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Factory Automation

Choosing rugged, reliable and heat tolerant hardware for the factory floor.

Factories and production lines were some of the earliest adopters of technology for automation.

The computer age has brought massive changes to this sector.

In the original implementations of these systems, there was a lot of physical contact needed to update the components of the system. Hardwired components placed a lot of restrictions on the system.

With the advent of the general use computer easy expansion, easy upgrading and easy collection of data for further analysis and optimization of processes is now possible.

However, computers used in factories need to be tough enough for continuous use. They also need to be able to handle high temperatures, dirt and dust in the factory.

Management of these systems also needs a modern approach, where the monitoring isn’t confined to a fixed terminal and can be done on the move.

This case study explains what we chose for upgrading our customers systems and why we chose those parts.

The Problem

Programmable Logic Controllers are a critical and heavily used component in factories and production lines.

PLCs control the processes in the production line. They have multiple inputs and outputs to trigger processes in the production process. They need to be quick to react to changes and inputs.

There are often hundreds or thousands of PLCs needed to run all the process in a complex factory.
That’s a lot of computers to manage.

The standalone nature of old PLCs without networking capabilities is that upgrading and managing the factory is more difficult.

Changeovers are time intensive and require specialist intervention to complete in these older systems. Not only this, but they can also require the physical presence of the specialist at the terminal.

Older systems are very often custom systems that have a very high cost of setup.

The complexity of modern factory have increased, so that older computers are no longer adequately suited for their job.

On the management side of things, there is a need to move away from fixed terminals. Requiring a technician to go to a single point for any different operation is quite constrictive.

Our customer was looking for a way to remotely or at least wirelessly manage their systems and machines.

The Search

In order to improve the factory something new was needed.

Firstly, adding networking to the computers would allow for centralized management of systems where necessary.

The centralized management that networking would allow could save time and manpower. Changes could be done centrally, without necessarily needing a physical presence at the computer.

Secondly, adding more communications ports to the computer would let the system connect to more inputs and outputs, effectively allowing it to do more.

Thirdly, is the generic nature of modern computers. Computers for factories don’t need to be highly specialized machines anymore. Using a tough general use computer not only saves money, but increases the
ease of expansion and management.

Finding a solution that would incorporate all these aspects would be ideal. It would also allow cost saving in the long term by streamlining the production line processes.

And for management system, something like a tablet computer was needed. But it needed to be more powerful and far more robust.

Our Solution

IEI specializes in industrial computers.

That’s one of our areas of expertise. This particular project required some changes to what we already had, so we got to work.

TANK-600

TANK-600

The TANK was designed specifically to meet the requirements of a PLC in a factory.

There are two versions of the TANK with the following differences:

  • TANK-600-CV-2550
  • 1.86 GHz processor
  • 4 GB memory
  • TANK-600-CV-2600
  • 1.6 GHz processor
  • 2 GB memory

All other features are the same between the two models.

The ability to network was required.

Networking is standard in modern computers, so any system we started off with would support this.

The main difference between the more standard industrial computers and the computers used as PLCs s the large number of expansion ports.

So we added them:

  • 6 x USB 2.0
  • 2 x RS-232/422/485 (DB-9 connectors)
  • 6 x RS-232 (DB-9 connectors)
  • 8 x RS-232 (DB-78 to splitter cable to eight DB-9)

These are the most common connectors so we included as many as possible.

The system was tested to be resistant to the dust the on the factory floor. It was further designed to handle high temperatures. Everything was improved to provide maximum stability and reliability.

Despite the ability to remotely control the system, there is often a need for a direct interface with the machine.
The VGA port can connect to a screen so a technician can control and adjust the system directly.

For the management computer, we already had something that would work. The ICECARE.

ICECARE-10W

ICECARE-10W

Designing from the ground up was not necessary and would require unnecessary expense.

The ICECARE is designed to take a beating.

It is tough and reliable, so works well in factory conditions.

With built in RFID and barcode readers it is easy to scan inventory needed throughout the production process.

The Result

The older custom designed PLCs were replaced by the TANK, giving all the advantages of a general use computer.

Faster and better connected computer resulted in a more efficient production line.

The technicians freed up some of their time by using the ICECARE to take care of various tasks away from a fixed terminal.

Here is some of the hardware used for this project.

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