
use sixteen-bit digital-to-analog converters (DAC) in
their controllers. "My old professors would cringe,
but there is virtue to throwing speed and resolution
at a problem," he says.
The PMAC's specs read like a power-junkie's wish list.
Each contains a Motorola 56000-series DSP interfacing
with up to four 10,000-gate arrays, allowing internal
calculations to be performed down to the microsecond.
A single gate-array provides four channels of I/O, allowing
sixteen axes of I/O and eight axes of motion overall.
With a 30-MHz clock (20 MHz available), the PMAC covers
a velocity range from 0.0001 to 15 million counts/sec
and a position range of ±32-billion counts with
an accuracy of ±1 count. Trajectories and moves
are based on algorithms and include advanced contouring
methods, such as splines and PVT (position-velocity-time).
"We solve continuous equations rather than simple
if-then statements," says Dimitri S. Dimitri, Delta
Why go to this much trouble? "Our goal is to never
have the PMAC be the limiting factor in a design,"
says Wilson. "The user will run into physical limits
with the machine before the PMAC restricts him."
The company recently introduced the PMAC2, a fully
digital controller that can directly generate the six
signals needed to power a three-phase motor. "Power
transistors for motor drives are driven digitally using
pulse-width modulation," says Wilson. "Using
a normal controller you have to convert the signals
from digital to analog and back to digital." The
PMAC2 eliminates this conversion process. And for those
applications that exploit the technology, the controller
provides 15-20% higher performance than the straight
PMAC at a lower system cost.
Such power and flexibility point to the PMAC's biggest
disadvantage: user friendliness. "We're known as
very powerful, but tough to use," sighs Dimitri.
"If you want to go from A to B, we give you a dozen
ways to do it." To address this issue, engineers
are developing an "expert system" software
program that will walk users through the setup process.
But this hasn't stopped Delta Tau from looking for
even more power. Wilson described innovative look-ahead
algorithms--available in 1997--that will allow the controller
to anticipate moves well in advance and slow the machine
tool before sharp changes in contour. Now, without the
look-ahead, it's possible to have a tool move so fast
that the machine's momentum cannot be stopped in time
to change direction. "It's like driving without
headlights," explains Dimitri.
Wilson and Dimitri can rattle off lists of applications
that blossomed using PMAC. A radio telescope, for instance,
formerly required three weeks and $30,000 for tuning
the motion system. "They put in the PMAC and tuned
it in ten minutes," says Wilson. "System payback
time? Twenty minutes."
Jacob Tal, president of Galil Motion Control, takes
great pride in what he believes are his company's strengths:
price/performance, custom designs, and ease of use.
Two new products reflect that philosophy, he says. The
DMC-1410, a 11/2-axis controller, pushes into the large
market of simple applications. And at the high end,
the DMC-1700 may well be the market's first plug-n-play
Galil's twenty-five employees work from a new 24,000
sq-ft building in Mountain View. The facility is 2.4
times as large as the previous space, indicative of
the company's 35% annual revenue growth rate.
Unlike Delta Tau--which sells one version of each of
its controller products--Galil specializes in producing
custom designs to satisfy specific customer needs. "One-third
to one-half of our OEM users have some kind of variance
in the firmware," says Tal. To date, the company
has created more than 500 of these "specials".
Wayne Baron, vice president of engineering, explains
that many of these custom designs can be created in
a matter of hours by leveraging the huge library of
specials done in the past.
Though the DMC-1410 controls just 11/2 axes, it offers
nearly the same features as Galil's 8-axis DMC-1000.
Compact, it fits in a half-size ISA slot. A 32-bit microprocessor
and 16-bit DAC combine with an 8-million counts/sec
encoder feedback and a positioning range of ±
2-billion counts. A 250-line memory (half that of the
DMC-1000) frees the host PC. Inputs from two encoders
allow the 1410 to perform electronic gearing or CAM
applications, as well as the usual jogging, point-to-point
positioning, and contouring operations.
The 1410's real strength, however, is in performance
for the price. Initially, it will cost about half as
much as the DMC-1010 multi-axis controller did when
introduced. "We are making our sophisticated technology
available to users who only need a single axis,"
At the other end of the scale, the DMC-1700 leverages
the popularity of Microsoft's Windows operating system
to bring ease of use to the power user. Enhanced onboard
communications get away from the traditional first-in-first-out
(FIFO) messaging scheme. FIFO can tie up the communications
channel, and it proves weak in applications where the
user needs constantly updated positions. To get around
this, engineers added a second channel dedicated to
providing status information to the host program. For
PCs with no available DMA channels, it can also be configured
as FIFO with about a 25% performance loss.
Other nice touches include a new 100-pin, high-density
connector and EEPROM flash-memory firmware updates.
"Now users won't have to wait for a new EPROM from
us," says Baron, "They can have different
firmware for different applications."
Though based on the DMC-1000, the 1700 is 1.5-times
as fast, with sample times as low as 83΅sec/axis.
It boasts improved EMI shielding to help customers more
easily obtain certification for their machines. And,
of course, it's plug-n-play, automatically setting itself
up and loading the necessary drivers when used with
Windows 95 or NT. Says Baron: "Being easy to use
has always been one of our big selling points."
Controlling the software crisis
Just north of Oakland, in Richmond, and not too far
from the San Andreas fault, engineers at Berkeley Process
Control (BPC) see a possible disaster coming. However,
you won't find this temblor in the local terra firma--it's
rocking the machine-control industry.
Just what is this looming crisis?
Software: thousands upon thousands of lines of machine-control
program code, bursting forth from the engineering departments
at most of BPC's customers at an ever increasing rate.
"Software is emerging as the most critical issue
in machine control," says Paul Sagues, BPC's president.
"It's doubling every two years. We see it as the
number one problem."
Not just empty rhetoric, BPC supports this view with
figures drawn from industry and its own experience.
In a paper titled Crisis in Modern Machine Control,
Sagues and BPC co-founder David Auslander--a professor
at the University of California Berkeley--note that
in 1981 the company's average project required 8K bytes
of software. Today, it's 8M bytes. Over at the semiconductor
consortium Sematech, engineers attribute more than 50%
of wafer-fab failures to the control program.
Faced with this software explosion, developers have
a choice: hire lots more programmers, reduce the product
specs, or have the machine-control company provide more
software. BPC, of course, suggests the last option in
the form of a direct multi-tasking machine control system
MachineWorks consists of an integrated combination
of the company's Bam controllers, a color touch-screen
operator interface, and the necessary multi-axis amplifiers,
servos, and Micro I/O racks. Recent additions include
a programmable limit switch and the integration of up
to 56 axes. Based on a 64-bit RISC processor, MachineWorks
provides a simple method for developing control programs
for everything from flying shears to machine tools.
Uniquely, users need no experience with either conventional
programming or motion control. Instead of spending days,
weeks, or months crunching thousands of lines of code,
developers program MachineWorks by entering the complete
machine sequence with touch-screen menus written in
familiar terminology, without a keypad, prompt, or syntax.
All diagnostics and error handling--an especially difficult
programming task--are included.
Though very simple to program, MachineWorks is actually
tailored towards multi-tasking, asynchronous applications.
Complex machine operations are programmed as individual
tasks and then executed simultaneously. "The more
complex, the greater advantage we have," says Steve
Kraft, product development manager. "It is absolutely
the fastest way to commission a machine that needs multi-axis,
Why? First, it provides an organizational structure
for building a machine-control program. Also, it includes
several man-years of programming that the customer doesn't
have to develop from scratch. BPC's engineers write
it once, and everyone can use it via MachineWorks, says
Kraft. "If I'm going to put a complex phone system
into my company, I wouldn't go out and buy some phones
and write my own voice-mail system," he explains,
"but people try that with machine control all the
Programming made simple
Learning a foreign language--with the unfamiliar vocabulary
and sentence construction--is always time consuming,
often frustrating. Motion-control programming languages
are no exception. To be proficient, users must remember
volumes of arbitrary and sometimes arcane syntax and
commands. And while the power programmer might be able
to recall hundreds of commands and parameters, the casual
user is stuck leafing through manuals.
At Compumotor, Rohnert Park, engineers developed a
solution for this problem. Called Motion BuilderTM,
it's an iconic programming system for Compumotor's 6000
series of controllers that runs under Microsoft Windows
3.1 or 95.
Motion Builder shortens the learning cycle for control-system
development by allowing users to design and program
in a familiar way--using flowcharts. They can simply
drag and drop icons, representing motion functions,
on the program workspace. Application parameters are
entered into dialog boxes that pop up when the user
double-clicks on one of the icons. The equivalent of
more than 250 programming commands are accessible right
from the icon palette, and another 100 can be found
in other areas of Motion Builder.
Users define program flow by linking the discrete icons
together with lines. This method allows for easy experimentation,
since individual icons or even blocks of icons may be
left in the workspace and quickly added or removed from
the program by drawing or deleting links. When complete,
each program may be compiled and executed.
Custom commands may be added to extend the capabilities
of the system. "We hope to eventually make a library
of user-written routines available for download off
our BBS," says Cook. Eventually, Motion Builder's
ability to shield the user from the actual command syntax
could let Compumotor engineers completely change the
underlying control language, and yet present the user
with a constant programming interface.
Motion Builder's primary advantage is speed. "An
expert user can probably write a program in one-third
the time with this," says Bob Cook, controls engineering
manager. "A novice would save even more time than
that." Though Cook acknowledges that Motion Builder
itself has a learning curve, he stresses that it is
much less than that of the control language.
Other advantages include:
? Reduced mistakes. "Motion Builder
generates error-free code--something even the expert
can benefit from," says John Walewander, product
? Quicker troubleshooting. A debug mode
lets users step through the code line-by-line to spot
? Easier sharing of work. Programs might
be as large as 150K--enough to fill 80 printed pages.
Following the flow and logic of another engineer's program
visually with Motion Builder is much easier than doing
Compumotor sees benefits for its support staff as well.
The company's technical applications department receives
3,000 calls a month, and an ever-increasing number of
the questions involve programming. The hope is that
the simplicity of Motion Builder might break the trend.
The system traces its roots to a request from Parker
Hannifin's Hydraulic Valve Division (HVD). Engineers
there wanted Compumotor to create a visual programming
interface for their hydraulic controls. But as the project
progressed, it became apparent the power of such a tool
was applicable for a broader range of products, and
Motion Builder was born. Says Cook, "HVD alone
probably got a ten-fold increase in functionality from