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  • Writer's pictureJames Figy

Ultra-Compact Industrial Gas Delivery System Expands Functionality Using EtherCAT

Using circuit board-mounted EtherCAT I/O and PC-based control technology, Applied Energy Systems creates space-saving, high purity gas controllers

Applied Energy Systems GigaGuard

Ultra-high purity industrial gasses are essential for electronics manufacturing and research projects, but because many are highly combustible or poisonous, they can also be fatal when mishandled. This complicates the process of designing systems that handle these gases, according to David Stetz, chief engineer of research and development controls technology at Applied Energy Systems (AES). While safety remains the top priority, semiconductor manufacturers, for example, must ensure high-speed throughput while ensuring quality and material line widths of half a micron or less. In this high-stakes production environment, a controller fault or failure could delay or ruin hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of product. “When semiconductor factories complete a run of wafers, they might be processing $1 million worth of product at any one time,” Stetz says. “If they have a downtime of just a few hours, it could severely damage the profitability of their production process.”

Providing safe, reliable systems has been the goal of AES since it began manufacturing high purity gas systems in the mid-1980s. This was a shift for the Malvern, Penn., company, which had been a reseller of welding equipment since opening for business in 1968. However, the company now operates in five major divisions. The SEMI-GAS® division provides ultra-high purity, production-ready gas delivery solutions. VERSA-GAS™ offers a diverse range of high purity gas delivery and distribution systems. APPLIED SERVICES is a trusted field resource providing installation and commissioning services. APEX Precision is the company’s premier welding division. Finally, ARM, the company’s most recent corporate acquisition, provides gas purifiers. The market for high purity gas systems includes general manufacturing industries, research labs, solar, pharmaceuticals and biotech products, while the market for ultra-high purity gas systems includes manufacturers of aerospace components, semiconductors and other electronics.

Operator uses Beckhoff control panel
The GSM-V provides a sophisticated yet easy-to-use operator interface for controlling and monitoring delivery of ultra-high purity gasses.

With such a high tech clientele, AES must continue to improve its offerings to remain competitive. In 2012, the company built a new facility next to its headquarters, just west of Philadelphia. The new building offers space to test and implement cutting-edge technologies to launch new products and update existing equipment, according to Jim Murphy, general manager of AES.

“We are intently focused on research and development and expanding our manufacturing operations to support the Industrie 4.0 solutions and the Internet of Things (IoT) technologies that our customers require right now,” Murphy says. Since this expansion, one of the key innovations for the SEMI-GAS division has been the GigaGuard™ GSM-V™ Controller. The GSM-V monitors and regulates delivery of ultra-high purity gases and was designed specifically to replace the company’s GSM-5™ controller, a legacy system that has become outmoded in Industrie 4.0 projects.

Facing pressure to find effective, space-saving solutions

AES developed the GSM-5 three decades ago, and the approximately 10,000 units installed during the 1980s and 1990s have begun to show their age. “Though thousands of these legacy products were installed, few received adequate support and maintenance, so their power supplies, electronic components and controls are approaching end of life,” Stetz says. During the design process, Stetz knew that the GSM-V needed to support the company’s move toward IoT functionality in manufacturing. Adding to the pressure, the project also needed to produce a flawless, plug-and-play solution for end user customers. To meet the latest requirements, the GSM-V had to offer faster processing speeds, a more intuitive HMI and better networking to transmit acquired data and continuously monitor gas conditions.

AES GSM-V units
GSM-V units sit atop cabinets that supply ultra-high purity gas to production equipment in the pharmaceuticals, aerospace, solar and semiconductors industries.

The GSM-V also needed to monitor gas conditions effectively to maintain ultra-high purity levels and ensure safe working conditions. A slight lapse in the purity level could ruin an entire run of high-value products, so the delivery system needed to send out gases with at least the same purity level they had upon entry – or a higher purity level after passing through additional filters and purifiers. Furthermore, abnormal gas conditions could be a sign of larger, potentially fatal, problems, so the delivery system needed to display real-time monitoring results on both the unit’s control panel and other network-connected devices to ensure safe operation.

“The main factor in every piece of equipment we build, both the gas delivery systems and the controls for them, is safety,” Stetz says. “We primarily provide a safety system to dispense and distribute gasses and chemicals for end user facilities, so safety is always our no. 1 concern.”

With the new automation and controls technology available today, providing all of these features should have been an easy task. Keeping the price point competitive was a concern in the GSM-V project, but the largest issue was that the controller needed to remain the same size while delivering higher performance. All of the components required to enhance the controller’s functionality needed to fit in an enclosure just 8 inches tall, 10 inches wide and 12 inches deep, which sits on the top edge of a cabinet that supplies ultra-high purity gas to production floor equipment. “Many of these systems are hardwired in place with additional equipment built around them, such as sprinkler systems or bus docks,” Stetz says. “We could not change the form factor of the equipment if were to maintain the drop-in replacement capability. That form factor determined the maximum size of the GSM-V equipment, because the easier we make replacements and retrofits, the more likely we are to increase sales and market share.”

Compact hardware and open software provide a path forward

Stetz discovered a number of hardware and software solutions from Beckhoff Automation that would benefit the GSM-V, but what originally captured his attention was the Beckhoff CP6606 Panel PC. The size of this cabinet-mounted “economy” controller perfectly fit the gas delivery system’s space requirements. Not only does the panel feature a 7-inch touchscreen for HMI, but it also minimizes cabinet space by eliminating the need for an additional hardware PLC and maintains a log of active alarms that users can access via the HMI software. The CP6606 features a 3-1/2-inch motherboard built by Beckhoff and a fanless ARM Cortex™-A8 processor with an integrated graphic adapter. The Panel PC features a standard 512 MB MicroSD card, with the option to upgrade to a 2, 4 or 8 GB card.

TwinCAT 3 automation software runs on the CP6606 to support all control and display functions, which is something Stetz previously had to use multiple programs to accomplish. “TwinCAT 3 integrates both the PLC and HMI in one platform. All of the HMI features that I would normally have to program in a separate software package and run on a separate PC are now combined into one package,” he says. Open platform, PC-based solutions ensure that the GSM-V can communicate with any end user’s SCADA and send data to the cloud using the OPC UA command protocol, which is available on all Beckhoff PC-based control hardware. In addition, the scalable HMI software functions as intuitively on a PC, tablet or smartphone as it does on the built-in HMI display – a capability that AES showcased at SEMICON West 2018. This makes it easier for the system to alert operators of unusual conditions. On top of a standard emergency off (EMO) button, the GSM-V can be shut down by a network PC, remote device or the system’s automated safety functions in the event of abnormal gas conditions.

The convergence of PCBs and EtherCAT I/O

Beckhoff EJ terminals
Along with the CP6606 Panel PC, a number of pluggable EJ-series EtherCAT I/O modules fit inside the 8-inch tall, 10-inch wide and 12-inch deep enclosure.

All control and safety functions occur in real-time due to the networking and I/O capabilities of EtherCAT industrial Ethernet technology. Standardizing on the EJ series EtherCAT I/O system from Beckhoff, the GSM-V contains an EJ1100 Bus Coupler, EJ1889 16-channel digital input, EJ3108 8-channel analog input, EJ4134 4-channel analog output and two EJ2809 16-channel digital output terminals. As an electrical engineer, Stetz appreciates that he can attach the EJ series I/O terminals directly to circuit boards, which eliminates point-to-point wiring. Stetz explains that the I/O terminals also preserved space: “With other vendors, I would need to have a box two or three times this size to incorporate so many I/O channels with off-the-shelf equipment. The fact that these terminals are so compact and easy to install on circuit boards gives AES greater flexibility in series production, and greatly minimizes the amount of wiring and potential for error.”

On top of these automation and control products, the 16-gauge steel welded enclosure houses a number of components specific to ultra-high purity gas delivery systems. These include eight configurable Form C relay outputs and eight solenoid valves, which can be expanded to 14, as well as an optional strain gauge conditioner and Type Z purge system. However, even with all of these scalability requirements, Stetz was able to retain a small section of unused space in the ergonomically designed delivery system. “There is actually a void on one side of the enclosure, so if I need to add another piece of hardware, I have the ability to do so,” he says.

Decreased installation time, increased power

The GSM-V gas delivery system premiered at the SEMICON West 2017 trade show, and since then, AES has replaced obsolete GSM-5 units across the country. The system meets all required safety standards, including SEMI S2, SEMI S8 and Uniform Fire Codes, and it boasts greater functionality than its predecessor. However, it also offers two things very important to AES: a competitive price point and increased system flexibility. AES prides itself in being able to adapt standard product lines to specific customer needs, and because the GSM-V is based on TwinCAT 3, the company can easily add any software that runs on a PC if necessary. “The Beckhoff solutions allowed AES to show our versatility, creativity and ingenuity with new products and legacy support, as well as the R&D for other new developments,” Stetz says. “This has only improved our standing with our customers.”

Beckhoff and AES engineering staff
Upgrading the GSM-V with a panel PC and pluggable EtherCAT I/O resulted from collaboration between to David Stetz, chief engineer of research and development controls technology at Applied Energy Systems (right), and Tim Beckel, regional sales engineer for Beckhoff.

While preserving the same dimensions and shape, the GSM-V does not retain the same cumbersome wiring requirements. The new system operates on a network connection via EtherCAT and power over a C13 cord, with the option to hardwire the unit if the customer prefers it. This plug-and-play solution has cut installation times by 50%. “Until we finalized the GSM-V, we were replacing GSM-5 controllers with a different solution, and installation took at least a day due to the number of required modifications. We had to do a new panel cutout, drill holes and rewire many components with the older replacement method,” Stetz says. “But with the new GSM-V, our field technicians can replace two in a day – and on occasion, we have completed three replacements in one day.”

The success of the GSM-V proved significant for AES and the SEMI-GAS division, and it caused the research and development team to identify other new and legacy systems that could benefit from automation and control products from Beckhoff. The project showcased the ability of AES to adapt to the manufacturing environment of today, according to Murphy. “This was one of the products that helped define a clear vision for us to support our customers’ Industrie 4.0 projects,” he says. “Many of our upcoming control solutions or upgrades to legacy systems take into account the importance of cloud connectivity, data accessibility and compatibility with customers’ SCADA. The GSM-V provided an important step in this direction.”

Are you interested in implementing ultra-compact I/O and controls solutions on your machines? Contact your local Beckhoff sales engineer today.


James Figy

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

A version of this article previously appeared in U.S. Tech.


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