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Seamless connectivity from the workpiece to the cloud

Seamless connectivity from the workpiece to the cloud

Warren Harvard, Product Manager at Festo, looks at how improving connectivity supports machine builders.

The 4th Industrial Revolution is redefining manufacturing business models, supplier / customer relationships, value chains and even the classic automation control pyramid. One area that is developing rapidly and offering users improved automation efficiency, is connectivity – networking and communication within a system.

Networking with Industry 4.0

The Industry 4.0 roadmap defines standards to make it far easier to connect networked, flexible production, creating modular structures and hierarchies by utilising intelligent products with embedded smart functions. As a result, the classic machine architecture with its central control system is increasingly moving towards more versatile, distributed automation subsystems. These are decentralised and closely communicating with each other. This approach brings greater flexibility in production processes enabling more variation in machine architecture concepts, ideal to meet the increased requirements of global production.

The increasingly networked components require a high level of compatibility and integration across all system participants. Unobstructed data exchange facilitates smoother processes, but it depends on all components being aligned to the application, whilst at the same time perfectly matching one another. Effective networking and communications between components and the production systems ultimately depends on their connectivity.

Connectivity explained

Essentially, connectivity is the ability to connect and link up individual participants i.e. eliminating the interfaces between devices. Connectivity describes the ability of the component or a subsystem to be integrated within peer, or higher-level architecture structures, as well as their optimal coordination within the system. Simply translated to industrial applications, this means individual components work together better.

For seamless connectivity, the mechanical, electrical and the intelligent interfaces all need to be considered, across all components. Connectivity in automation technology must be carefully considered from the workpiece to the cloud.

The objective of seamless connectivity is to make the interfaces as simple and easy to handle as possible, so that using the devices is more reliable and faster. Design and commissioning becomes easier and faster allowing machine builders and end users to concentrate more effectively on their tasks.

Automation architecture

The automation control hierarchy typically used in machines and production systems is based on the classic automation pyramid (shown opposite) whereby individual products and automation components are assigned to individual levels (actuator, field and control).

On every level, the machine builder must consider the multiple interfaces. For example, the design of the mechanical system for the automation of motion must match the configuration of the servo drive system. This in turn needs to be integrated optimally into the control environment. Software tools for design, configuration and commissioning play a key role here.

No single communication standard can be applied across all levels. In most cases stand-alone solutions handle subtasks, but these do not always allow a seamless approach. This causes many challenges for integrators: for example, where linear mechanical systems and servo drive technology need to be combined quickly and easily from different manufacturers.

At the same time, it creates opportunities to increase efficiency and offers huge potential for improving the machine development process.

Meeting machine builders’ needs

An almost overwhelming number of products, components and solutions are available from thousands of manufacturers for mechanical axis and control systems, all with their own interfaces, hardware solutions, programming languages, software systems and communication protocols. This means that machine builders spend a lot of time researching, combining and integrating them into their machines. A typical question is “how can I easily combine a mechanical axis, a servo motor and a servo drive so that they perfectly complement each other without over specifying or spending?”

Series and bespoke machine builders have quite different requirements when it comes to automation platforms and connectivity.  Series machine builders seek to standardise their drive solutions, whilst bespoke machine builders require highly flexible solutions to enable them to respond to the highly individual needs of their customers. They need to reconfigure each machine and commission it individually time and again. They want to do this as simply and quickly as possible, without investing time to familiarise themselves with the idiosyncrasies of each component.

For both types of machine builder, there are convenient and simple solutions that meet their respective requirements. For example, when Festo developed their new automation platform, priority was placed on seamless connectivity from the outset. The mechanical system, the drive system with motor and controllers, as well as the software modules were designed as one system. Compatibility with the many controller manufacturers was also key.

For example, the latest generation of Festo servo drives (CMMT) and motors, together with the intuitive commissioning software, Festo Automation Suite, makes integration easier and speeds up commissioning significantly. These components can be integrated virtually seamlessly into all commonly available Ethernet-based external controllers with the intention that users will not even notice the hardware manufacturers are different. Festo Automation Suite combines parameterisation, programming and maintenance in one program.

Conclusion

Seamless Connectivity from the workpiece to the cloud offers a solution to many of the challenges faced by today’s machine builders. Reducing the complexity of the automation task enables faster, more reliable build times, reduced work-in-progress and lower costs. Festo has invested intensively in this approach and developed software tools that all but eliminate the ‘friction at the interfaces’ i.e. making it easier mechanically, electrically and in programming software to connect automation devices such as electric servo drives into the complete machine environment.

From the initial conceptualisation, through the design phases to build, programming and commissioning, product data can be digitally collected, collated, processed and then re-used in the next phase without unnecessary double working or errors. This is a major benefit for machine builders and as it utilises many of the principles of Industry 4.0 becomes the Digital Twin ready to be incorporated in the future into the complete digital system.

For further reading on connectivity and to download a whitepaper on the subject visit https://connectivity.festo.com/gb/en/

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