DAQ and Automation Technologies Combine to Sprint Past Legacy Test and Measurement Competition
ADC’s test systems for sporting equipment cut $4,000 in hardware costs per machine using integrated PC-based control and expandable measurement tech from Beckhoff
Thomas Bitsky, Jr. often sees machine design like coaching. That is, it’s like coaching a team of athletes with disparate skills, from backgrounds that don’t often mesh. As Vice President and Lead Developer at Automated Design Corporation (ADC), Bitsky designs and programs systems that employ industrial automation as well as test and measurement technology. Take ADC’s redesigned Impact Tester as an example.
“The impact testing system, like most others, is more industrial than typical desktop lab-type boxes, but it offers more data acquisition (DAQ) than legacy automation and controls technology,” Bitsky says.
This type of challenge is home turf for ADC. Founded in 1986 by Bitsky’s parents, the family-owned company based in Romeoville, Illinois, originally focused on traditional manufacturing equipment for automotive and other industries. In the early ’90s, ADC acquired a machine shop that built systems for a major sporting goods brand and added testing equipment to its specialties. Now the company supplies R&D systems to every major sporting goods manufacturer across multiple sports.
“We ship about 50% of our equipment internationally, and we’ve been awarded twice as the No. 1 exporter in Illinois among businesses our size,” Bitsky says. “We built a core platform for our data-centric machines, such as our compression tester for golf balls. A cohesive, integrated platform for DAQ and automation helps as the machines grow more advanced and add features.”
ADC’s redesigned Impact Tester system demonstrates how these disparate disciplines can work together. The compact machine adheres to the ASTM F1976 and F1614 standards for impact attenuation of cushioning in athletic shoes. For accurate test results, the motion control and DAQ technologies must synchronize perfectly, which creates challenges when using separate solutions. So ADC harnessed the flexible, fully integrated and real-time solution from Beckhoff for both PC-based automation and expandable measurement. Here, Beckhoff’s ELM high-end measurement I/O terminals provided major advantages.
Fully integrated technology leaps over “black box” hurdles
ADC needed to meet several technological requirements when building the Impact Tester. Precision motion, real-time fieldbus communication and fast cycle times were necessary. The proposed system would be more advanced in terms of software, mechanical and electrical engineering, and a more intuitive HMI was mandatory.
Another hurdle had nothing to do with technological capabilities. Instead, it involved gaining acceptance of a new solution that could go beyond the narrow list of test and measurement component vendors who each offered their own standalone black boxes. This industry has remained siloed for far too long, according to Bitsky.
In the past, of course, the high sample rates needed to ensure quality could only be found in components from select vendors. Still, industrial automation has converged with test and measurement technology.
Test procedures often require greater control and kinematics capabilities than what a typical chassis-style DAQ controller running LabVIEW™ software can offer. When depending on these DAQ controls, automated handling for tests and moving objects into and out of the cell, require a separate PLC, Bitsky explains: “Both scenarios add cost, communication delays and cabling nightmares.”
On the flip side, engineers are now more comfortable adding test and measurement equipment to manufacturing machinery. But the production environment often proves too harsh for traditional components. “When you start up a servomotor or VFD, the electrical transients go into the encoder, and that can make the counters on desktop DAQ boxes go haywire,” Bitsky says. “With the integrated DAQ technologies from Beckhoff, we get the performance we need without these issues. That’s why we have a 100% success rate convincing our customers to use Beckhoff.”
EtherCAT goes for the goal in expandable measurement
When redesigning the Impact Tester, ADC depended on several key advantages that brought them to Beckhoff in the first place: the EtherCAT industrial Ethernet system, powerful control hardware and customer-friendly support. Since 2006, Bitsky has worked closely with the team based at Beckhoff’s Chicago-area sales and training office. Beckhoff Regional Sales Engineer Mike Rauch and Applications Engineer Dave Zimbrich have provided guidance and hands-on assistance for many ADC projects for the test and measurement systems as well as general industrial automation.
“ADC recognized the power of our EtherCAT industrial Ethernet system for fast communication in data-intensive applications, and the ELM cards have increased their capabilities for integrated data acquisition,” Rauch says.
EtherCAT offers many benefits in terms of topology, functional safety and network size, but the main advantages for ADC are speed and bandwidth. Standard 100 Mbit/s EtherCAT with oversampling capabilities supports the various test systems. Oversampling functionality means reading data multiple times per cycle for enhanced time resolution of a signal.
On the Impact Tester, ADC was able to use commercial off the shelf (COTS) measurement terminals to eliminate expensive, specialized hardware. The DIN rail mounted ELM3502 EtherCAT Terminals are fully integrated into the standard Beckhoff I/O system and offer dual-channel measurement in a ruggedized metal housing. With sampling rates up to 20 ksps, the terminal covers most advanced measurement requirements for ADC. Bitsky learned about the ELM series, which offers terminals supporting up to 50 ksps, when visiting the Hannover Messe trade show in 2019.
“We had been using other Beckhoff measurement terminals – particularly the EL3356, which works well for industrial applications. But our test and measurement customers needed sampling in the kilohertz range that only legacy DAQ vendors offered previously,” he says.
ADC started using the ELM3502 modules on their compression systems and saw significant improvements. So it made sense to design in the Beckhoff measurement terminals for the Impact Tester, Bitsky explains: “The ELM terminals delivered the sampling rates we needed, along with perfect synchronization to the controller via EtherCAT. Now, the machines can load in test specimens very quickly. In one scan, I get all motion and load data, and our Gage R&Rs look as good if not better than what we got with the traditional chassis-style controller.”
Control and motion solutions work smarter not harder
On the controls side, ADC relies on a Beckhoff CX5130 Embedded PC running TwinCAT 3 automation software. One fanless machine controller delivers ample computing power for the data acquisition and motion control in the test systems. “The scalability of our Embedded PC series allows ADC to increase performance levels when needed without reprogramming or reengineering their systems,” Rauch says. “That flexibility makes the complex world of test and measurement a little simpler.”
TwinCAT 3 delivered an end-to-end automation runtime and engineering environment. The software offers a more standardized programming environment, according to Bitsky. However, it also easily integrates LabVIEW™ and other third-party software. With TwinCAT, engineers can program in the languages that they are most familiar with or that best fit the project, including the available IEC 61131-3 languages and their object-oriented extensions, function blocks and computer science standards found in Microsoft Visual Studio®.
“We lean on TwinCAT to save programming time,” Bitsky explains. “First off, when I need something extremely custom, I can write C++ code and easily incorporate it using the built-in Automation Device Specification (ADS) protocol. Second, if I need help, there are so many expert programmers who know computer science standards compared to those who know LabVIEW™. My time tends to be overallocated, so this is a great help.”
The Beckhoff drive technology portfolio ideally complements the needs of these systems. The compact EL7211 servo terminals and EL7041 stepper terminals deliver high-performance drive technology in an I/O slice form factor. ADC also leverages the EL5101 single-channel encoder interface.
“We can also use third-party motors and drives, and if they’re EtherCAT-based, the integration is incredibly simple. We use the motion control libraries in TwinCAT for all of these devices,” Bitsky says. “Most of our applications require simple point-to-point motion. We apply a specified load to the material, which requires synchronization between the load cell input and motion controller, and then read the position. If you go past that load, the test will fail to execute.
“The legacy, chassis-style controllers just don’t have the power to support this functionality,” he adds. “But the distributed clocks in EtherCAT ensure synchronization of load versus position. So with the integrated Beckhoff technologies, we’re able to do things that would be impossible otherwise.”
One winning team handles DAQ and automation
ADC already saw major benefits from the Beckhoff portfolio, but because of the company success with the ELM series, it has started to implement those terminals across its machines. The system met all requirements for enhanced measurement and control capabilities, and the use of COTS automation components also led to cost savings of about $4,000 per machine. The Beckhoff solution also reduced wiring, assembly and programming time. No-cost, 24/7 support from Beckhoff further decreased costs, but also proved more reliable when ADC needed assistance.
“Previously, we paid thousands each year for support contracts with the traditional DAQ vendor, and eventually, they wouldn’t even get back to us to renew the contract. If I have questions on a Beckhoff project, I simply call them, and they help,” Bitsky says. “After working with the local Beckhoff team for so long, I can say Mike's as good as it gets in terms of sales support. And Dave not only has the engineering experience, but he also really loves the technology, takes it personally and goes well beyond the extra mile for you.”
Since ADC fills a unique gap in testing and automation, it’s important for the company to safeguard its intellectual property. Here, TwinCAT serves up additional value-add, according to Zimbrich: “The OEM Certificate feature that we offer allows ADC to encrypt and password-protect its code. This means no matter where their test machine ends up, their code is safe.”
In sports, a team’s success depends on the strengths of its players and their ability to work together at all times. The fully integrated Beckhoff solution and technical support delivered a winning team for ADC’s redesigned Impact Tester for sports equipment. Better integration of load-in data was crucial, but just the starting point.
“Most of the time, our customers’ engineers have to buy a wide range of different, standalone components and then try to get them to talk together. It requires many different experts and creates unnecessary headaches,” Bitsky says. “Today, we can deliver a cohesive solution, and we’re the single point of contact. We see that as a major win for ADC and our customers.”
How can expandable measurement technology help you boost the quality of your DAQ and test-bench applications? Contact your local Beckhoff sales engineer today.
James Figy is the Marketing Content Leader at Beckhoff Automation LLC.