Inside Machines: Automated measuring system

New control system for an automated measuring system testing improves communications and saves space.


The VMT industrial computer and meters are in place and ready to be tested in the new Ford Meter Box system. Photo courtesy: Phoenix ContactFord Meter Box Company Inc., in Wabash, Ind., upgraded its automated measurement system for water meter testing. The company manufactures waterworks brass valves and fittings, water meter setting equipment, and water meter testing equipment.

The new system ensures that end users of water systems receive accurate bills for water usage, so the water utility can accurately measure all water produced. Since a water meter is the water utility’s cash register, accurate results are crucial.

The first generation of this system used a Linux-based controller and custom-manufactured console cabinet linked to the meter test bench through a series of control cables tethered to the console as it was moved from test station to test station. If technical support was necessary, the test bench operator had to describe the screen display to customer support personnel. The support person would instruct the operator how to proceed.

Controllers in the first-generation system were becoming outdated. If Ford Meter Box wanted to continue using the system, the entire program would need to be rewritten. Eric Cohee, senior product designer for Ford Meter Box Co., felt the time had come to develop a second generation of the system.

The new system needed to improve programming, a challenge because end customers use a broad range of computer systems. A universal, easily adaptable data transfer would facilitate customers’ various needs.

Additionally, space for the test equipment is typically limited. Test bench operators needed a more compact console or even the complete elimination of the console.

The controller also needed to withstand the repetitive tests that the company conducts. Thorough testing ensures that Ford Meter Box’s products will stand up to real-world challenges.

Ford Meter Box Company worked with a system integrator/distributor and automation vendor to develop a new testing system. The new system used an Ethernet-enabled programmable logic controller (PLC), an industrial PC, a security device, Ethernet switch, power supply, PLC relays, and miscellaneous cables, connectors, and terminal blocks.

“Although a workable system was developed early in the project, we still wanted to simplify the operation for our customers,” stated Cohee. Project partners “supported our requests and continued to work alongside us to improve the operation of our test equipment by providing additional hardware, technical support, and software solutions.”

The industrial PC serves as the main operator interface for the meter test equipment, collecting and storing meter test data and eliminating the need for the console.

Ford Meter Box test system data entry can be done on the touchscreen of the machine-mount VMT industrial computer. Graphical screens were created with the VISU+ HMI software. Photo courtesy: Phoenix Contact

By mounting the industrial PC “directly to the meter test bench, we were able to reduce the floor space required by our console 100 percent. The compact size of the controller allowed more functionality in a smaller package,” Cohee said. Since the industrial PC is 24 V dc, it also eliminated a potential shock hazard associated with a 120 V ac system.

The controllers use an IEC 61131 programming system. Cohee said, “By using the IEC61131 universal programming languages and functions, we will be able to upgrade our hardware more easily as controllers advance in technology.”

Cohee said that the controllers also proved durable. “Because the controllers have held up to our extreme tests in the lab, we are confident that they will also last for many years as the primary controller on the meter testing equipment we manufacture.”

The security device provides secure virtual private network (VPN) capabilities, allowing customers to easily and securely interface meter test equipment within their network, and Ford Meter Box Company can assist with equipment operation through a secure Internet connection. 

Use of preassembled cables and the wiring interface adapter and cable system simplified the assembly process. Cohee stated, “Our process quality has improved by significantly reducing the possibility of wiring errors during production of the meter test bench. Although some of the hardware items actually increased in cost, we achieved an overall cost savings with the plug-and-play ability of the components and pre-made cables.”

Control box for the Ford Meter Box application includes ILC programmable controller, modular I/O, systems cabling, and power distribution module. Photo courtesy: Phoenix ContactCohee said it was an advantage to have single sourcing for “controllers, computers, power equipment, relays, Ethernet switch and, of course, connectors and cables,” ensuring component compatibility on the water meter test equipment. Replacement parts, if needed, are easily available in the U.S. and globally.

The new system offered “customers additional features at the same relative cost, while simplifying the set-up and testing of water meters,” Cohee said.

ONLINE extra

Ford Meter Box system components, development partners

Ford Meter Box Company worked with Neff Engineering and Phoenix Contact to develop a new testing system. Jane Pozek (industrial sales engineer for Phoenix Contact) and Eric Cohee (senior product designer for Ford Meter Box Company) review the machine design. Photo courtesy: Phoenix Contact

  • The new system used the Phoenix Contact ILC 150 ETH PLC, Vehicle Mount Terminal (VMT) industrial PC, FL mGuard security device, SFN Ethernet Switch, Qunit SFB power supply, PLC relays, and miscellaneous cables, connectors, and terminal blocks.
  • VMT and ILC 150 use the PCWorx IEC 61131 programming system.
  • Phoenix Contact also introduced Ford Meter Box Company to the FL mGuard security device, which provides secure virtual private network (VPN) capabilities
  • Varioface wiring interface adapter and cable system simplified the assembly process.

Control Engineering webcasts include more on Ethernet optimization.

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