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Advanced Engineering 2021

NEC Birmingham(B40 1NT)

03/11/2021 - 04/11/2021

Join us in our 12th and most important edition to date, as we invite engineers and management from all (more)

Develop it fast, test it as one, and secure it all

Develop it fast, test it as one, and secure it all

With software development time and effort now representing 50% or more of the machine building cost, engineers would do well to choose their platform with care. The right software package, coupled with the right automation products, can save money, save time, and deliver machines with vastly superior performance, as Omron's Barry Butcher and Karl Walker explain.

The development picture for machines at all levels of sophistication has changed enormously in recent years, driven by increasingly demanding end user requirements, by stringent standards in areas such safety, and of course by the increasing capabilities of the automation components used around the machine, with a willingness to embrace technologies such as servos, vision systems, robotics and motion control to their fullest potential.

As a result, where the software development, programming and configuration might once have been almost an afterthought - left to the end once all the 'real engineering' of the hardware design was done - today it has become an integral part of the machine development process right from the outset of the design. And it is a great enabler, with the best packages providing an integrated and human-centric approach to separate hardware disciplines that would once each have required separate centres of expertise within the development team.

For the world's largest OEMs who might be building hundreds of machines at a time, development costs are of course aggregated across a single, large project. For the UK's machine builders, on the other hand, who differentiate themselves through bespoke designs or semi-custom projects, the numbers of machines in any single project are much, much smaller. In that case, every hour spent on software design is a significant cost.

This makes the choice of platform critical. Software packages that allow little more than configuration of a single project mean machine builders have to be familiar with numerous different packages or face multiple learning curves with each project. In addition, such packages often present a very hardware-centric picture, requiring engineers to have a very clear understanding of the inner workings of the products to be configured. But if the tablet generation has taught us anything, it is that we work much better and can be much more creative when we have human-centric software that is intuitive to use, enabling full exploitation of the capabilities of the hardware without needing that in-depth understanding. Look for example at what it might have taken to program a servo drive just a few years ago or to set up a robot control application, compared with the ease of doing the same job with the best of the modern software platforms.

Unified programming environment

The ideal for today's software packages is to provide a single unified environment that gives the machine builder complete control over the complete automation system, and which integrates configuration, programming, simulation and monitoring in a simple, intuitive interface. At the same time it has to address user requirements for increased machine performance, greater flexibility, integration with higher level systems and databases and, perhaps, full manufacturing traceability.

For the machine builder, it has to be easy to learn, simplify hardware integration (for control, motion, safety, vision, networks, robotics, HMI, databases, RFID and more), support open standards (such as IEC 61131-3 and PLCopen), accelerate development and test through effective simulation, open up the machine to the outside world while protecting the machine builder's intellectual property, and provide comprehensive support for project control, versioning, backup/restore and more.

So how does modern software address the various machine development requirements? As an example, Omron's Sysmac Studio software has been designed to give the machine builder total control of the entire machine in a single package, so helping to reduce costs while driving up the potential for creativity. Fully compliant with the open IEC 61131-3 standard, it supports multiple programming strategies (ladder diagram, structured text, function blocks, etc) in a familiar environment that virtually eliminates any learning curve. All hardware is configured, programmed, simulated and tested within the one software.

One of the benefits of such software is that it helps to eliminate the mechanical errors that can lead to expensive mistakes. In addition, the ability to simulate the operation of the complete machine or complete sections of the machine rather than only separate parts further simplifies development.

But these capabilities don't just simplify design; they offer the potential for a whole new paradigm of machine development - one where the machine builder has complete freedom to design, experiment and test before making any commitment to expensive hardware. This might result in increased performance or reduced footprint or superior flexibility or any number of other benefits, while at the same time dramatically reducing the overall timescale for machine delivery.

At the same time, once the machine has been delivered, installed and commissioned, the same software goes on to provide additional benefits, helping to manage changes in configuration over time, keeping down the ongoing costs of data management, and facilitating and simplifying added value aspects such as remote maintenance, assisting with cyber security.
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