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Modularity makes semi-custom machine development economic

Modularity makes semi-custom machine development economic

With machine builders facing pressures to build ever more sophisticated machines with increasing numbers of variants and options, Simon Goodwin of B&R looks at the importance of modularity with the engineering and development processes.

Maintaining profitability in the machine building industry is one of the key challenges of the 21st Century, particularly for European companies occupying the middle ground between those making very high volume standard machines and those making very low volume bespoke machines. The reality for many European machine builders is that they are producing perhaps ten or twenty machines each year, with customers asking for ever higher levels of customisation, options and special features, but at prices being driven ever downwards.

What this means, in effect, is that every machine becomes either a special purpose design or a variant, with each inevitably having to be designed from the ground up. In this modern era where it is the design and development aspect of the build rather than the hardware that represents the highest proportion of the cost, the substantial engineering work incurred can quickly eat into any profits. It is easy to see, then, why profitability has become the challenge that it has.

If you look at how your own portfolio of machine variants has changed in the last few years, it is likely that although your standard designs may still account for the majority of your machines, the number of variants and options is growing. And in a few years time, it is not inconceivable that variants could easily account for 60%, 70% or more of your output. And if you follow that trend to its logical conclusion, what you may soon be looking at is a picture where every machine is, at best, semi-bespoke.  

With a conventional approach to machine design it is it all but impossible to economically and efficiently develop and automate so many machine variants, effectively starting every new machine from scratch. But there is an alternative, a modular approach to design, development and automation. Modularity starts in software, embraces automation hardware, and makes it possible for machine builders to minimise the costs of adding options, making variants, and scaling designs up or down.
Modularity in software should address two key aspects. The first is pre-defined, pre-tested function blocks for specific aspects of the control architecture. These might come as pre-written blocks supplied as part of a library within the design software, or they might be function blocks written and tested by the machine builder, or they might be a combination of the two. Such function blocks can enable drag and drop configuration of automation functions within the machine, with simple modification possible to meet specific control requirements.

The other side of modularity in software is a pool of software modules written by the machine builder to create the basis of each machine. This is where machine builders can bring the benefits of series production into a bespoke design environment: modules that don't change from one machine to another, or which only need scaling up or down, can be integrated into a new machine design with little or no modification. Only newly added components and any interdependencies require testing and validation. This saves a great deal of engineering time and effort.

With Automation Studio 4, B&R provides the perfect environment for a modular approach to machine design. Full support for modularity makes it possible to split each new project into a series of autonomous modules. Importantly, what separates Automation Studio from other platforms is its provision of a single platform to configure all aspects of automation hardware, including control, HMIs, drives, I/O, servos, motors, robotics, CNC, safety and more. Not only does the B&R product range span the full spectrum of automation technologies, but the company also has offered a unified software tool for some 13 years or more, and can therefore boast significant expertise in this area.

With Automation Studio, B&R also recognises that machine designers will have often written modules outside of the confines of the traditional automation programming environment, perhaps with function blocks developed in applications such as Maplesoft and Simulink, or blocks using PLCopen mechatronic libraries. With its open interface, Automation Studio enables all of these functions to be imported and used as pre-existing functions without the need to rewrite them, so machine builders can leverage all of their machinery expertise.

In short, by using Automation Studio, machine builders can standardise on a single software platform for all of their machines, so that each customer's specific requirement becomes little more than copy-and-paste of existing software modules plus configuration, adding new pre-tested function blocks as required, with only minimal need for new development work helping to reduce engineering time. Gone is the need to completely rework the software from the ground up for each new machine.

With so much of the strain taken out of the machine design process, machine builders also have more time and freedom to innovate. And each new function block written can then become a standard feature of subsequent machines.

The modular approach also embraces scalability. Because the Automation Studio software is hardware-independent, the actual hardware can easily change from one design to another, perhaps moving where the safety control resides or switching from a Panel PC to a dedicated controller. Also included are additional features that go beyond the development process, enabling simulation of the application early in the design phase to help shorten development times.

B&R extends the modularity approach into hardware as well, making it easy for machine builders to implement decentralised control islands as easily as building a single control panel. This is a further aid in modularity, giving machine builders the freedom to put control where it is needed, expand it as required from one machine variant to the next, and scale it up or down to meet specific performance requirements.

We can see then, that by enabling machine builders to reuse pre-designed, pre-tested function blocks, to embrace modular hardware concepts, and to benefit from easy scalability, the modular approach to machine design delivers reduced development costs and shorter lead times. With massively improved potential or reusability, it also gives machine builders the tools they need to move from conventional series production to a semi-custom approach, embracing customer requirements for variants and options, while maintaining the bottom line.

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