What is the overriding trend in motion and automation controllers?
The trends in controllers are driven by marketplace needs for improving the performance and flexibility of automation machinery. Whether it's an OEM or end user manufacturing products, both are seeking greater productivity, throughput and product yield. That is driving the need for greater use of electronic motion control and replacing mechanics, hydraulics and pneumatics with systems that can be instantly reconfigured to run multiple products on the same line.
Engineers are using electronic configuration in software rather than mechanical adjustments to reconfigure machines, which is just not acceptable anymore. The challenge is how to flexibly reconfigure the lines, whether that's through modularity, scalability or electronic software configuration. The goal is faster operation and improved accuracy of the motion to help improve product quality.
What are the concerns influencing user choices in controller platforms?
Tighter integration between motion control and traditional host controllers, such as PLCs or PCs used for machine control, is vital. In the past with separate controllers for various functions, there was always a need to coordinate the two. This burdened the control engineer with the need to synchronize two separate programs, one controlling the motion and another doing most of the machine logic control. Driving the entire machine control into a single set of hardware and a unified software environment makes the task of putting together an entire machine controller or line control easier. There isn't a need for handshaking between the programs to handle the synchronization logic.
You can embed operator interface screens that use the same tags or variable names as the rest of the machine control. Plus, the software environment can conform to global standards which is important for the end user who wants portability of their code and intellectual property.
How do programmable automation controllers fit into the current trends?
Programmable automation controllers give companies the option to have a single platform to service a broad variety of different machine types and market requirements. Whether the need is for PLC-type machine control, with or without motion control, process automation or providing metrics for management reporting, the PAC provides a way to achieve all of that with one single structured software environment. The ongoing trend to a consolidated hardware/software platform makes integration of these systems much easier across the board from an implementation standpoint in the factory and from a development engineering perspective.
What technologies are leading the way for future controller developments?
Greater levels of connectivity and use of Ethernet and automation protocols layered over Ethernet will continue to be a focus. In the past, there were many layers on the network architecture, but now engineers are using more variations of Ethernet and its hardware platform because it is cheap and ubiquitous. With these protocols layered on Ethernet hardware, customers can have more of a single, common network scheme to handle the entire automation environment. It's also important to make the networking solutions easier to implement, which has always been a challenge especially if the goal is integrating multiple hardware solutions from different vendors.
What overall goals are driving these developments?
There is a push toward scalability of solutions and focus on the size, price and performance of controllers. One size fits all doesn't really play out as the world becomes more competitive and global. Suppliers need to deliver solutions that meet the performance of the application at the lowest price point. Scalability from high level, to mid-level and low level controllers, while trying to maintain performance and the single software environment is the goal.
Paul Derstine is the motion products manager for GE Fanuc Intelligent Platforms.