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Enabling the development of more complex machines

Enabling the development of more complex machines

Dan Rossek of Omron looks at the evolution of industrial sensors and their importance in machine design.


During the process of conceptualising and designing new automated machinery, it's arguable which automation technology should take precedence of consideration at these early stages. What is clear, in the end, is that it is only the successful combination of all automation technologies which will give the final result of a fit-for-purpose and functional machine. The strive for more efficient machinery, with higher degrees of automation are driving innovation across all domains of automation, and the sensor world is not lagging behind.

Industrial sensors have always played a pivotal role in the automation of machinery, commonly analogised as the 'eyes and ears' of the machine. But what is clear to all is that without sensor technology very little in the way of automation would be possible.

Whilst sensor technology has evolved considerably over recent years, more recent innovations in the sensor world have arrived in the form of fieldbus connectivity and networking. These newer technologies are bridging the 'sensor' and 'machine control' worlds to help realise new functionality and open the doors for the development of machines with ever increasing automation complexity.

Fieldbus technology is playing a vital role in the evolution of sensors, with the push for faster cycle times, easy integration and seamless data exchange. The benefits of fieldbus solutions are now widely recognised, including simplified installation and machine design, as well as improving machine performance and device monitoring, advanced functionality which would be very complex to achieve with traditional hardwired systems.

There are now countless fieldbus solutions available, each with their own benefits and restrictions. Many fieldbus technologies are dedicated to motion control or even specific to a sensor technology, developed to support the unique requirements of the peripheral devices.

Whilst Omron supports a wide range of fieldbus technologies, the primary offering uses EtherCAT, widely rec-ognised as the fastest fieldbus solution available, but also has the flexibility to support the integration of a wide range of peripheral devices. Integration of these devices into the fieldbus network is extremely simple and can be configured with no more than a few clicks of your mouse, providing instantaneous data exchange with the machine control platform. This completely eliminates developing complex protocols or writing custom code, providing fast and seamless integration. Currently devices such as logic control, I/O, servo drives, inverter drives, and safety control are all supported. More recently Omron has introduced a wide range of sensor solutions which have EtherCAT connectivity, including fibre and laser sensors, vision sensors, vision systems and high accuracy measurement systems. These new solutions mean machine builders can develop a complete machine with all the necessary peripheral devices, all connected and communicating on a single fieldbus solution. This makes development, installation, commissioning, device monitoring and fault diagnostics vastly more efficient and can provide immediate cost savings.

A further benefit to integrating peripheral devices on an EtherCAT fieldbus is the degree of integration which can be achieved. Extensive parameter and variable data exchange is possible between the machine controller and the peripheral device, allowing the peripheral devices to become an integral part of the control system. Taking the newly developed EtherCAT sensors as an example, with traditional hardwired solutions, integration with the sensors is limited to simple on/off status exchange. This is greatly expanded when these devices are connected to the EtherCAT fieldbus, as well as basic I/O information, full parameter-isation of the sensors is also possible, allowing re-configuration through the control system. This can vastly improve the efficiency of product changeovers, where the control system can batch configure all the sensors on the network completely automatically, eliminating the need for operator intervention.

Due to the depth of the data exchange between the machine controller and sensor units, complete device monitoring is also enabled, providing immediate feedback of the status of the sensor, but also providing sufficient data to verify the condition of the sensors, to detect whether they have a build-up of contamination or are misaligned. This information can lead to an advanced predictive maintenance function, which can improve the machine efficiency (OEE) and reduce costly downtime.

Machine cycle time can also be improved through networking peripheral devices on a EtherCAT fieldbus. The data exchange between the machine control system and Omron's new FH vision system is now as fast as 0.5ms. This allows machines which have vision guided motion to be far more dynamic and responsive. As the vision system and motion control are all interlinked through a cyclic communication stream, machine dwell times are almost eliminated, and the full performance of the hardware can be realised. Reducing machine cycle time will improve the efficiency and productivity of the machine, increasing the machine builders competitive advantage.
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