PC Control Blends the Worlds of Test Bench Tech and Industrial Automation
Advantech Time harnesses expandable measurement and testing technology from Beckhoff to deliver greater flexibility, precision and integration capabilities
When it comes to creating test benches, Advantech Time is changing the traditional landscape in measurement and test engineering. The Italian engineering experts are integrating two activities that were previously always separate: industrial control and data acquisition. Here, PC-based control from Beckhoff provides the necessary flexibility to support a multidisciplinary approach in the test laboratory.
Advantech Time, which started as a spin-off of the University of Udine, supports companies in research and product development projects. The skilled engineering team examines specific issues, e.g., in thermodynamics, fluid dynamics, acoustics or process industry considerations. It combines scientific research methodologies with practical experience.
“We take a 360-degree approach to the requests we receive from companies in the areas of design, modeling, numerical simulation and laboratory testing,” explains Alessandro Armellini, General Manager and co-founder of Advantech Time. “While most of the requests relate to air conditioning on both an industrial and residential scale or come from the thermodynamic sector, Advantech Time does not have a specific reference market.”
Advantech Time develops appropriate test setups and software for the measurement applications on an ad-hoc basis. Challenges often involve ventilation issues, thermal management and heat transfer. The company also takes projects from other sectors – household appliances, automotive, environment, energy, and measurement and control technology, to name just a few.
Advantech Time provides more than mere Excel spreadsheets in data dumps; it answers concrete questions. The engineers strive to discover the causes of a product’s malfunctions and how to improve its performance. In these applications, robust technologies from Beckhoff have proven crucial in effectively implementing often tricky tasks.
“We usually carry out experimental studies on components or processes,” Armellini says. “Our customers have very specific questions, which means that from time to time we have to come up with entirely new ways of getting answers efficiently.”
PC-based control increases test flexibility and precision
Unlike manufacturing, projects in the laboratory environment are usually limited in time and require a multidisciplinary approach. Consequently, aspects such as flexibility, modularity and reusability are very important. The engineers can’t replace every component in a test bench after just one project, according to Armellini: “This is why flexibility is the most important requirement for the hardware – in addition to the prerequisites of accuracy and reliability. The features of the Beckhoff solutions support us in this regard without limiting our imagination.”
Availability is just as important, including when it comes to delivery speed. Advantech Time’s customers often expect quick answers. So tight turnaround projects are the rule, not the exception.
“The features of the Beckhoff solution match our philosophy and way of operating perfectly,” says Luca Furlani, Area Manager for software development, measurement and acoustic modeling projects at Advantech Time. “Multidisciplinary, flexible and real-time capable – what we buy and use today may be used somewhere completely different tomorrow. As a result, it must be possible to precisely adapt the measurement and data acquisition system to the requirements of an application and its components.”
Normally, a test bench “grows” throughout its life cycle. After all, the engineers are constantly expanding their expertise during ongoing tests and enhancing how tests are performed. The hardware and software platforms can’t be the limiting factor to innovation. “If adapting the software by adding more signals or a new component becomes too complicated, it restricts our business development,” emphasizes Furlani.
Real-time and synchronization capabilities are essential for test bench equipment. In virtually every case, certain tasks need to be performed reliably in real time – in parallel with other tasks that don’t have strict time requirements. This aspect is very important to Furlani: “If there is an interruption during an ongoing test, much of the time and energy spent up to that point can be lost. While there are systems on the market that enable real-time tasks, they are tedious to program and difficult to integrate with the rest of the system. Therefore, using them is much less efficient, especially in terms of progressive system development.”
Reliable, expandable and accurate measurement tech
Initially, Advantech Time worked mainly with manual test benches equipped with multiplexers for data acquisition. The engineers tried different systems, but they all proved to be unreliable, too inflexible, or required too much time to set up the test benches. “We looked for a solution without these limitations and found it at Beckhoff,” Furlani says.
Beckhoff offers the ideal platform for fully integrated automated test management – including data acquisition, analysis and presentation – due to its open and flexible nature. Automating test procedures with PC-based control has increased the accuracy of the tests, especially in cases where multiple components need to be conditioned with high precision and time variance.
The typical design of a test bench, which always has a Windows PC as the main interface, is comparable to a PLC-based control system in which a Beckhoff industrial PC (IPC) acts as the main automation controller. All data acquisition and control I/O modules are connected to this platform. The logic used to perform the tests runs in the control system. The PLC handles communication with the specific instruments of the application in question, which are usually specified by customers. “With conventional systems, managing these test setups was inefficient, but that’s a thing of the past with PC-based solutions from Beckhoff,” emphasizes Furlani.
The engineers are also satisfied with the accuracy of the Beckhoff platform. “It is by all means comparable to that of conventional devices designed specifically for certain measurement tasks,” adds Armellini. “Most important, Beckhoff has a huge range of components available, which means that, whatever the task in question, we can always use the right I/O module or even one of the precision measurement terminals from the ELM series.”
Linking the industrial and test lab environments
“The fact that our test benches can communicate with a wide range of fieldbuses via PC-based control has been a real help,” explains Furlani. And that is exactly why Advantech Time not only uses the test benches for its own purposes now, but also sells them to customers.
With Beckhoff technology, the company is going one step further and closing the gap between industrial control and the laboratory environment. “In the lab, we usually focus on data acquisition and leave the control to separate, often inflexible, devices,” explains Armellini, adding that it is much better to integrate the two systems. “This is possible with PC-based control, which was developed for industry but provides the precision measurement technology needed for laboratories. An integrated data acquisition and control solution enables software-in-the-loop systems, where the symbiosis of the real and virtual worlds enables efficient testing.”
How can expandable measurement technology help you boost the quality of your DAQ and test-bench applications? Contact your local Beckhoff sales engineer today.
Azad Jafari is the I/O Product Manager at Beckhoff Automation LLC