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Focus on the Future of Machine Controllers

Focus on the Future of Machine Controllers

A new Design News reader survey confirms the trend that machine controllers are unifying different machine functions on a single controller and lowering overall total installed costs.

The study points out the likely, ongoing impact of multi-touch operator interfaces, leveraging the developments in today's consumer markets. But it also highlights a need for smoother, simpler software integration to make it easier for users to reap the benefits of additional functions such as condition monitoring, networked safety, OEE analysis, and simplified connections to ERP systems and factory databases.

When asked about the primary benefits that new machine controllers could bring to machine designs, more than half of survey respondents identified the ability for controllers to handle additional machine control functions (54.7 percent) and lower hardware costs (51.4 percent) as top priorities. These were followed by interest in using one controller for both machine control and the Human-Machine Interfaces (41.3 percent) on a machine, more availability of diagnostic and setup information without installing software (34.1 percent), and a broader suite of software solutions using common programming tools (32.4 percent). The least emphasized benefits were more controller processing power and memory capacity (31.3 percent) and smaller footprints (24.6 percent).

Robert Muehlfellner, director of Automation Technology for B&R Industrial Automation, said in an interview with Design News:

The results of the survey sums up two trends that we are seeing toward unifying different machine functions in a single CPU with motion, traditional PLC control, and HMI all integrated into a single controller. It is the same on the software side with all of the necessary functionality integrated into a single piece of software.

The ability of machine controllers to handle these additional functions is just a part of the overall bigger trends, along with lower hardware costs and smaller footprint controllers. What is enabling all of this is the trickle-down effect from the consumer PC market, and suppliers industrializing and leveraging that technology. "In the future, I think we will see ARM-based architectures currently used in smartphones deployed in machine control to increase the computing performance of low-end systems," Muehlfellner told us.

To explore interest in what machine controller functions users might be more likely to implement in new designs, the survey asked respondents how likely they would be to utilize specific new capabilities. The answers were not necessarily surprising but they did confirm recent initiatives to provide more tightly integrated solutions.

Condition monitoring (bearings and temperatures, for example) was mentioned by 24.6 percent of respondents as very likely to be adopted. Other functions very likely to be added in the future included newer capabilities in areas such as networked safety (20.1 percent), Overall Equipment Effectiveness analysis (15.6 percent), and energy monitoring (16.8 percent).

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