Programmable machine control that started with simple ladder logic has extended its tentacles into all aspects of advanced automation, motion control, safety, vision systems, and enterprise connectivity. But controllers themselves, whether they are PLCs, PACs, or industrial PCs, are continuing to evolve as technology moves ahead.
Not surprisingly, the megatrends shaping the factory of the future are also shaping the direction of new machine controllers, since they play a point-forward role in actual control, data collection, and the connection to plant information systems. These directions include integration of advanced functionality into the controller itself, more robust connectivity options, and a push to become the hub for information-enabled machine control.
More Integrated Functionality
One broad trend is a combination of integrated control and integrated information. System engineers are looking to take all their device data, along with machine and station information, to create a point of focus within the programmable automation controller (PAC).
"Customers want to integrate more functionality and move beyond discrete machine control," said Keith Staninger, business manager - Controller and I/O Platforms for Rockwell Automation. "The shift from PLC to PAC is starting to drive buying behaviors which means more push for a multi-disciplined controller. There is a move to integrate batch processes into the machine control, and integrated safety is becoming the standard for most projects. Overall, the focus for customers is extending beyond machine control to what the PAC or PLC can provide to the application as a whole."
"The trends we see in the systems are focused on tighter controller integration, and the ability for fewer engineers to do more work," said Mike Chen, pan-america marketing group manager for Omron. "The goal is for one engineer to do all the controls work in one environment, ideally with one vendor and on one platform. That is where we like to focus strategically and where we think the broader trends in machine control will go."
Technology partnerships at the vendor level are also becoming very important. "There is a trend to large partnerships, for example Rockwell Automation and Cognex, for vision systems," Chen said. "What we do is to create our own solutions internally for the best interoperability. Many technology companies cannot provide customers complete solutions. Companies either need to develop technology internally to do advanced applications, or need to partner with other technology providers."
"Applications on the high end require integrated vision, integrated motion, and advanced safety systems. Suppliers need to have a partner or develop their own robotic solutions. Customers are expecting these types of more complex integrated solutions to integrate with the controller platform," he added.
According to Jeff Payne, product manager - Automation Controls Group for AutomationDirect, the top technology trends for PACs and PLCs used in machine control focus on the capabilities of the hardware platform, software programming tools that shape application development. Increasingly, there is a focus on the ability to improve data collection and easily implement higher-level enterprise connectivity. This not only includes links to internal ERP and MES, but also access to important data points using mobile devices outside of the facility.
Payne said the biggest technology trends for PACs and PLCs used in machine control focus on quality and up-time performance which are two top goals for every machine operation.
"Memory is cheap; it is a small price to pay to have a processor with ample memory to be able to store all of the machine's control program documentation. This will greatly improve troubleshooting and reduce machine downtime," Payne said.