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The Glue of Automation: Motion Control and Integration

POSTED 03/15/2023  | By: John Lewis, A3 Contributing Editor, Tech B2B

Over the last two decades, the cost structure of industrial automation, motion control, and robotics has improved incrementally. As hardware and peripheral costs fall and the development of easy-to-use hardware and software increases, automation applications expand. 

After a brief COVID hiccup followed by supply chain issues, manufacturers are again moving at warp speed, deploying automation and motion control to keep pace with demand. At the same time, driven by increased labor costs, the need for flexibility, and significantly reduced barriers to entry for automation, a new generation of automation companies and professionals is leading the trend toward simplicity. 

Collaborative robots are a great example. Companies such as Universal Robots A/S and Kassow Robots have made it easier for more small- and medium-sized companies to jump into the automation fray with simple-to-set-up hardware and easy-to-program software that are great for automating straightforward applications.

“Ten years ago, robotic implementations required sending someone to a weeklong class to learn how to do a basic robot integration,” explains Jonathan Schroeder, executive vice president, PBC Linear. “Today, a college intern can install a UR robot within a few hours to accomplish even more complex tasks.” 

From Complexity to Simplicity

PBC Linear recently introduced the Cobot Feeder under its Applied Cobotics brand. The Cobot Feeder assists most cobots and other robotic applications by providing a continuous arsenal of machinable parts over an extensive time frame. (Image Courtesy of PBC Linear.)

Even though new users with limited automation experience are now able to address many simple automation tasks quickly, systems integrators remain the glue of automation and motion control, handling the increasing amount of complex automation systems that integrate multiple robots or machine vision systems and larger turnkey solutions. Like magicians poised at the confluence of engineering and art, integrators seem to pull amazing systems together out of a hat using disparate automation technologies and ensuring that each functions as designed to meet specific application requirements.

In the past, due to complexity, only larger companies with the capital wherewithal, investment strategy, and internal resources could choose to automate. The primary driver was cost reduction to improve margins and make the business more profitable. Complex automation required special skill sets to integrate motion control drive systems, robotics, and other automation technologies. 

“Previously, it may have taken several engineers to implement an automation system. A mechanical engineer to select and size mechanical motion system components to meet payload, precision, and speed requirements. An electrical engineer to hard wire the controls, and a third engineer may have been responsible for programming,” says Schroeder. “Now, with the focus on simplifying everything, we’re seeing more applications where a single engineer can manage the entire project from start to finish.” 

Less Is More With Integration

The IDX drive with integrated positioning controller from maxon consists of an EC-i motor, a magnetic absolute encoder (single-turn), and an EPOS4 positioning controller with integrated field-oriented control. (Image Courtesy of maxon.)

In the past, cost reduction was the primary goal of many automation projects, but more recently, manufacturers choose to automate with faster delivery of improved products at lower price points in mind. Automation suppliers address such time-to-market challenges with more integrated solutions that help manufacturers get products in the hands of distributors and customers as quickly as possible. 

Schroeder notes that the embedding of additional electronics into systems is one of the most significant advancements in motion control drive systems. “Systems that were formerly simple electro-mechanical devices, such as motors and bearings, now have sensors, which enable early failure detection and allow for connectivity of devices to networks,” he says. “Another is the simplification of integration, especially on the software and electrical side.” 

Advancements in the offering of integrated drives are a case in point. Motor-gearhead-controller combinations are being offered today more than ever before, according to Biren Patel, maxon business development manager, Mobility Solutions & Electronic Systems. “maxon’s deep knowledge of motor and controllers and its total system approach provides tremendous advantages when it comes to minimizing losses and maximizing power density,” he explains.

The company’s configurable IDX line of drives is an excellent example. maxon developed an ASIC to handle peripheral functions and to assist with the miniaturization of their drives, which has been useful in developing compact integrated drive solutions. Another advantage of the ASIC development has been minimizing verification efforts, which has resulted in lower product costs and faster development cycles because testing of standard functions needs only to be done once, instead of for each new discrete solution.

“Having the complete drive system in one package reduces the number of cables and cable routing required for the OEM, which simplifies the design and limits the number of components that need to be stocked,” says Patel. “Having independent drives can also help reduce the number of tasks that the master controller needs to handle, and the skills required for installation are minimal as only one component needs to be installed. Additionally, in many cases the integrated drives come preconfigured and tuned so there is less software to deal with for installation.” 

Get to Market Faster

Bosch Rexroth's Open Core technology simplifies programming and speeds implementation with easy-to-use, open, PC-based controls. (Image Courtesy of Bosch Rexroth.)

From start to finish, machine builders, OEMs, and systems integrators can get their systems to market faster utilizing the latest automation advancements because the engineering effort required to design, program, commission and support automation systems has decreased over the years. 

On the hardware side, for example, instead of buying separate parts — for example, linear guide rails, a motor, a gearbox, and a drive belt — machine builders can now purchase a complete linear actuator system that’s ready to bolt on. This approach not only shortens integration time but also lowers the level of technical skill required for integration. 

Engineers can also increase efficiency and reduce development time by adding flexibility and functionality to software. For example, ctrlX AUTOMATION from Bosch Rexroth Corporation offers a degree of freedom and efficiency, allowing developers to overcome the challenges of contemporary automation programming quickly and creatively. According to Dan Barrera, product manager, Automation and Electrification Bosch Rexroth, the automation platform includes the following:

  • Virtual development control and software environments for engineering tasks without using hardware
  • Web-based system configuration portals that enable fast and simple start-up without the need to install software
  • Free choice of programming language to minimize technical knowledge requirements (e.g., for IEC 61131: PLCopen, G-Code, C/C#, Python, Java, Node-RED, Blockly, and more)

“With the most recent advancements in automation technology including industrial PCs, AI, sensors, vision, communication, and safety, we are able to design and engineer more open, flexible, and scalable systems that can help us bring IT and OT closer than ever. This is a move toward more complete factory automation,” Barrera explains. “At Bosch Rexroth, we see the importance of combining the latest advancements in control-drive technology, IT, AI and IoT for us to exploit the potential of digitalization and networking in the new world of automation.”

Adaptable Automation

Manufacturing requirements have progressed from early cost control efforts toward making better products faster and cheaper. Now the predominant focus of automation is on delivering flexible and customizable production. The reasons extend far beyond meeting the multifaceted customer preferences of the day and include helping with the mitigation of sourcing issues, transportation delays, labor shortages, and easily adjusting to the ebb and flow of demand by scaling production at a much lower cost structure. 

“Mechanical design innovations will continue with more integrated motors and drives, more compact designs,” predicts Schroeder. “But the most significant breakthroughs will be on the software and programming side, which will make integration much easier and faster.” 
Patel agrees, noting breakthroughs in software with drivers to support integrated drives as one key. “This will help make the integration process simpler and allow robot and AMR [autonomous mobile robot] developers to concentrate on the development of more sophisticated applications and not worry about motion commands and algorithms needed to control motors,” he says.

Barrera thinks the industry will start mirroring the user-friendliness of consumer electronics, making automation as easy as handling a smartphone. “Our ctrlX AUTOMATION solution follows the example of a smartphone, which brings the highest level of functional integration possible and a flexible app technology where users can easily individualize their devices. Additionally, we offer a common ecosystem, ctrlX WORLD, around ctrlX AUTOMATION where developer partners can introduce their own strengths and solutions via cocreation, which gives users a wide range of apps and allows them to benefit from the constantly growing ecosystem.”

Manufacturers who can benefit from today’s automation technology run the gamut from those new to robotics to those looking to upgrade. Regardless of a manufacturer’s experience level, it’s good to know that there are so many companies with extensive experience in automation. These companies offer many resources to help you get started, provide direction, and ensure your next automation project will help accommodate future demands.