Distributed Control / Motors / Automation Fair

Big Capabilities for Smaller Controllers

Scaled Solutions Deliver Powerful Capabilities to Small Machine Builders

By Aaron Hand

Automation Fair 2012


Though powerful automation solutions have long been available, they are not always accessible to smaller machine builder customers, who can't necessarily afford—and don't necessarily need—a high level of sophistication. At this year's Automation Fair in Philadelphia, Rockwell Automation is highlighting a number of scaled-down solutions that give even small machine builders access to powerful, previously out-of-reach technologies.

Also in its Integrated Architecture booth, Rockwell Automation is showing off various capabilities through a robotic in-feed module from Aagard, a small machine builder in Alexandria, Minn. Aagard's system recently won the Rockwell Automation Midrange System Showcase award and demonstrates the capabilities afforded by a range of Rockwell Automation solutions, including the Allen-Bradley CompactLogix 5370 programmable automation controller, Kinetix 350 servo drive, Stratix 5700 managed switch and ArmorBlock I/O.

The Aagard machine on display at Automation Fair is one in a line of seven modules that Aagard provides to its customers and serves as an example of the kinds of scalable solutions that are needed from machine builders. Solutions are geared toward making machine design easier, for one, but also providing scaled-down hardware for smaller systems.

"They need an approach where they can use the same programming language for everything—for motion, discrete, batch, process, safety," said John Pritchard, global market development manager, integrated architecture for Rockwell Automation. "And they don't want to overpay for hardware. This scales, so it's just what they need and not more."

The CompactLogix 5370 programmable automation controller—announced last year at Automation Fair in Chicago and available now—is an example of a high-performance solution in an affordable package. It uses a single development environment for both standard and motion control and provides seamless integration into a plant-wide control system via an EtherNet/IP network. "It coordinates everything on the machine," Pritchard said.

Coordinated Control for Multiple Machines

The Stratix 5700 managed switch provides automation control that was previously out of reach for smaller machine builders. "It's an industrial-rated managed switch, but at an appropriate price point," Pritchard explained. "Aagard has seven machines that work together, and they connect and communicate easily. The Stratix 5700 provides synchronization of all the functions over the network."

Through coordinated behavior, if a palletizer on the line stops, for example, the cartoner and case packer further up the line slow down and stop as well. Processors in each machine make production more seamless through each step as opposed to the stop-and-release functionality machine builders previously relied on.

"Footprint is also becoming a big issue," Pritchard noted, adding that smaller control panels have become essential. Instead of the traditional walls filled with wardrobe-style control panels, machine builders are moving to smaller panels that can be tucked away on the machine. In Aagard's case, the panel is small enough to sit atop the machine, providing a very clean design inside the machine itself.

At first that was a bit of an emotional adaptation, Pritchard recalled, as engineers worried that it wouldn't be as convenient to access the panel. "But then they worked out the amount of time they actually have to be in there and realized it made sense to get the control panel up and out of the way." It also makes it easier to create a machine environment suitable for food safety and washdown situations.

Conserving Panel Space

To help create smaller panels, machine builders are also looking to move more functions out of the panel and onto the machine. The Allen-Bradley IP67 Slim ArmorBlock I/O is an example of this capability. Aagard's machine shows two on-machine ArmorBlock I/O units connected through EtherNet/IP.

"Taking the I/O out of the panel and putting it on the machine is not particularly new, but there used to be a trade-off," Pritchard explained. "If it was on the network, the I/O was not as accurate as on the rack. You'd like to check status every millisecond, but that would create too much traffic on the network. You could check every 5 to10 ms instead, but then you lose accuracy."

ArmorBlock contains a highly accurate clock with nanosecond accuracy, Pritchard continued. That means that even if status is checked less frequently to relieve network traffic, status is still recorded at finer levels. "You might not know about it for 5 ms, but you will know when it did happen within a nanosecond." In the case of the robotic in-feed module, the I/O checks as product comes through on the belt, enabling the picker robot to grab it as it comes by. "It provides a tenth of a millimeter in accuracy," Pritchard said.

Helping to preserve panel space are two different solutions from Rockwell Automation for servo drives. One solution moves the servo drives from the panel directly to the machine, integrated with the motors. Rather than an eight-axis solution requiring eight drives in the panel connected with 16 wires, the new solution uses a single daisy-chained wire. "This is a dramatic reduction in panel space," Pritchard said, adding, "It provides a significant savings in cable and wiring."

Though Pritchard calls the on-machine servo solution a "pretty compelling technology," there are times when machine builders will want to stick with in-panel servo drives. This could be because a machine design requires very small or very large motors (which the new solution does not accommodate), or the machine builder wants to use linear actuators rather than rotary motors, or simply because of a preference for tradition. Regardless of the reason, Rockwell Automation is coming out with an in-panel servo drive that is significantly smaller than previous drives. The Allen-Bradley Kinetix 5500 servo drive—expected to be released in December—is about half the size of previous solutions, Pritchard said.

Pritchard credits the reduction in size largely to newer transistor technologies (Insulated Gate Bipolar Transistors, IGBTs). "They have lower switching losses and produce less heat, so we can pack them a lot tighter in the drive," he explained.

Software Tools Ease Design, Collaboration

Pulling it all together to help machine builders design, build and test their systems, Motion Analyzer is a free, downloadable software tool that integrates with SolidWorks to simulate the physics of a moving system, calculate torque and inertia, and generate digital prototypes. Rockwell Automation is introducing its latest version, Motion Analyzer 7, which integrates support for the latest Rockwell Automation products.

Machine designers will find design and collaboration eased by Studio 5000 Logix Designer, which provides a single design environment rather than single pieces of software. "It's the beginning of an evolution," Pritchard said, explaining that previously the separate software packages worked well together, but Studio 5000 takes that to a new level. "The application modules work in a single environment. You have a single instance of all those design decisions you've made." Studio 5000 will make it easier for everybody on a team—regardless of location—to collaborate on a document, akin to the track changes function in a Word document.

The first element of Studio 5000 will be logic design, scheduled for release next month, Pritchard said. Though it's just one element to start with, "it's the beginning of something big," he added. A panel view designer will be added about a year from now. Topology will be added next, then motion, and so on.