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  • Writer's pictureJames Figy

Automation Advances Help Distribution Centers Handle Disruption

Beckhoff USA Product Managers: The evolving world of intralogistics requires flexible, scalable and data-driven control and networking technologies

Boxes speeding down conveying line

Online shopping platforms, same-day shipping, faster returns processing, requirements for new conveying systems and even innovative solutions that replace them altogether – e-commerce has dramatically changed intralogistics and material handling. The pace of these advances is not slowing. Every distribution and fulfillment center technology, from gantry cranes to conveyors and sorters to warehouse execution software (WES) and IoT-enabled controllers, must continually evolve. In this interview, the product management team at Beckhoff USA explains the importance of flexible, scalable technologies in these applications and how Beckhoff is responding to a rapidly changing industry and its demands for new innovations.


How is e-commerce changing automation and control architectures in intralogistics?

Daymon Thompson, U.S. Software Product Manager: In distribution and fulfillment centers, engineers and management are looking for new ways to build the systems needed today while futureproofing to anticipate what they’ll need tomorrow. The key concerns are throughput and uptime, especially during the busy holiday shopping season. In this industry, like many others, IoT and Industrie 4.0 concepts are leading the way forward. However, this looks slightly different in intralogistics: The smart warehouse of the future will make adjustments on the fly using machine learning, whether at the real-time control level or the equipment level. It will allow open use of protocols to the warehouse management system (WMS) or make use of edge computing from a cloud provider like AWS IoT Greengrass or Microsoft Azure IoT Edge. No matter how you look at it, effective data acquisition and analytics are key to achieving these goals, and the capabilities of automation solutions from Beckhoff have proven invaluable for many.

Beckhoff Embedded PC
Beckhoff technologies, from the I/O level to the cloud, provide leading-edge solutions for the smart distribution center.

Beyond the inherently open connectivity of Beckhoff hardware and TwinCAT 3 automation software, these solutions provide a range of functions on a single, scalable platform. TwinCAT offers integrated machine vision capabilities for efficient, real-time image processing. The software also features a speech extension to streamline order picking with fulfillment systems and AGVs. This extends up to machine learning (ML) algorithms on the local controller – running an inference on the local machine to maximize carton or tote throughput, for example. This could happen in real-time via TwinCAT Machine Learning or asynchronously with third-party software. The recently announced TwinCAT/BSD will offer a non-Windows operating system for Beckhoff PC-based controls developed using FreeBSD. This new Beckhoff OS ensures the full functionality on our complete range of controllers, and it has already generated significant interest in the intralogistics industry.

Eric Reiner, U.S. IPC Product Manager: Traditional PLCs, however, can’t keep up with technology advances in today’s smart distribution centers, much less the warehouses of the future. These “black box” controllers require additional gateways to connect to the cloud, and adding a second computer that’s not industrial-hardened into the harsh environment is a recipe for disaster. In addition, these outdated options add cost and require additional handshakes

that slow down response times in high-speed material handling environments. The evolution to smart warehouse technologies requires a shift down to the processor level, and Beckhoff PC-based machine controllers can provide response times < 100 μs in some applications, easily connect to the cloud and scale up or down to suit an application’s complexity.

How scalable is the hardware selection, and does the software change with different performance classes?

Eric Reiner: Our Industrial PC (IPC) portfolio spans from entry-level controllers with ARM processors all the way to many-core industrial servers with IntelR XeonR processors that have up to 40 cores. This range will soon expand with powerful AMD Ryzen™ processor options in our embedded PC range. This will boost CPU performance and continue the option to use PC-based controllers with a 32-bit OS if needed in an application. While we offer both IPCs and multi-touch control panels, we also build Panel PCs that integrate the machine controller with the HMI screen, which many intralogistics customers have found valuable.

Beckhoff C60xx IPCs
The C60xx Industrial PC series combines maximum performance and scalability in an ultra-compact form factor.

Also important to big data and smart warehouse strategies is how Beckhoff embedded controllers and IPCs support local data collection via large-capacity CFast cards, hard disk and solid state disk drives. Beckhoff controllers and IPCs also offer large amounts of RAM for faster operations. By producing our own motherboards in Germany, we guarantee stable performance in the field and drop-in replacement of new controllers running the same TwinCAT project. Whether using widely distributed or centralized architectures, distribution centers benefit from fine scalability in IPCs and TwinCAT, which can run on every Beckhoff controller.

Daymon Thompson: And we are working to streamline and simplify processes at every step. On the engineering side, the TwinCAT engineering environment, which has been freely available on our website since introduction, is now accessible from anywhere through TwinCAT Cloud Engineering. Using any standard web browser, you can now develop code in the TwinCAT environment, integrated in Microsoft Visual Studio. From a process optimization perspective, the new One-Click Dashboard for TwinCAT Analytics enables easy visualization of data. Engineers and management can easily customize dashboards to display important KPIs without the difficulty of designing an HMI from scratch. Combined with machine learning, the TwinCAT Analytics toolkit accelerates the ability to implement big data strategies for the smart distribution center.

Modern communication options available with TwinCAT include support for MQTT, REST and HTTPS, as well as access to read and write data regardless of its location, such as in a database, or its format such as HTML, XML or JSON. With TwinCAT’s real-time TCP option, the automation controller never becomes the bottleneck for communication. End-to-end Beckhoff technologies, from the I/O level to the cloud, help with scheduling maintenance, increasing uptime and achieving the goal of completely autonomous warehouses and fulfillment centers.

How well, then, has fieldbus technology met the growing data requirements?

Sree Swarna Gutta, U.S. I/O Product Manager : Traditional fieldbuses already had difficulty with less complex operations, but with the large amounts of data generated by increased machine vision and barcode scanners in distribution centers, many are now scrambling to adapt. Most Ethernet-based protocols suffer from time delays related to cascaded switches, not to mention the added costs. These networks are limited in terms of speed, topology and the number of devices, which are all important in distribution centers. However, the openness and fundamental principles of EtherCAT – processing on the fly, synchronization with distributed clocks, free choice of topology and built-in diagnostics, among others – mean it meets today’s requirements. Since EtherCAT supports connectivity with all modern fieldbuses, it is the clear choice to meet all connectivity requirements whether modernizing brownfield sites or planning advanced greenfield applications.

EtherCAT P Box
One Cable Automation via EtherCAT P provides an optimal solution for conveyors and other intralogistics technologies.

While the 100 Mbit/s communication speeds of standard EtherCAT meet the vast majority of current requirements, the gigabit extensions – EtherCAT G and G10, at 1 Gbit/s and 10 Gbit/s, respectively – will accommodate applications with high data throughput requirements, such as even greater degrees of machine vision, complex motion control and high-end measurement. For example, EtherCAT ELM modules provide measurement for current, voltage and condition monitoring for vibration and acoustics with 24-bit resolution at up to 10 ksps. Standard EtherCAT can handle this data load, but once other factors are in play, it could tax the network. In these cases, the higher bandwidth of EtherCAT G will be particularly important for smart distribution centers working to implement Industrie 4.0 concepts and big data strategies. It ensures that information can be sent from the field devices to the controller for processing and real-time decision making, as well as up to the cloud, but most importantly, it remains completely compatible with standard EtherCAT through an innovative branch controller model.

Do increased capabilities mean increased footprint requirements?

Sree Swarna Gutta: EtherCAT is a switchless network, which already reduces space and cost requirements, but Beckhoff also offers devices in many space-saving form factors – from IP20 I/O slices to PCB-board-mounted I/O up to IP69K machine-mountable box modules. In addition, integrated functional and analog safety via TwinSAFE is also available in many form factors, and it works over the standard network using TUV-certified Safety over EtherCAT (FSoE) technology. So without increasing footprint, we can put more EtherCAT I/O in more places, which means faster communication, more safety, more diagnostics and greater data. But that’s not enough for Beckhoff, so we released EtherCAT P, which provides power and EtherCAT signal via a single cable for EtherCAT Terminals, EtherCAT Box modules and field devices. This One Cable Technology is invaluable for distribution centers with long expanses of conveying and sortation equipment; it eliminates cables and reduces wiring effort while delivering high-speed communication throughout the distribution center.

Eric Reiner: Reducing control cabinet sizes or eliminating them entirely is a goal across our entire product portfolio. This is reflected in our increased offerings for ultra-compact IPCs, particularly in the C60xx series, as well as the DIN-rail-mounted CX7000, which is our smallest form factor industrial controller that’s well suited to distributed control architectures. While these are very compact, they still require some enclosure. But Beckhoff is actively engaged in producing an IP67-rated IPC that could remove the control cabinet entirely. In the near future, we will provide a solution that can be mounted in the field – even directly on a robotic arm at a picking or palletizing station. This IPC addition should be the last puzzle piece for a cabinet-free application, considering how EtherCAT Box modules, industrial-hardened multi-touch control panels and many of our motion control solutions are installed today.

So what motion control advances are driving intralogistics forward?

Beckhoff Drive Technology
The broad range of motor and drive solutions from Beckhoff is well-suited to diverse requirements throughout distribution centers.

Matt Prellwitz, U.S. Drive Technology Product Manager: In general, motion control is becoming more intelligent. This is true for our distributed servo systems, which integrate the servo drive directly into the motor casing and use EtherCAT P, and it’s true for our new mechatronics innovations. But it’s also the case with more standard offerings. Beckhoff has full motion capabilities from our new motor-driven roller (MDR) controller up to brushless DC and servo options

for AGVs and other large pieces of equipment. Our AX8000 Servo Drive, for example, supports both asynchronous induction and synchronous motors with both basic and advanced kinematics. Having one common DC bus for both servos and induction motors is a big advantage. And everything runs on the same scalable TwinCAT platform, with programming in the universal engineering environment. EtherCAT also provides the optimal motion bus with fast feedback, built-in diagnostics and the option to implement TwinSAFE directly on the drive.

With the EP7402 EtherCAT Box, Beckhoff integrates an important technology for controlling MDR conveying systems into the same EtherCAT and PC-based control architecture. After all, conveyors are still the bread and butter for most intralogistics suppliers. The flexible MDR controller works regardless of roller manufacturer. Keeping the drive outside the roller ensures that key data is transmitted to the automation controller to complement the smart warehouse. One Cable Automation via EtherCAT P results in drive cabling reductions, increased diagnostics and faster reaction to product flow, because it enables localized zone control. This means zero-pressure accumulation (ZPA) from one of the most competitive MDR options on the market.

Jeff Johnson, U.S. Mechatronics Product Manager: While we deliver the motion solutions needed in today’s standard systems, we also help engineers introduce their own breakthrough solutions with offerings like the eXtended Transport System (XTS) and XPlanar. Adding to intelligent motion control options, XTS is a modular linear transport system that can reduce machine footprint up to 50%, by replacing bulky, expensive conveying and indexing equipment. The XTS movers can travel independently of one another along a number of customizable rail systems with high dynamics and precision. This makes the mechatronic system perfect for gapping and diverting applications. While XTS is not designed to replace basic conveying systems, it certainly could. Only one scan would be required from pick to shipping. Since the movers are mapped as individual servo axes, the system never loses track of the items being transported. This traceability would require an incredible number of scanners in traditional architectures, so the component and labor reductions would be a worthwhile tradeoff in some cases.

XPlanar from Beckhoff
New intelligent motion control concepts are available in XPlanar, providing maximum route flexibility for product transport.

XPlanar keeps this same level of traceability while providing an infinite number of paths that the product or package can travel. This “flying motion” system levitates magnetic movers with six degrees of motion up to 5 mm above planar motor tiles. Since the two components don’t touch, the parts do not wear. Using the power of TwinCAT for ML and optimization, as well as the high data throughput of EtherCAT G, the system can automatically determine the best route to get from point A to point B.

So these technologies support the overall shift to Industrie 4.0 in intralogistics?

Jeff Johnson: Very much so. With the arrival of XPlanar we can essentially ask, “What’s the most efficient path to get an item to its destination?” Then it uses the powerful PC-based control and networking tools from Beckhoff to calculate

the route, avoiding collisions with other movers and stopping at any other necessary workstations along the way for that individual item, whether it requires special labeling or other customization. It does this in real time, which is why a high-end control platform and the data throughput of EtherCAT G are important. While XPlanar is still in beta testing, many of the functional capabilities are possible today with XTS and other motion solutions.

Matt Prellwitz: Engineers can already use ML to optimize product flow, reduce energy consumption or minimize the amount of human interaction required to pick, pack and ship a product. As a result, the application is never really “final” ML can continuously improve processes, but it’s doing that automatically. This functionality is already available in the cloud and at the controller level, but distribution centers need to consider how streamlined, maintainable and sustainable control solutions are before diving in. For example, will the automation vendor still offer replacement hardware in 10 years? Or, will the machine controller support upgrades without compromising the code? E-commerce systems need to be incredibly modular and scalable to withstand and capitalize on constant disruption in the industry. That means automation solutions, from the software to the servo drives, should offer total flexibility.

Beckhoff USA Product Managers
The U.S. product management team: (from left) Matt Prellwitz, Daymon Thompson, Sree Swarna Gutta, Eric Reiner and Jeff Johnson.

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


James Figy

James Figy is the Senior Content Specialist for Beckhoff Automation LLC.


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