The Automation Evolution

By: Scott Johnson, ASI

Smaller, smarter, software-focused motion control components are the competitive advantages that will lead the factory automation market into the 21st century.

The focus of machine automation is evolving from primarily hardware considerations, to an increased focus on software considerations.

Soon we will see a very small, open controller that utilizes embedded open architecture machine control software packaged with a sophisticated multi-axis motion board. Software-driven controls such as these will have a significant competitive edge when considering their enhanced performance and ease of integration.

The dynamics of such a market segment will be incredible. Market forces will quickly shift and new leaders will emerge. The price to performance ratio will plummet and smaller, more powerful packages capable of total machine control will arise.

As an example, Emerson Motion Control thinks that motion control manufacturers will make significant advances in both software and firmware to minimize machine build cycle times by making motion intuitive.

For example, open architecture programming capability for servo motion controllers will not be acceptable by itself. Servo suppliers are solving customer applications, rather than simply providing customers with the tools to do so on their own. This trend will continue to grow. One approach to meeting this demand will be to provide a software or hardware core application module that provides a custom solution with off-the-shelf products.

Manufacturers will also be supplying minimum-time software tools that use the customer's language and a widely accepted programming methodology, and that feature comment and documentation capabilities. The software will allow configuration of core applications and customization of control capabilities, and will perform system diagnostics. Software that performs diagnostics must provide for motion analysis, gain set suggestions, on-line monitoring, I/O, programs, parameters and program self-diagnosis. We are already starting to see these capabilities from a handful of manufacturers.

Essentially, manufacturers of machine automation and motion control components and systems will need to make certain that customer requirements direct their product development, more so now than ever. Not doing so will be suicide for some manufacturers, as their competition will step up to the plate to meet the needs of those customers.

Manufacturers are also coming to bat with smaller and smarter technology. A good example can be seen in microstepping drives and controls. This technology is more compact than ever before, driven by demands from customers with less cabinet space to dedicate to its use.

As an example, Industrial Devices Corp. an AutomationSolutions Inc. company, manufactures microstepping drives with up to 7.9 amps and 120 VAC input, or 3.9 amps and 240 VAC input in packages as compact as 5.4 in. x 2.5 in. x 5.4 in.. That's upward of twice the power in half the footprint of microstepping drives built in the past 24 months. Some microstepping drives, including those manufactured by IDC, now feature an internal heatsink and fan that keep the panel space required for each unit small, and allow multiple units to be stacked together in multi-axis applications.

Additionally, many large companies have cut their in-house engineering staffs and depend more on suppliers for engineering services, system integration and field support.

A result is the need for suppliers to develop motion control products that are smarter and easier to install. Many are adopting a mount, wire and run philosophy, which means they provide a packaged, easy-to-install solution that allows customers to focus on their own core competencies.

Software and/or hardware-based application modules will provide a custom solution with off-the-shelf products, further shifting the programming burden from customer to manufacturer, and reducing start-up time with value-adding technology.

Smarter technology isn't just about ease-of-integration though; it's also about smarter hardware and improved performance. One of numerous examples comes from Danfoss Drives. They have developed proprietary system enhancement technology called Voltage Vector Control that is included in every Danfoss drive. This technology requires no motor derating for waveform distortion so that motors run cooler, last longer and deliver highly efficient performance. It combines advanced technology and custom large-scale integrated circuits to control the magnetic flux of an ac motor.

Next month I will further discuss the improving performance of motion control components, and the somewhat controversial issue of commoditization. Until next month...Happy automating.

Scott Johnson has been involved in the motion control industry for twenty-five years. He began his career with Warner Electric in 1974, and by 1980 was VP of sales and marketing. In 1981 Johnson was recruited by Compumotor (later purchased by Parker-Hannifin) and was elevated to General Manager in 1988. He moved to Industrial Devices Corp. in 1991 as president and COO, and became CEO in 1995. In December 1997 Johnson became the founding CEO of AutomationSolutions. Scott can be reached via email at