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Network choices: reaping the benefits of integration

13 November 2015

Integration has come a long way, says Omron’s Robert Brooks. Looking back at the integration debate we engaged in 20 years ago, he considers how much more we can do today.

The last two decades have seen dramatic changes in the world of drives. The functionality and capabilities of the modern product were almost unimaginable back then, and the increased performance has transformed machine design.

Whole new approaches to control have enabled new levels of sophistication in machine operation, boosting the efficiency of a given machine and the quality of the end product. At the same time, the features and functions built into even the humblest of drives products are contributing to increases in machine availability and overall plant floor efficiency.

Truly, integration has come a long way. And yet, in many ways, we are still asking a lot of the same questions and facing the same risks. 

Twenty years ago, we were asking what were the safe network choices: which would still be supported through the expected life of the machine; which would see the highest level of development of products; which would trend towards development for specific or niche applications; and which would come to dominate?

Would there, we wondered, ever be an integration utopia where one network came to dominate, and what should we do in the mean time? We debated long and hard the relative merits of open and proprietary network technologies, and we worried that even those network options that purported to be open were really the provenance of individual vendors. Would those technologies really ever be fully opened-up for product development by competitors?

Network protocol utopia
The network utopia was an interesting discussion. And indeed there have been some technologies that have vanished from the market, and some that have found niche applications. Equally there have been new entrants to the market, and a host of developments around industrial Ethernet. So there is still no utopia.

Many of the same questions, then, remain: if I choose network A, will I still be able to use product B? How many vendors support it? Will it still be here in another two decades time? Which choice is the fastest? Which offers the widest range of supported products?

What are the risks of obsolescence or lack of product support? Is a chosen network as well supported in one geographic region as another? Is network A as open as network B? We could debate these questions endlessly, and of course there are risks in any choice. History is littered with ‘Betamax versus VHS’ type stories and trying to predict an outcome is all but impossible. 

Could it be, though, that we don’t need to see a winner or an integration utopia? Some might argue that the technology drives the market, others that the market drives the technology, but really the two are inseparably intertwined. And competition is at the core of ongoing innovation.

To greater or less extents, all of the popular automation networks address today’s automation and integration requirements, with users free to look at the likes of EtherCAT, ProfiNet, EtherNet/IP, Ethernet Powerlink and others. All have their associated open development groups and all are supported by a broad range of vendors. 

What they address is a need not for an overall winner, but for proven network technology supported by lots of different products. It means that users can focus less on the risk of obsolescence and more on the true issues of integration: how that network will facilitate improved machine performance, how it will simplify design, programming, commissioning and operation, how it will simplify integration with the broader automation platform, how it will boost operational reliability, and how it will enable the full information capabilities of the drive to be realised to maximise machine availability and overall plant efficiency.

Omron, for example, has standardised on EtherCAT as its control network of choice. It provides the backbone of connectivity from the PLC to I/O, robots, vision systems, HMIs, safety and of course drives. Standardising on a single network simplifies the integration of a host of different products, but also opens up the potential to design, develop, program, set up and commission complete machines from a single unified environment. This is at the heart of Omron’s Sysmac platform.

Further, EtherCAT has been around for long enough now to provide assurances of an ongoing future, and it is supported by a huge range of vendors the world over offering fully compatible, fully tested products.

Realising modern drive capabilities
So how does this advance the integration debate? It is crucial because the speed, reliability and suitability of the network for these control applications all impact not just on how easy to it is to integrate drives into the machine and the automation platform, but also on how much more those drives can offer over and above turning the motor.

The modern drive is a much more intelligent part of the machine or process than it was two decades ago. With this greater intelligence, it can deliver real benefits for boosting machine performance and availability, and is a key enabler for continuous improvement on the line.

A key feature of the modern drive is the information it generates – from life monitoring data of its own internal components, to diagnostics data that can reveal developing problems elsewhere in the machine. The ability of the network to handle all of this data in real time, and make it available to the people and systems that can act on it, is key to machine availability and to continuous improvement.

A very simple example would be the monitoring of current to the motor. A gradual increase in required current would be indicative of developing problems within the mechanical power train, perhaps with the motor bearings, gearbox or couplings. The drive can make this data available over the network, enabling preventative maintenance to be taken before a critical failure, or enabling any required component replacements to be undertaken during the next scheduled maintenance period – so minimising unscheduled downtime and maximising machine availability.

We can also see that this data is not only of use in the moment, but can form the basis of ongoing trend analysis, helping in continuous improvement of the entire production line.

Blending is another trend that is impacting on drives integration, with modern drives now incorporating even quite sophisticated PLC technology. This has been a key enabler for drives-based automation and for decentralisation, allowing islands of modular automation to be quickly and easily implemented. Again, though, network choice is a key consideration, because even in a decentralised system there is a wealth of information that needs to be aggregated and analysed within a central controller.

Drives-based safety is another area where integration is delivering real benefits, enabling the drive itself to provide a lot of the safety functionality to protect both the operator and the machine itself.

We can see, then, that drive technology has developed immeasurably over the last 20 years, offering vastly more than just the ability to rotate a motor to a higher level of speed accuracy and positioning repeatability. It is a key enabler of improved system reliability and availability, and a vital component in the push towards ever higher OEE scores. 

Ease of integration is the key to realising these benefits: choice of network impacts strongly on the debate, defining just how easy it is to integrate the drive as part of a more functional automation system, and to get the maximum amount of information out of it.

Twenty years ago we argued that there were too many network structures, with purely commercial intentions driving them. We postulated that finding the real path forward started with taking a step back. With the developments since then, both in the network protocols and within the drives themselves, we are today genuinely able to take the leap into the future.

Robert Brooks is European industry marketing manager, food & beverage at Omron

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