What are the key trends you have observed in packaging?
I think the biggest key trend that I have seen lately is that end-users are allowing the OEMs more latitude in the control architecture that they use. End-users are already holding OEMs feet-to-the-fire on several things including performance, lead time and price. Most of them feel with those three legs of the stool, they are not pressing them on any other issues.
What has caused this change?
A couple of things have lead up to this. First of all, end-users' engineering staffs are getting smaller and smaller, so they are relying more both on the OEM and the technology provider to support the machines. Of course, cost is still a major push from the end-user to the OEM. Anything that saves them money and still allows them to have some sort of open standard — so they are not boxed into a corner, technology choice-wise — and saves them money, while still having a high-performance machine, is definitely on the table.
What was the other reason?
I think one of the things that has allowed a change of attitude is that the users are finally seeing some fruits from their long-term requests for more open and more common standards among the technology providers, things like IEC 61131.
What does IEC 61131 provide?
An IEC 61131-compliant program language allows the user to program in any of at least five languages — those being ladder, sequential function chart, function block, instruction list and structured text. No matter what technology provider you go to, if they say they are 61131-compliant, that user or that OEM can program in any or all of those languages. In conjunction with that, what PLC Open has done is develop standardized function blocks. For example, technology company ABC has an add function block, that function block will look identical to company XYZ's add function block. That has gone all the way down into PLC Open motion function blocks that all have the same look and feel, the same inputs and same outputs.
What about system-level integration?
The devices are becoming more intelligent. As you push the intelligence out toward the motor and the drive itself, we think we can get higher and higher performances out of the machine, because you do not have to burden the central processor with everything from motion control to I/O.
Are there implications from the diagnostics and maintenance side that come into play at both your end and the end-users'?
More and more intelligence out at the drive allows you to have more and more diagnostic capability, more reporting functionality and as long as open standards and communications are used, that data can be transferred from any level at the factory floor all the way up to MES and ERP systems.
What challenges does a supplier face in providing this level of packaging support?
With that type of architecture our challenges are minimized. We don't have to support so many different types of families of products. We can support whatever architecture the end-user chooses. It really is a benefit for us as well. Our struggles were pretty much alleviated when we opened up ourselves to open interface so that we could connect to third party pieces of hardware or software when necessary.
Has the end-result been that both you and your customer have improved focus on what you are really good at?
Absolutely. I think the customer deserves to be able to choose best-in-class components and architecture and not be locked into a single vendor for a complete solution. By doing that, we are able to focus on what we are excellent at, which is motion control and the programming of a machine. Some of the other things — bar codes, ERP systems — we leave that to the people who are excellent in those fields and we communicate with them easily.