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How to Build a Better Product Line with Flexible Automation Modules

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Flexible Automation Modules (FAMs) will provide distributed control and distributed logic, but will they replace PLCs?

One way to speed the development of smart machines and distributed control systems on factory floors is with software-driven Flexible Automation Modules (FAMs). These open, modular, and connected building blocks help robot, machine, and device and control system manufacturers increase automation, reduce hardware dependencies, and meet emerging digital manufacturing requirements.

Building a better product with FAMs requires an understanding of what they are and how they can be used. To answer these questions and others, Design News talked with Dean Donnelly – Global Business Development Manager – Machine Builders/Robotics at Molex. What follows is an edited version of the conversation.

Design News: What is a FAM, and how does it work?

Dean Donnelly: Flexible Automation Modules (FAMs) are software-defined devices that enable core functionality to be assigned, changed, or updated by an industrial automation platform. Molex’s FAMs, which are the core building blocks of the company’s Industrial Automation Solutions (IAS4.0), are capable of running standard or custom applications for functional safety, distributed control, multi-directional communications, provisioning, and device management, as well as remote configuration and programming services. This enables intelligence and functionality to be embedded directly into the singular controller device, making it safe, smart, and capable of sending data to specific business applications and the cloud for automated control and seamless connectivity of manufacturing machines.

FAMs enable critical manufacturing data to be collected and shared—from sensors or complex devices, as well as between devices, machine-to-machine (M2M), or to edge devices and the cloud. Feeding this data to artificial intelligence (AI) and analytics solutions will help expedite the delivery of actionable operational insights. Additionally, real-time data capture can help pinpoint potential issues to elevate predictive maintenance and decrease downtime, while integration with critical business systems and services increases efficiency while reducing complexity, cost, and time to market.

Design News: Do FAMs replace programmable logic controllers? How do they do that? And does that reduce the number of connectors needed?

Dean Donnelly: FAM modules do not fully replace programmable logic controllers (PLC) at this point, but they do allow for safe and non-safe communications to be distributed effectively throughout the system architecture to optimize operations. The modules offload control from supervisory systems and allow for area-specific logic control scenarios. In the long-term, distributed control and distributed logic, in conjunction with Industry 4.0, can drive significant operational efficiencies and eventually reduce the number of hardware-based control devices that are deployed in the system architecture.

Design News: How will FAMs impact machine builders and plant operators?

Dean Donnelly: FAMs are ideally suited for robot, machine, and device/control system manufacturers in the automotive, food & beverage, and material handling industries. The integration of functional safety into complex devices that communicate with each other within a plant environment can pave the way to significant improvements in operational safety while reducing manual steps and overall hardware costs. By reducing rigid hardware dependencies, manufacturers can reconfigure production lines to support the manufacturing of custom products.

In an automotive setting, for instance, this allows various car models to be manufactured on the same production line while automating changeover of different features and trim levels, boosting supply chain resiliency as material and component availability shift. For machine builders and those responsible for the plant and production lines, software-driven FAMs can reduce overall cabinet requirements. By transitioning to these more flexible architectures, industrial automation stakeholders can advance their digital manufacturing strategies while increasing production-line innovations and operational efficiencies.

Design News: What steps need to be taken to ensure design engineers can benefit from FAMs?

Dean Donnelly: Design engineers must be completely clear that any device to be incorporated into a control system architecture meets the requirements for interoperability with legacy-based control platforms. Equally important is ensuring that the integration effort brings value with respect to long-term reductions in hardware deployments and maintenance costs.

All efforts must be compliant with respective consortium standards, such as Ethernet/IP, Profinet, and CC-Link IE, as well as other standardized industrial protocols. Key elements to be aware of also include bridging the gap between information technology (IT) and operations technology (OT), including ensuring the security of data transfer, data mining, storage, and parsing.

Design News: How do FAMs work with legacy production-line systems?

Dean Donnelly: FAMs can work with legacy production-line systems in accordance with interoperability and compliance with a variety of consortium standards. It’s essential to ensure interoperability with existing standards, along with legacy and current industrial protocol communications, including ODVA, PNO, IEC, and TUV. To date, Molex is the only company to support all of these protocols.

From a systems engineering standpoint, FAMs are built around plug-and-play wiring and interconnect architecture. The focus is on the flexibility of deployment to achieve advantages within machine-build applications from install, set-up, test, breakdown, maintenance, and troubleshooting.

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Flexible Automation Modules (FAMs) architectures.

John Blyler is a Design News senior editor, covering the electronics and advanced manufacturing spaces. With a BS in Engineering Physics and an MS in Electrical Engineering, he has years of hardware-software-network systems experience as an editor and engineer within the advanced manufacturing, IoT and semiconductor industries. John has co-authored books related to system engineering and electronics for IEEE, Wiley, and Elsevier.

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