Less is more: keeping complexity out of automation

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Streamlined design of automation systems – adding functionality such as connectivity without increasing complexity – will help food processors move their operations towards a true ‘factory of the future’.

Less is more: keeping complexity out of automationLike many other sectors, food and beverage – including the dairy industry – has become increasingly automated. This has led the industry to expect more from its machinery suppliers. However, the machine builders themselves face a series of conflicting challenges.

First, they must develop machines with more motion axes, to cut cycle times, deal with multiple product configurations and drive up both output and quality. At the same time, the machines need to be equipped with more sensor capability and be capable of collecting and processing more data – making them ready for the ‘smart factory’ – while communicating with many external systems.

However, they should also be simple to operate, require minimal maintenance, have fast, responsive support and be keenly priced – all at the same time. The challenge for machine builders is to design and build machines that fulfil all the needs of end users while balancing a range of conflicting needs. This requires OEMs to be smart when choosing which components and technology platforms they use – and who they select as an automation partner.

Simple steps

The need for higher capability often leads machine builders down the route of greater complexity. However, this is rarely the best approach because more complex systems are invariably more expensive, more complicated to operate, harder to build, maintain and repair – and require more energy to run. Pressure from system providers – who are keen to push their latest technologies – may lead machine builders to make unwise choices when sourcing components.

Take the example of servo drives, which are highly effective in dynamic, accurate high-speed motion applications, and are usually presented as the option of choice in these situations. In the right circumstances, they can be replaced by conventional motors with modern inverter drives, and at far lower cost: running motors at frequencies of 87Hz or 120Hz can offer higher power and a wider speed range than at 50Hz, bringing them close to the performance of a servo system.

A choice like this can save both engineering time and costs: simpler machines that exploit the control capabilities of inverter drives can eliminate the need for a separate control system, for instance.

Take your partner

Designing with simplicity in mind can reap many benefits, and there are ways to accomplish this. The most important is to choose an automation partner wisely – preferably one with a broad technology portfolio, backed by a strong supply chain, plus solid design capabilities, in-service support and development tools. This will help to enable designs that balance performance and modernity with simplicity.

A strong partner will need a deep understanding of the automation process. It’s true to say while many machine builders know exactly what they need their machine to do – in terms of loads, distances and speeds – they are not experts in motion: for this, they need the advice of a knowledgeable partner. Machine builders whose products have simple, unchanging designs can get enough service from a straight component supplier, but those involved in bespoke projects – such as those needed by the food industry – are more likely to need expert assistance.

Portfolio breadth

No matter how innovative a solution, it will at some point be converted into a bill of materials, requiring a supply partner with a broad portfolio of products and the knowledge to apply them. A key factor is whether components can be connected seamlessly. A single supplier should have parts that work together; but it’s worth remembering that portfolios sometimes grow through acquisition, meaning that two parts from the same supplier may have been designed in isolation. So, it may be some time before ‘new’ parts become fully integrated.

Sitting behind this should be a strong supply chain that can deliver products quickly and reliably. A machine builder may need a guaranteed supply of parts for three or more years – either for building original machines or carrying out maintenance – so must be confident that this is possible. For this reason, many customers assess a potential supplier’s long-term strength before anything else, satisfying themselves that if they make changes, such as modifying the design, it will be supported.

And support is critical. Even the most basic component suppliers should deliver a high level of service and back-up and be willing – and able – to participate in a project until the end. Some important issues here are: whether support is comprehensive and includes extended warranty; the product obsolescence policy – and whether it is openly published; and whether support is available for machine-life extensions.

Tooling up

Software development tools have become crucial in the development of automation systems. These days, they are used across all stages of a machine’s lifecycle – from project planning and design through to programming, diagnostics and maintenance. Machine performance now depends heavily on motion software, which machine designers usually create themselves, but this highly time-consuming process can be bypassed.

This is done by using design tools that automate – as far as possible – the design and implementation of basic machinery functions. A system like Lenze’s FAST application software toolbox can help machine builders complete their machine design more quickly by streamlining the process.

It uses standard software ‘blocks’, which are pre-configured and tested, to accelerate the development of machine software. The standard modules are assembled with a simple-to-use application template and can be applied to a wide variety of equipment – not just in food production but in allied processes including packaging and logistics, which also require efficient motion control systems.

Machine builders can incorporate these standard software blocks into their products, to allow complex motion, by breaking it down into a finite number of motion sequences. By combining these blocks, a machine builder can quickly equip a machine with a wide range of motion that suits their needs – but without having to develop complex, bespoke software of their own.

FAST food

All machines are different, but most combine common functions – such as feeding, unwinding and sealing on packaging lines, for instance, as well as options for robotic operations such as pick-and-place. Automation development environments like this provide ready-made, tested modules that handle these kinds of basic machine functions. This modular approach makes engineering quick, easy and reliable. It helps automation specialists to work with a basic architecture.

FAST allows a significant reduction in the development time for basic functions – and the time saved can be invested to develop special features that enhance machine performance. FAST typically covers around 80 per cent of all software engineering requirements, meaning that much of a machine’s software development can be carried out automatically.

The separate modules are autonomous, can be re-used and link with higher level software to give a pre-defined structure. Also, they can be tested independently, to make machine development faster and easier, with a smaller chance of errors.

Just as the manufacturing industry requires flexible, efficient machinery to perform a range of precise, repetitive tasks, the same is true in food – whether it is filling, cutting, slicing or taking finished goods off a production line.

Forward looking

Simplification does not mean turning back the clock and designing a machine fit for the 1980s. Instead, machine builders must embrace modern and forward-looking concepts such as interconnectivity and Industry 4.0 and incorporate them into their designs effectively and efficiently.

Industry 4.0, despite its far-future reputation, is already happening – giving manufacturers and processors the interconnectivity and data analysis they need to create a true factory of the future. The ability to imbue machinery with monitoring sensors, transfer data wirelessly and connect to remote systems is key to this, and is a challenge that machine builders must continue to grapple with. These advanced communication and analytical technologies create opportunities for end users and machine builders, but for maximum effectiveness they must be built into machines, not bolted on. For instance, machines that use standardised protocols such as OPC UA or the MQTT will be able to connect seamlessly to the cloud – something that is likely to become a standard feature in the near future.

Connectivity has added a new dimension to machine capability, but one that makes the designer’s job more difficult. Creating more powerful machines while maintaining a degree of simplicity is a challenge, but can be done with expert help – and a determination to create streamlined designs.

Yes, modern machinery needs to carry out ever-more complicated tasks – but it need not be complex at the same time.

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