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  • Writer's picturePaxton Shantz

Automation Freedom Protects IP in Additive Manufacturing

You work hard to develop intellectual property and create competitive advantages in 3D printing applications. Here’s how to safeguard these valuable assets by harnessing powerful PC-based automation.

Metal 3D printer engaged in additive manufacturing

Success in additive manufacturing – often more so than other industries – depends on IP and flexibility. To be competitive, 3D printing machine builders need to deliver innovative hardware and software solutions to end users. However, companies also need to leverage commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies to optimize costs and time to market.

In combining the proprietary with the commercial, the openness of automation platforms often becomes a major hurdle. Both ease of implementation and safeguarding your IP restrict the OEM’s freedom during development.

Dedicated motion controllers and PLCs have an undeniable track record for many industries, but they are not the best fit as a solution for additive manufacturing automation. Although not necessarily antiquated, these automation platforms typically match up poorly with true industrial PC control platforms because they are constrained by closed-off ecosystems.

  • Both PLC and motion controller platforms struggle to openly communicate across multiple platforms from different vendors.

  • Support is limited for their programming environments.

  • They are subject to shorter life spans.

  • Each is difficult to scale to meet growing requirements for automation and connectivity.

  • They very often have hardware directly coupled to software.

  • They typically require third-party software for HMI, drives, safety, machine vision, IoT, etc.

  • They are not programable with all IEC 61131-3 programming languages (including object-oriented extensions) as well as C/C++ and MATLAB®/Simulink®.

  • They have limited fieldbus and I/O options, and managed switches add costs while expanding machine footprints.

  • They need an additional edge controller to participate in secure cloud computing.

Software is key for additive manufacturing

Although automation hardware and its advancements are important to the future of additive manufacturing equipment, the real key is the software. This seems obvious in terms of firmware, but perhaps less obvious is that engineers are no longer excited about programming in ladder logic or controller-specific text languages.

Many engineers today are very familiar with common high-level text-based languages that a surprising number of industrial PC vendors will not support. Some of these languages include C, C++, C#, .NET, Visual Basic.NET, HTML5, Java, Python, SQL, etc. – all of which are supported by Beckhoff. The freedom to incorporate these different languages and the connectivity they provide offer tremendous advantages in terms of open connectivity with third-party devices and for IIoT.

Today’s engineers also expect professional software development tools in their development workflow. These tools include seamless integration into source control tools like Git or Azure DevOps, code static analysis tools, code profilers and more. Only the most modern machine control suppliers are offering today’s best programmers the best programming tools and environments

Beckhoff PC-based control does not ‘run on’ Windows

Even after 30 years in the market, the biggest misconception about PC-based control is that it is Windows-based. Of course, 30 years of Mac (iOS) versus PC (Windows) makes the reason for this is obvious, but the actual truth and benefits of PC-based control are not.

Beckhoff industrial PCs for 3D printing
Using standard chipsets enables scalable performance with a universal software platform for 3D printing and beyond.

Yes, a Beckhoff industrial PC-based control has a Windows or Unix component to it (more of that to follow). But the real reason for the term “PC-based control” is because a standard PC chipset (CPU, memory, communication ports, video processing, video ports, etc.) is the basis for the controller hardware architecture instead of a custom/proprietary solution.

Beckhoff uses proven ARM, Intel and AMD chipsets in ruggedized device designs. Ideal for industrial environments, these scalable chipsets are hardened to endure more extreme operating temperatures, 0 – 55 degrees C (32 – 131 degrees F), greater shock and vibration. They are also more reliable, and most importantly, they are designed to be available for 10+ years to ensure long lifecycles in the field.

PC-based control leads the way

TwinCAT software from Beckhoff turns an industrial PC into a real-time and robust machine controller. This real time creates a PC-based machine control system that can execute code down to 50 us update rates, control dozens of motion axes and thousands of I/O. All the while, it provides the convenience of a full operating system for functions such as data logging to file/database or graphical user interface.

The machine control runtime has control and priority of the CPU processing, and CPU cores can be completely isolated from the operating system to further dedicate power and speed to machine control. However, the single biggest benefit of the Beckhoff PC Control architecture is how seamlessly it can run these operating systems on the same hardware as the real-time, deterministic automation software, TwinCAT, and fully utilize the strengths each has to offer.

A graphic of the Beckhoff ADS Protocol
Beckhoff ADS Protocol offers advantages in additive manufacturing systems.

Beckhoff ADS protocol is a very open method of reading and writing data to and from the controller, whether to the PLC program, motion controller or underlying hardware such as CPU temperature. When coupled with the open EtherCAT fieldbus, which Beckhoff developed, machine builders are free to greatly simplify their control architecture and expand their intellectual property in ways not possible with traditional motion controllers and PLCs. And with a market-leading array of devices available from Beckhoff and numerous other industrial vendors, standardizing on EtherCAT ensures users can source from an extensive ecosystem of industrial Ethernet hardware.

Increased security for connected 3D printing machines

A great example of increasing your security with industrial PC-based control is properly adapting to IIoT. Machine builders not embracing PC-based control must employ third-party hardware and software solutions for cloud connectivity. Although a viable solution for a few machines or during prototyping, it becomes much more complex and expensive as the number of machines to support and the data to process increases.

To begin, what type of internet security does the third-party device provide? Do the dashboards integrate seamlessly into the existing HMI on the machine? Does it support a unified namespace that can easily communicate to MES and ERP systems? Are additional third-party providers going to be required to analyze the data? The list of questions for traditional motion control and PLC platforms continues, but with Beckhoff industrial PCs, these questions are answered with our integrated IIoT solution that has over 90 built-in analytics functions.

Additive manufacturing and the era of PC-based control

Machine automation technology has seen multiple paradigm shifts over the last 50 years. PLCs replaced relay logic in the 1970s, and the 1990s gave way to sophisticated motion controllers. Since 1980, Beckhoff has been working to perfect the industrial PC, and today it stands alone as the most flexible and efficient automation control platform. It truly is the latest paradigm shift in automation for the IoT era.

By not restricting additive manufacturing machine builders to proprietary/custom chipsets or specific programming languages, Beckhoff industrial PCs give machine builders the freedom to boost intellectual property, performance and security to flourish well into the future.

Interested in implementing PC-based control to safeguard your machine’s IP while boosting performance? Contact your local Beckhoff sales engineer today.


Paxton Shantz of Beckhoff USA

Paxton Shantz is the Digital Manufacturing Industry Manager for Beckhoff Automation LLC.


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