The perceived threat of foreign competition in the 1980s drove many
semiconductor manufacturers to search for an automation technology that would
help them respond quickly to market changes. Hopkinton, MA-based Control
Technology Corp., (CTC) answered the call. CTC's technology lets design
engineers write their own programs--and control their own destiny.
"The semiconductor industry represented a different clientele with a unique and evolving set of problems," explains CTC President Ken Crater. "We managed to capture a market that no other company was paying any attention to at the time. By letting engineers program their machines in a language they were comfortable with--and in fact, already were using to describe their machines--we made integrating all aspects of machine control fast, easy, and inexpensive."
Since 1975, CTC has maintained a strong customer focus, and worked closely with design engineers to automate machinery. While CTC technology essentially grew up in Silicon Valley, today, all industries face similar pressures. CTC's product line was literally born of decades of customer contact working on individual applications.
"Our customers cut across the entire manufacturing marketplace. I can't think of a single industry that we're not involved in to some extent," says Crater. "That's why we don't approach sales development by looking at markets. Each customer is different."
Addressing difficult manufacturing problems from the designer's perspective caused CTC's technology to evolve very differently than traditional programmable logic controllers (PLCs). "While PLCs are programmed with relay ladder logic (RLL), CTC chose state language as a framework for programming, because it makes more sense to design engineers," Crater explains.
The main problem with RLL in describing a machine's operation is that it essentially assumes an electro-mechanical, relay-based control system is used. In fact, most designers make no such assumption, according to Crater. They usually start with a manufacturing problem, develop the mechanisms required to complete the operation, then automate.
In contrast to PLCs, CTC's QuickstepTM for Windows State Language lets engineers describe the machine's functionality in words they already use to describe a machine's operation. "Terminology familiar to designers is built into the product line," notes Crater.
'DSP-less' motion control. It was the semiconductor marketplace that drove CTC into motion control. Initially, CTC technology was used primarily to control simple digital I/O functions. But as Silicon Valley's demand for flexible automation grew, so did the demand for step-motor and servo-motor control.
"That's fundamental to why our product has taken the form it is right now," says Crater. Both CTC's hardware and language technology offer engineers the flexibility to quickly tackle manufacturing problems, program machine control, debug, and beat the competition to market.
Just as Quickstep sidestepped the confusion of RLL's endless rungs of code, CTC's hardware architecture never adopted digital signal processors (DSPs) for motion control. "We may be alone in the motion control industry in never having adopted DSPs," says Crater. "We've used Complex Instruction Set Computing (CISC) technology since the beginning. It allows us to implement motion control with very complex algorithms, and it also gives us the complete freedom to communicate with the axes. Something impossible to do using DSPs alone."
Quick response to market changes means more companies integrate machinery within the plant or between plants today. To do this effectively engineers need to focus on communication. That's where CTC shines. "Meaningful communication, in our view, only occurs when the data collected is used as information. It's not enough to create a data stream and feed it off into a network, we have to see it used in an EXCEL worksheet, data historian, or an operator interface," explains Crater.
| Control Technology Corp. attributes much of its recent growth to its customers’ growth.
In architectural terms CTC believes in distributed control. A typical system may have four to 12 processors. "We make that transparent to the user. As far as they are concerned they are dealing with a single system, writing a single program, in a single language," explains Crater. But by allowing multiple processors to work together, more power is available and axes can be added without any performance degradation.
CTC's distributed architecture leverages a multiprocessor design that delivers high-performance control. Dedicating individual CPUs to the analog I/O subsystem, motion controller, communications processor, and the main controller provides repeatable, high-precision results.
Holistic machine control. CTC's broad definition of control means the motion subsystem must participate in a community of control that may include analog control, digital sequencing, communications to external systems, or any number of other activities. "If there is one differentiating factor for our company it's that we look at the whole machine, not at individual pieces," Crater notes. From hydraulics and pneumatics to motion control and communications, the entire machine is orchestrated via one program.
Because of competition, today's designers can't afford to view their machines as a series of discrete events to be controlled. Instead, by viewing the machine holistically, CTC technology lets engineers wire the machine as a single entity, and lets them program it as such. Result: less time and effort to program and debug a machine to get it up and running.
"We've seen a dramatic increase in acceptance of our technology over the last 5-7 years," says director of marketing Scott Pete. "Our recent growth stems primarily from our customers' growth. We have found, much to our satisfaction, that our technology has allowed our customers to grow quite quickly, and as a result, our business growth has averaged greater than 20% over the last five years."
CTC works on new products on several levels at all times. "To be truly of service to our customers, we can't just focus on one aspect of control," explains Crater. With 45 employees, 14 that are engineers, CTC maintains a staff of experts in the fields of motion control, language development, software, and hardware to continually research and make certain CTC will be there for the next level of integration.
"To maintain the strong customer focus, we make sure our people have the tools they need to help our clients," says Crater. He believes that internal communication and information systems are critical, and so is continual reevaluation. At a recent planning meeting, Crater discussed the concept of the "Fractal-company." This concept involves efforts to push more autonomy to every level of the company. "We want to create an environment where people feel free to act in the best interest of the company. People will feel that they are authorized to, in some instances, take risks--and do things without going through long bureaucratic processes of budget approval."
CTC looks for people that are bright, and creative, when hiring engineers. "We also need engineers that can work well in an environment of ambiguity," Crater emphasizes. "Because in a period of such rapid technological change, anyone attempting to create a three-year product development plan may have to assume that certain chips will be available when we need them. Engineers must be prepared to switch gears if the technology focus changes or the needs of the customer change."