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  • Writer's pictureJames Figy

Cincinnati Inc. Keeps a Laser Focus on Next-gen Automation

The powerful CLX Fiber Laser System leverages EtherCAT and Beckhoff’s fully integrated PC-based control platform to transform controls design and overcome obsolescence

Long-established companies aim to be quintessential and timeless. The trick is not to get old. To remain relevant and successful, brands must honor their storied past without losing sight of the future. This is the approach machine builder Cincinnati Inc. (CI) has taken since its founding in the late 1890s.

Recently, CI engineers were tasked with building upon the company’s legacy while integrating future-proof automation solutions for the industry’s new era. With the CLX Fiber Laser System, CI needed to design more than a dynamic laser cutting machine. Most importantly for its customer base – about one-third OEMs, two-thirds job shops – the CLX needed to be fast, intuitive and dependable. Downtime is unacceptable for laser cutting systems as it creates a domino effect across an entire manufacturing facility.

CLX Fiber Laser System from Cincinnati Inc.
The CLX Fiber Laser System is a next-generation CNC solution from Cincinnati Inc.

“If the lasers go down, you also have to send press brake operators home, and then in a number of hours, you have to send welders home,” says Troy Wilson, Product Manager, Table Products, at Cincinnati Inc. “That laser is critical to the overall operation.”

For more than 125 years, Cincinnati Inc. has remained at the forefront of metalworking. The reliable, high-performance equipment for bending, shearing, laser cutting and more has made CI an iconic American machine builder brand. The company has shipped roughly 60,000 machines from its campus in Harrison, Ohio, with the CLX joining as one of the latest innovations.

At Cincinnati Inc., the “Own It” philosophy guides every aspect from product development and sales to long-term service and support, according to Matt Garbarino, Business Unit Leader – New Machinery Sales. “Machines that we shipped decades ago are still in service and, in many cases, supported,” Garbarino says. “We still make spare parts for equipment from the 1940s. Of course, supporting both new and old equipment presents challenges.”

In designing the CLX, the engineering team determined that EtherCAT and PC-based automation from Beckhoff checked the boxes for power, speed and extensibility. “We needed an off-the-shelf platform that could meet our requirements today and, more importantly, add features, benefits and new abilities for the machines of tomorrow,” Wilson says. “Beckhoff gave us that freedom to innovate and a strong engineering team to help along the way.”

CLX Fiber Laser System from Cincinnati Inc.
The CLX delivers reliable, high-precision laser cutting, which is critical for keeping fab shops up and running at maximum capacity.

The end of obsolescence?

With a long history, expansive customer community and broad product base, Cincinnati Inc. considers technology shifts carefully. The wrong selection of control hardware, networking or automation software could spill beyond new machinery to legacy products. However, not staying up to date also creates pitfalls.

“In the ’80s and ’90s, we led the market as one of the first U.S. laser cutting machine builders. But the pace at which we had to add features, remove features or change how we did things typically took about three years. Today, it’s 6 to 18 months,” Wilson says. “The fiber laser world moved so quickly that platforms we’d used couldn't adapt to deal with new technology.”

Cincinnati Inc. staff at the plant in Harrison, Ohio
Standardizing on Beckhoff has not only streamlined programming and provided a future-proof platform, but also simplified stocking of components for a more dependable supply chain.

The challenge of supporting legacy equipment while building controls in-house buried the engineers in redesign work. They were constantly sourcing alternatives for obsolete chipsets or components.

Today, automated machines are increasing in complexity, adding handling systems between processes to feed material and remove completed parts. Their legacy motion control system from a previous vendor lacked scalability and used programming languages outside of IEC 61131-3 standards. This slowed development and shrank the talent pool for recruiting new engineers.

“That proprietary script was really archaic, but moving to Ladder Logic wasn’t an option either,” explains Zackery Bischoff, Electrical Engineering Manager at Cincinnati Inc.

In addition, CI’s customers regularly wanted to adapt machines – for higher wattage lasers or other features. While competitors would require customers to buy a new machine, CI faced excessive, labor-intensive efforts to accommodate such requests. So a future platform would need to be flexible to connect and disconnect devices and easily change parameters in software.

A CI technician installs Beckhoff AX8000 servo drives
The AX8000 multi-axis servo system boosts motion capabilities, cuts space requirements and simplifies installation.

CLX development began in 2018, and the machine appeared at trade shows to gather “voice of the customer” feedback. The pandemic slowed the original timeline. But during this pause, the engineers deepened their Beckhoff knowledge and reconsidered how they designed machines. They collaborated closely with automation experts at Beckhoff USA, in particular Paxton Shantz, Digital Manufacturing Industry Manager, and Regional Sales Engineer Garth Gaddy. This culminated in the launch of the production-ready machine at FABTECH 2023.

“Beckhoff management provided the resources we needed to be successful,” Wilson says. “With previous vendors, we were just a customer. I believe we have a partnership with Beckhoff.”


Automation programming your way

A Beckhoff C6030 IPC
A C6030 ultra-compact IPC (left) provides high-performance control while EtherCAT optimizes communication in the motion-intensive application.

The CLX Fiber Laser System leverages a C6030 ultra-compact Industrial PC (IPC) to control the entire CNC machine. The scalable machine controller offers ample processing power with flexible interface options. Above all, it eliminates the CI team’s previous obsolescence struggles. Beckhoff designs its PC-based controllers and software to be backwards compatible and accommodate future technology developments.

“A major advantage that drew us to Beckhoff was the promise that we'd no longer have to worry about controls obsolescence. Beckhoff takes care of it for customers,” Garbarino says. “IPC upgrades are just a natural progression in their product development. When we built our own CPUs, it was paralyzing when chips and other components expired. To have a vendor deal with all that for us is a game changer.”

A Beckhoff Control Panel on the Cincinnati Inc. CLX
A custom, dual-screen CP3924 Control Panel from Beckhoff offers an intuitive and modern operator interface.

As a universal engineering and runtime platform, TwinCAT 3 automation software also ensures future-proof scalability. From IEC 61131-3 languages with their object-oriented extensions to custom and predefined function blocks to computer science standards, TwinCAT’s integration into Microsoft Visual Studio® empowers engineers to program in the languages that best fit the application. This was a major step ahead from the previous vendor’s proprietary script.

“Being able to use object-oriented programming in TwinCAT made it so much easier to get going with our next generation of code,” says Andrew Franxman, Electrical Design Engineer at Cincinnati Inc. “We also use the PLC Library, CNC package and ADS communication, which is how we connect with our higher-level software. TwinCAT offers flexibility to use different programming languages, so we can work in Structured Text and other contemporary languages.”

TwinCAT Scope, the software-based oscilloscope, has helped with debugging. Another advantage is TwinCAT’s no-cost engineering environment, with a license required at runtime.

“It doesn’t cost me anything to create prototype systems in TwinCAT,” Bischoff says. “And with the coding flexibility, I regularly copy and paste from one program to another.”

Despite more robust programming, the user interface on the CLX has become even more intuitive. Operators and maintenance personnel in job shops don’t have to dig through outdated Ladder Logic to troubleshoot or make adjustments to the machine. A dual-screen CP3924 Control Panel offers a sleek, 24-inch interface customized with Cincinnati Inc. branding. The rugged HMI hardware milled from solid aluminum blocks is designed to withstand tough production environments.

“We’re very happy with the durability, form and function of the Beckhoff Control Panel. With the dual screens and the mounting for the keyboard physically attached, it offers a modern user experience,” Wilson says. “At trade shows, visitors are drawn to the panels immediately. The maneuverability and aesthetically pleasing interface are selling points in themselves.”


The future of networking flexibility is EtherCAT

A CI technician installs EtherCAT I/O technologies from Beckhoff
Cincinnati Inc. uses a wide variety of I/O solutions from Beckhoff, including standard EtherCAT terminals and TwinSAFE functional safety solutions.

The EtherCAT industrial Ethernet system and servo drive technologies from Beckhoff also enhanced performance and scalability. Beyond real-time communication speeds, EtherCAT delivers free selection of network topology, and a single network can handle 65,535 nodes.

As an open protocol, it simplifies connection to other industrial communication options. Beckhoff offers bus couplers and gateways to more than 30 protocols, such as EtherNet/IP, PROFINET and IO-Link. The CLX also uses TwinSAFE to add functional safety in the same network and I/O segment as non-safety equipment.

“We use a wide range of EtherCAT I/O hardware from Beckhoff,” Bischoff says. “The hot connect capability – to plug and unplug EtherCAT equipment – has been very powerful, especially with our automatic nozzle changer (ANC). That flexibility will be even more important as we integrate robots and possibly even a press break in a comprehensive manufacturing line.”

Beckhoff AM8000 servomotor with One Cable Technology
The CLX uses multiple AM8000 series servomotors from Beckhoff with One Cable Technology (OCT) to supply power and feedback.

The AX8000 multi-axis servo system delivers a powerful motion control solution in a space-saving form factor. The dual-channel drives can power two AM8000 series servomotors each, and One Cable Technology (OCT) means a single cable can provide power and feedback to the motors. Beyond that, the Beckhoff servo solutions provide high dynamics and precision.

“With our previous machines, the limitations were with control hardware and networking. That is no longer the limit,” Wilson says. “Now, our limit is physics.”


Own it – for generations to come

Cincinnati Inc. engineers with Beckhoff fabrication industry manager
At Cincinnati Inc. headquarters, Paxton Shantz of Beckhoff (center) meets with members of the CI team: (from left) Zackery Bischoff, Nicole Schwegler, Andrew Franxman, Troy Wilson, Les Rogers and Paul Frederick.

The CLX Fiber Laser System has achieved incredible results, but the engineering team isn’t stopping there. The second-generation machine will launch in late 2024. It’s another step forward in transforming automation technology across the company’s product lines. The success comes from the technology as much as the support from Beckhoff, according to Les Rogers, Director of Engineering at Cincinnati Inc.

Cincinnati Inc. engineer uses TwinCAT Scope
With TwinCAT 3 automation software, the CI engineers can use advanced analytics tools directly on the machine or via a remote connection.

“From training to understanding the hardware, Paxton and the team have helped us understand what a true partnership feels like,” Rogers says. “Before, we couldn’t talk even loosely about using AI in our machines because we were limited by controls technology. Now, these developments are in reach because of the Beckhoff technologies and our growing controls expertise.”

The inherent ability to transmit machine data to the cloud using PC-based control feeds directly into Industry 4.0 initiatives at Cincinnati Inc. The company’s software solutions, including CIberDash for cloud-based machine monitoring, can pull performance and diagnostic information directly from a connected CLX, according to Paul Frederick, Associate Director of Engineering, CNC Table Products & Automation at Cincinnati Inc. Engineers can log in remotely, see what’s happening via three machine vision cameras inside the cutting cell or use TwinCAT Scope for further analytics.

“In the design process and performance evaluations, managing data from the Beckhoff controls was an order of magnitude easier for us, so we could optimize performance,” Frederick says. “We could graph anything from the machine in real time. While we have a lengthy Industry 4.0 to-do list, it’s reassuring to know we have an automation platform that can fully support it.”

Analyzing data from Beckhoff-equipped machines has also helped the engineers make upgrades to systems that use their legacy controls technology, Frederick explains: “With the Beckhoff platform, we were even able to see when performance problems were due to physics, not controls, which we couldn’t do with previous vendors. We took what we learned from the CLX and applied it to our other machines.”

CLX Fiber Laser System from Cincinnati Inc. being built
With free selection of topology and real-time speeds, EtherCAT simplifies the use of remote I/O segments as well as adding or removing devices via the “hot connect” functionality.

The CI engineering team expects to simplify programming and support by standardizing on Beckhoff going forward. These upgrades will include new and existing press breaks, shears and other products; retrofits in the field when needed; and the MARCH system, a new automated solution to handle material between process steps. As equipment begins to work together, rather than operating as islands of automation, Rogers sees modularity as key.

“Rather than relying on dedicated boards that we've built in-house with a vertical manufacturing strategy, we now have a modular platform that could deploy across all facets of our business,” he says. “Modularity also supports how we give upgrade paths for existing equipment. We have a great foundation to support all our customers far into the future.”

Ready to cut out obsolescence with powerful, scalable CNC and industrial automation tech? Contact your local Beckhoff sales engineer today.


James Figy of Beckhoff Automation

James Figy is the Marketing Content Leader at Beckhoff Automation LLC


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