A 3-Step Plan to Improve Your Design of Pneumatic Systems

I’ve been talking pneumatic systems (valves, cylinders, actuators, etc.) recently with my customers and I’m finding among these engineers some common pains coming out of the system design.  It seems that many people are researching networked valve islands with I/O built-in.  These seem to be a great way to consolidate lots of I/O into one IP address, but there are some new issues cropping up similar to the above photo:

  • When assembling these at a machine builder the routing of cables with piping is more cumbersome  with cables hanging off the valves, larger cable tray installations  and large amounts of piping all running to the same spot.
  • For machine builders, with all of the valves centralized in one place, the pneumatic lines have to be longer.  This causes many issues such as slower responsiveness due to air volume, air inertia, and lower air quality.
  • When trying to perform maintenance at an end-user, it becomes a nightmare to troubleshoot with a cluster of cables and pipes.  The zip-tied and clean runs installed by the machine builder are cut, tangled and re-routed as the machine ages and becomes more difficult to troubleshoot.
  • Also at end users, if the manifold needs to be expanded, updated, retrofitted with new valves or I/O, there are big hurdles to jump when doing this: re-piping the valve due to mounting position shifting or even having to edit and repair code in the PLC to adapt to new bitmaps generated by the new valve manifold configuration.
  • When closing the loop with magnetic field sensors mounted on the cylinders, typically reed switches are used which are prone to failure.  In addition, these switches typically have two sensors & cables per actuator to give extend or retract position, these cables cause larger cable trays and long cable runs back to the centralized manifold and I/O.

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Machine Mount I/O: Get out of the Cabinet

In April, Jim Montague of Control Design wrote an interesting article on Machine Mount I/O entitled “Machine-Mount I/O Go Everywhere.”  I think the article makes some very good points as to the value of why someone wants to move from inside an enclosure, or controls cabinet, to mounting I/O products directly on the machine.

He summarizes, with the help of a number of industry experts, the below points:

  • Same or Better control performance out of IP67 products versus IP20 products.  
    • Installation time alone “is reduced by a factor of 5 to 10”
    • Assemble more controls equipment faster with the same people & workspace
  • Smaller & Simpler components take up less real-estate on the machine

Intelligent Interfaces and IO-Link Innovation

I recently had the opportunity to attend Hannover Fair in Germany and was blown away by the experience… buildings upon buildings of automation companies doing amazing things and helping us build our products faster, smarter and cheaper.  One shining topic for me at the fair was the continued growth of new products being developed with IO-Link communications in them.

All in all, the growth of IO-Link products is being driven by the need of customers to know more about their facility, their process and their production.  IO-Link devices are intelligent and utilize a master device to communicate their specific information over an industrial network back to the controller.  To learn more about IO-Link, read my previous entry, 5 Things You Need to Know about IO-Link.

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3 Production Problems Solved by Intelligent Sensors

In typical sensors all you get is ON or OFF… we just hope and assume that the prox is working, until something doesn’t work properly.  The part is seated but the sensor doesn’t fire or the operator can’t get their machine to cycle.  This can sometimes be tricky to troubleshoot and usually causes unplanned interruptions in production while the maintenance teams attempt to replace the sensor.  On some recent customer visits on the east coast, I have had a number of  interesting conversations about the customer’s need to collect more information from their sensors; specifically questions like:

  • How do I know the sensor is working?
  • How do I predict sensor failure?
  • How do I know something has changed in the sensor application?
  • How do I get my sensor to provide adaptive feedback?
  • How do I plan preventative maintenance?
  • How can I increase the overall equipment throughput?
  • How can I increase my process reliability?

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The Best Way to Communicate with Smart Sensors

When I am discussing with customers the use of smart sensors and smart devices in industrial automation, I always get posed with these questions:

  • How do the smart sensors interface with the controller?
  • How do you configure the device?
  • How do you get diagnostics out of it?
  • What other information can it provide?

This is sort of solved in a muddled world of proprietary communications or expensive network enabled sensors.  But John and I have been talking for a long time about IO-Link, which can easily and cost effectively answer all these questions!

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Valve Manifolds on Ethernet for Cheap!

Valve manifolds, or islands or banks, are used by many automation engineers in their machine design. They are a great way to easily implement a large number of pneumatic motion applications while keeping the air infrastructure minimal.  Recent demand in the market has driven manifold manufacturers to reluctantly embed network interfaces and remote I/O into their products.   Customers tell me while manufacturer’s expertise may lie with the pneumatic side of the product; there is usually less knowledge with-in their organizations to work on the Ethernet side of the product.

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Industrial Network Basics: Simplifying I/O Terminology

There are many terms used for I/O technology in industrial automation: Remote I/O, Distributed I/O,  Modular I/O, Expandable I/O, Block I/O, Conventional I/O and the list can go on.  What do they all mean?  Can they be used interchangeably?  What is the difference?

Lets be honest… this is a muddled topic and many people use different things interchangeably.  I’ve done a bit of research and reading of automation magazines, forums and websites and have tried to piece it together.

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Defining Your Next Network Architecture: Topologies and Global Standard

As many machine builders, OEMs, individual plants, and large corporations decide to move from the “bus” to the “net” (Profibus or DeviceNet to Profinet or EtherNet/IP) they have a chance to look at all the new architectures available and decide on which is the best for them.  Here are the first two topics to take into consideration:

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How Ethernet Works… for Dummies

I recently watched a short webinar recorded by the PI North America organization and it really helped me understand the basics of how ethernet communication comes together.  There are so many protocols and standards and they all communicate on the same media.  Carl and Hunter do a good job presenting ethernet in a technical but easy to understand way.

The webinar is here.  Their topics include:

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3 Steps to Evolve to Ethernet Networked I/O

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Let’s face it; an installed base, a trained maintenance crew, and an established set of procedures all make it really difficult to try to implement any new technologies in a running manufacturing facility.  The idea of an industrial network providing detailed data about your processes and improving productivity sounds interesting and valuable,  but where do you begin?  Retrofitting everything with the newest technology isn’t an option in today’s economy, the capital investment is just too great.  But there is hope!  And with small steps, time and training, any plant can move forward into the ethernet realm and beyond.

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