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  • Writer's pictureMatt Prellwitz

PC-based Control Enables Cloud-connected Motion Systems

Industrial automation offers benefits for robotics and motion-intensive applications

Beckhoff AX8000 Servo Drives

Robotics and advanced motion technologies continue to increase in manufacturing. At the same time, drive systems are becoming more enmeshed in operations and higher-level systems through improved data acquisition at the field level. This information can include production data and throughput figures, temperature and energy measurements, operating efficiency and more. Major manufacturers and machine builders hope to better integrate cloud connectivity and IoT solutions into operations to optimize resources, while working toward continuous improvement initiatives.

Managing this growing motion data through analytics and gaining insights from it is the basis of practical Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and Industrie 4.0 implementations. As a result, many are seeking additional means to channel high-value motion data — such as speed, torque, power consumption and current — from the Smart Factory to cloud services. PC-based control from Beckhoff Automation provides the clearest migration path forward. Through the convergence of automation technology (AT) and information technology (IT), PC-based architectures help create robust, flexible solutions for all industrial systems, especially motion.

PC-based automation: a long history of connectivity

Long before the rise of IIoT, Industrial PC systems connected to each other and to many kinds of networks, both internal and external. This boosted data and critical information transmission throughout the enterprise. As an example, Beckhoff has delivered PC-based connectivity to industrial operations for three decades. As cloud-connected systems became more prevalent, so did global connectivity for industrial applications, with PC-based systems ideally suited to provide the most efficient link from the motor or sensor to the cloud.

The fourth industrial revolution — or Industrie 4.0, as it’s commonly called — is a movement to establish real-world Smart Factory solutions for flexible mass production down to lot size 1. Industrie 4.0 helps manufacturers meet increased consumer demand for more highly customized products. Implementing this concept requires the combination of cyber-physical systems, cloud computing and the Internet of Things. Motion control plays an important role in the development of these systems with the further introduction of robotics, complex servo technologies and numerous other automated systems that supply actionable data to the cloud.

Big data requires a big game plan

Delivering more customized products challenges plant operations to continue doing more and more with less. That means optimizing operations to maximize production throughput, uptime and variability while minimizing materials waste. Achieving this level of streamlining is no easy task. It requires a thorough review of the entire operation, where automation is useful and what data is actually needed. Simply tracking every value without an action plan can be costly and ultimately result in a huge cache of data with no clear purpose.

High-value operational data enables many optimization tools, such as analytics dashboards, condition monitoring procedures, OEE (Overall Equipment Effectiveness) and predictive maintenance, among others. For example, production throughput can be monitored down to the millisecond in order to create a complete history of manufacturing to determine any deviations from normal. Any abnormalities can be addressed early to minimize lost production and increase uptime. This monitoring can also support complete product traceability databases, keeping track of products from the shop floor to store shelves.

AT and IT convergence in the IoT era

From robotic integration to simple motion and PLC tasks, all functions must be better integrated in centralized control systems to enable required changes as needed. Beckhoff ensures long product availability and backward compatibility of new PC-based controllers with the same TwinCAT automation software platform. Using automation software to handle the controls-specific tasks, and running it on multipurpose, PC-based hardware, has become a game-changer for companies that seek a robust, flexible, easy-to-use development environment and control platform for entire machines. For example, Beckhoff offers a complete control software suite and matches specific packages to PC-based hardware with different performance levels in order to meet the individual needs of each application, whether special features are called for in CNC functionality and robotic kinematics, or if simple PLC projects will suffice.

The biggest benefit, focused specifically on data capture and connectivity, comes with the ability of a PC-based system to simply and reliably create secure connections to cloud databases via widely accepted standards such as MQTT, AMQP or OPC-UA for global access across the enterprise. System-integrated hardware and software in PC-based control systems can efficiently establish IoT connectivity through standard automation software and I/O hardware that perfectly fits within existing system architectures – no stand-alone third-party devices or additional software platforms required. With a conventional PLC or other closed hardware, adding IoT communication becomes a much more difficult proposition and typically requires the addition of 3rd party hardware and software from major IT companies to make everything work.

Industrial Ethernet keeps motion systems connected

Though the discussion about IoT and cloud connectivity is just starting for many, forward-thinking companies are already leveraging these powerful technologies to optimize all areas of production to be better, faster, and more efficient. Application in medical device manufacturing, for example, is becoming increasingly important, particularly for part traceability. When a medical device must adhere to a specific, very precise specification, comprehensive measurement of the changing current and torque helps assure the changing forces applied by motors are consistent and help validate the production process.

Repeatability of the motor and the flexibility to adjust on the fly assures that tension systems have the ability to be flexible with regard to repeated changes. When a motion system needs to sync with external devices, such as digital events and high-speed analog events, a real-time fieldbus is crucial to avoid motion interrupts and to maintain system synchronization.

Beckhoff’s implementation of the EtherCAT industrial Ethernet system sets a synchronized task for motion and PLC commands. Customers spend less time verifying events outside of the motion tasks because they quickly see the events are held to the same measurements as the motion tasks. With DC clock determination of 62.5 µs, you know these independent devices are synchronized. For simple verification, it can be brought back to the controller to keep a record of the synchronization. With connectivity to access data records being a non-real-time task, IPCs with large memory arrays can buffer data and bring it to databases for archiving, which helps implement traceability.

Verification is a large part of this process, and there are multiple channels to collect the data for further utilization. With the integration of industrial Ethernet being the most popular method in use today, users have a quick and easy way to pass data back and forth. However, just passing data across the wires is only the first part of the task at hand. If we reflect on how far Ethernet technology has come in manufacturing, we formerly transmitted data through TCP/IP or other Ethernet protocols, which are certainly not real-time.

Now, information moves in a real-time and streamlined manner with communications speeds well into the low microsecond range for I/O and drive devices. Additionally, safety data and all kinds of data from legacy fieldbuses can be gathered by gateway terminals and transmitted on the same cable in the case of EtherCAT. A communication standard implemented by many of the world’s largest industrial robot manufacturers, EtherCAT is also important for complete integration of many independent robots to maximize production cycles.

Cloud connectivity, the key to future production success

Demand for greater motion system integration, as well as advanced data acquisition and analytics, continues to rise in line with technological advancements and growing production requirements. Tapping into and understanding these vast stores of data, increasingly from the motion devices at the field level, has never been more important.

Through increased implementation of PC-based platforms, and by leveraging the speed and precision of an industrial Ethernet system such as EtherCAT, streamlined cloud connectivity and superior data analytics is infinitely more achievable. Though IIoT and Industrie 4.0 are new terms for leading-edge concepts, the enabling technology has been available for years in PC-based control platforms. Total flexibility and scalability are defining factors found within PC Control systems because they offer streamlined, easy-to-implement solutions that successfully move your operation into the cloud age.

Are you ready to enhance your motion applications with cloud connectivity? Contact your local Beckhoff sales engineer today.


Matt Prellwitz is the Drive Technology Product Manager for Beckhoff Automation USA.

A version of this article previously appeared in Control Engineering magazine.


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