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Triple challenge for machine builders

Triple challenge for machine builders

How can machine builders design machines that offer increased performance and increased safety, yet bring them to market more quickly and at lower costs? We pose this question to Phil George, Solution Architect at Rockwell Automation.

The challenges facing manufacturers and machine builders are becoming increasingly intertwined. Manufacturers need to produce goods more flexibly, more quickly and more cheaply. In turn, this requires machines that are more adaptable, offer increased uptime, boost throughput, reduce waste and ensure greater energy efficiency.

All of this implies significantly increased levels of sophistication in modern machine designs, to ensure the improved performance that will keep end users ahead of their competition. At the same time, the pressure is on to keep the machine cost down; with the flood of low cost imported machines from lower wage economies, machine builders have to be able to offer increased performance whilst still keeping prices keen. Time to market is critical, too - end users just can't afford to wait because the competition never stands still.

All of these challenges will be familiar to machine builders, but addressing them effectively isn't always so obvious, particularly when at first sight some appear to conflict. Increased sophistication can be addressed by greater use of automation, but the complexity this can add to the machine design can appear to come only at the expense of time to market and build cost. But does increased sophistication have to mean an increased design time and an increased design cost?

Design productivity
Let's not confuse the cost of the automation components with the cost of the machine build itself. Rockwell Automation Solution Architect Phil George comments: "The cost of the automation and control components, even on a complex machine, is typically less than 20% of the overall cost. Much more important is the cost of the design time - the labour and the man hours that you have to put in. Minimising that is the key to maximising 'design productivity' - efficient and effective machine design."

How can we achieve this? One of the keys is to leverage all the software tools that are available for design, many of which are available free of charge. "Rockwell Automation has a full suite of software design tools," says George, "from an OEM library of software code right up to Integrated Architecture tools that help you understand, plan and configure a complete automation system."

A good example is the newly revised Drives and Motion Accelerator Toolkit that provides a host of easy-to-use tools and templates for developing automation systems built around Rockwell Automation's servos and AC drives. With this toolkit, machine builders can focus on the aspects of design that really add value rather than getting bogged down in the routine tasks that add overhead costs. This Drives and Motion Accelerator Toolkit provides tools to assist with all facets of the design task, from selecting components and developing drawings, to wring code, laying out HMI screens, starting up the machine, and even troubleshooting.

Re-usable engineering
The Drives and Motion Accelerator Toolkit uses a modular format that greatly simplifies the work needed when building applications with multiple product lines. You select the products and common tasks that you need to start your design with a solid foundation of functionality and features. "This modular focus is really important for modern machine design," says George. "The most expensive way to design machines is to treat them as serial one-off projects. If we can modularlise machines, both mechanically and in code, then we have the potential to re-use proven systems with just minor modification, or to scale up existing designs to work on any size of platform."

Modern software tools support this by providing standard function blocks and profiles which can either be used on an as-is basis or easily modified to meet specific requirements. And Rockwell Automation has taken this a stage further by developing a platform where the same function blocks and profiles can be used with products right across the Integrated Architecture range - including everything from the simplest PAC with lowest I/O count to the most sophisticated, high end controller. "That scalability is critical," comments George. "You don't want to have to go to a completely different platform for a different size of machine, particularly where there is clear commonality of features and functions."

An area of machine design that has changed dramatically in recent years - and which can add significantly to the cost of development - is safety. But, if you get it right, properly integrated safety can be a key differentiator in your machine design and deliver higher value. Rockwell Automation's 'Integrated Safety' approach enables safety and standard control to be considered in a single environment, so that safety, discrete and motion control functions can be implemented with major cost and efficiency benefits. The Integrated Safety approach shares standard and safety control assets to minimise hardware, software, development and support costs. "A correctly designed and integrated machine safety system can provide a simpler, less costly, but no less safe machine," says George. "It reduces system complexity, and therefore the number of components required. And it simplifies testing and troubleshooting, again leading to reduced costs."

Rockwell Automation provides a single programming environment and a single network for both automation and safety control functions. There is a full portfolio of dedicated safety products, too, as well as safety functions embedded into automation products such as controllers, drives, motion and network technologies. All of this can help machine builders to reduce costs. By utilising common programming tools, machine builders can significantly reduce the design effort and man-hours involved in the development, as well as reducing installation and commissioning costs. Contemporary safety techniques such as zone control, muting and safe-speed control can all be easily incorporated to ensure machine designs with optimum productivity and flexibility.

At the same time, such tools address the specific safety requirements of different global standards, making it easier to design machines for export to different areas of the world. A focus on global standards also goes as far as being able to program in different languages, and to develop machines that can be operated in different languages.

Design for sustainability
Another key concern for end users of machinery is energy efficiency and sustainability, which means machine builders have to be able to develop machines that minimise energy usage and eliminate waste. "This impacts on numerous aspects of the design," says George, "from correctly sizing motors, to monitoring energy usage, to ensuring the highest levels of productivity so as to reduce levels of wastage."

As with other aspects of machine design, the ability to design for sustainability is greatly aided by the provision of effective software tools, particularly with mechanical issues such as sizing motors correctly for required loads. Again, Rockwell Automation addresses this requirement within a single programming environment, enabling machine builders to address a whole raft of design aspects from within a unified platform.

"Regardless of the industry sector they are designing for, machine builders are facing constant pressures to develop machines more quickly and more cost-effectively, but still to boost performance, safety and productivity," concludes George. "Making this possible demands a focus on design productivity, re-usable engineering, safety, global standards and sustainability that can only be provided with a fully integrated platform of hardware and software. And that is what Rockwell Automation's Integrated Architecture is really all about."

Download FREE tools to simplify design tasks – Drives & Motion Accelerator Toolkit

Learn more about Rockwell Automation's new compact machine control platform here

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