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  • Doug Schuchart

Digital Transformation Helps Intralogistics Operations Thrive

Through the benefits of EtherCAT and PC-based automation, Beckhoff provides open and scalable tools that distribution and fulfillment centers need to succeed

Honeywell Intelligrated conveyor lines powered by Beckhoff Automation machine control and EtherCAT.

Today you can’t talk about intralogistics without mentioning digital transformation. It has been revolutionizing modern distribution and fulfillment centers, and it’s the basis for emerging technologies that are now crucial for staying competitive in today’s fast-paced market. Robotics, machine learning, artificial intelligence, predictive maintenance, intelligent motion control and voice-activated solutions support digitization in general and fuel exciting advances in a core technology for which Beckhoff is a market leader: PC-based automation.


Digitization, however, is only beneficial through easy data access throughout the enterprise. As a pioneer and early adopter of PC Control , Beckhoff successfully uses the automation controller for local data capture, edge processing and sharing across the enterprise and the cloud. The ease, flexibility, speed and security of how data are gathered, structured and transmitted sets the Beckhoff solution apart from PLCs and PACs. Traditional PLCs do not support local databases for storing important system and operational data, restrict how data can be structured and lack modern communication options as well as cloud connectivity.


The TwinCAT automation platform from Beckhoff supports a wide range of open and modern communication options to the warehouse control system (WCS) or warehouse management system (WMS), and across the enterprise. TwinCAT also comprehensively supports legacy communication required in brownfield installations, including the option to easily create custom protocols. With real-time, modern communication options, the automation controller never becomes a bottleneck.


Further, Beckhoff continues to lead the way in open communication, being the first supplier in the market to integrate OPC UA as both a server and a client for another open, secure communication protocol option. Today Beckhoff offers a complete suite of automation software products and cloud-based solutions for IoT and Industrie 4.0 concepts. Our company offers IoT hardware solutions for brownfield sites and supports connectivity through product certification from leading cloud services, including Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure. It is also possible to use Beckhoff automation controllers to create localized private cloud implementations.


Ultimate I/O performance with EtherCAT


Digitization begins with the ability to use one common fieldbus for communication to all devices across the fulfillment center. EtherCAT, as the most open fieldbus on the market, offers the capability to use gateways for all open Ethernet protocols such as EtherNet/IP and PROFINET and even legacy protocols such as DeviceNet, PROFIBUS and CANopen. As a result, EtherCAT is the only protocol that can support a single-network architecture for the entire intralogistics enterprise.

EtherCAT boasts flexible communication via any topology to as many as 65,535 devices on a single network segment — typically in microseconds, not milliseconds. EtherCAT is the ideal protocol for the highway of conveyors connecting thousands of sensor devices, I/O modules and motor drives across a fulfillment center. With EtherCAT and TwinCAT, the fulfillment center truly becomes a high-speed digital city. This results in far fewer CPUs (or PLCs) and no switches that increase digital traffic delays, cost and re-engineering requirements due to lifecycle obsolescence.


Further, EtherCAT moves to the next level with cost and installation savings opportunities via EtherCAT P and gigabit performance via EtherCAT G. EtherCAT P combines communication and power into one cable to simplify the system, even including cables designed with high voltage and high current carrying capabilities. EtherCAT G provides much higher bandwidth for data throughput. This enables high-speed robotic picking and goods-to-person applications, for example, using TwinCAT Kinematics and TwinCAT Vision software on one centralized controller. As extensions of the existing EtherCAT technology, all new and existing EtherCAT hardware remains fully supported can combine into one feature-filled network.


Adding to the advantages of decentralized I/O, TwinSAFE integrates TÜV-certified functional safety directly into the standard EtherCAT and TwinCAT environments. This eliminates the expense of separate safety PLCs and hardwiring to every E-stop, pull cord, light curtain or other devices, which increases simplicity and flexibility in system design for today’s fulfillment centers.


Learn how to meet growing consumer demands


While EtherCAT creates a flexible, real-time communication highway to send data from sensors, motors and other field devices to the automation controller, the Beckhoff IoT toolbox extends it to the enterprise level and/or the cloud. For instance, TwinCAT Analytics, Condition Monitoring, Power Monitoring and the built-in, real-time TwinCAT Scope all enable predictive maintenance, improved diagnostics and extensive remote support capabilities to increase uptime. This is crucial in modern intralogistics environments that are heavily influenced by e-commerce demands, especially during peak seasons. For the autonomous optimization of equipment, systems and robots via pre-trained neural networks, Beckhoff announced TwinCAT Machine Learning. Integrated into our real-time automation platform, these tools ensure that retailers and intralogistics equipment suppliers can meet growing consumer demands for shorter delivery times with higher accuracy and rapidly process returns.


With TwinCAT and EtherCAT, Beckhoff is already a proven leader in the automation of intralogistics systems. However, we continue to forge new technologies and set new automation standards in the industry. We look forward to helping all intralogistics professionals achieve their automation goals to outperform e-commerce rivals and not just survive, but thrive through the digital transformation.

Want to learn more about how the Beckhoff automation platform enhances today’s distribution and fulfillment centers? Contact your local Beckhoff sales engineer today.


 

Doug Schuchart, Material Handling & Intralogistics Manager, Beckhoff Automation LLC

Doug Schuchart is the Material Handling & Intralogistics Manager for Beckhoff Automation LLC.


This article previously appeared in the PC Control magazine intralogistics special issue.

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