Modular software to boost productivity
Part 2 in the "Staying ahead of the technology curve" series explains how leveraging modular software for more efficient machine automation engineering
From initial machine concept to running a machine it is important to leverage the best available technologies. The rising levels of automation and production line complexity go hand-in-hand, making the design engineer a key player in controlling overall costs and the machine development cycle. Machine functionality is already quite advanced. In most cases it is no longer simply about making a machine faster. Availability and user-friendliness are bigger issues. A user should be able to handle a machine easily and intuitively, making the most of its functionality and productivity. In the event of a shutdown the repair time must be responsive and swift. With less time, limited resources and fewer skilled employees, what changes must the machine-building industry make in order to be able to better meet these challenges?
One answer lies in leveraging modular software for more efficient machine automation engineering. With modern modular concepts, not only can machines be built and commissioned more quickly, they also become more functional and flexible to adapt. When prevailing conditions change, it no longer requires refitting the whole machine. Rather, we can just change out a module. Machine-builders are beginning to develop a module mentality. However, until now modularity has mainly applied to machinery and electronics, whereas software lagged behind. That’s changing as machine software has evolved from one-level applications to multiple layered infrastructures that need to be defined and integrated.
Machine motion and logic system programming can be extremely complex depending on the application, especially when one relies on outdated technologies. By definition, all machine components and programming areas are intertwined. Any change potentially affects other areas, which can result in having to start over writing a new program. Until recently, the programming process started with a blank white screen and took significant time to adapt existing programs from previous projects. That’s hardly evidence of engineering efficiency. Engineering practices are evolving as modular software becomes more sophisticated—and more closely aligned with the needs of machine builders and their customers.
Drive system design software
To avoid ‘recreating the wheel’ and other common engineering pitfalls it is important at the onset of a project to take a structured approach that ensures optimal integration, with the design flexibility to enact system changes quickly, without inadvertently creating new problems. Powerful drive system design and programming software can make the design engineer’s job easier and provide unsurpassed design flexibility.
Drive system design software can be used for specifying equipment in a wide range of machine applications requiring standard and customized motion control requirements. Dynamic design software tools make it possible to rapidly analyze user entered data, yielding immediate recommendations for right-sized equipment, with calculated motor and gearbox requirements, and recommendations for the most appropriate technologies, whether that’s a servo or inverter model. In addition to calculating proper sizing recommendations, design software saves time when it comes to product selection and enables efficient cost estimates for new machine or system concepts.
Enhanced modular motion control programming software
Programmers no longer need to start over with each machine iteration or upgrade. Programming becomes more efficient and machines more functional using reliable, field tested modules. Experience shows that a majority of software for most new machines can be generated using code developed for previous generations or which can be provided in the form of technology modules from system partners.
With application templates and ready-made standard software modules, programmers can potentially cover up to 80% of all their software engineering requirements for standardized machine modules.
The latest programming software provides extensive application templates for conveying, cutting and other common machine motions and mechanisms, such as temperature control areas. The programming software template represents the machine’s primary application—and serves as a virtual drawing board onto which the designer inserts different block modules representing sub-applications to create a complete machine.
A range of software modules are available for feeding, unwinding, sealing, cross-sealing, discharging and other applications, with templates for important structures, such as error handling, state switching, and communication interfaces.
By distilling the process of assembling basic machine tasks, these software modules allow the design engineer to focus on higher level decision-making, specifying options and customized refinements that help differentiate machine offerings. The template-based programming software automatically adjusts related functions when a module is added, omitted or altered, which mitigates the domino effect, whereby new problems can be created.
Application programming templates allow PLC software to be inserted and extracted for the purpose of adding or omitting tasks in different parts of the machine, without completely re-engineering the machine.
This modular ‘building block’ approach retains its structural integrity throughout the programming process, which opens new avenues for machine builders to offer machine motion control variations or specialized offerings to a supplier requiring certain machine tasks, without starting over. This can save considerable time and be particularly useful in certain industries, such as dynamic packaging applications where end users frequently require flexibility in material type, product sizing and changeovers in runs. The bottom line is that the use of standardized and re-useable software modules offers greater freedom for devising and testing special features of a machine, which then impress the end user and provide decisive purchase incentives.
Chuck Edwards is president of Lenze Americas.
Annual Salary Survey
After almost a decade of uncertainty, the confidence of plant floor managers is soaring. Even with a number of challenges and while implementing new technologies, there is a renewed sense of optimism among plant managers about their business and their future.
The respondents to the 2014 Plant Engineering Salary Survey come from throughout the U.S. and serve a variety of industries, but they are uniform in their optimism about manufacturing. This year’s survey found 79% consider manufacturing a secure career. That’s up from 75% in 2013 and significantly higher than the 63% figure when Plant Engineering first started asking that question a decade ago.