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Packaging World      VP/Editor, Pat Reynolds
SPONSOR: Rexroth bosch group August 19, 2011 | Edited by Pat Reynolds

Pendulum swinging back to PLC control?

Long known as a big believer in the potential for PC-based controls in packaging machinery, Aagard has lately been cozying up to PLCs. One specific machine that reflects this new thinking will be shown at Pack Expo Las Vegas. It's a horizontal form/fill/seal system for pouches made from rollstock that Aagard's Steve Mulder says is the first ever to offer continuous-motion operation. Also in development are complementary machines that will fill and seal the formed pouches. But only the pouch-forming section, a six-axis servo-based machine governed by Rockwell's ControlLogix, will be at Las Vegas.

I talked recently with Mulder and found his—and Aagard's—thoughts on machine control stimulating, to say the least. It's also intriguing that Aagard, a maker of secondary and tertiary packaging equipment, is now moving into primary packaging.

Here are the highlights:

• We haven't made a complete switch to the ladder-logic environment that distinguishes Rockwell controls. But we are finding our customers are looking for technology that their people are already familiar with, and for a lot of situations, that's where Rockwell comes in. In a way the pendulum has swung back. Years ago it was Rockwell at all costs, even if some newer, better alternative was out there. Then came a period recently where better controls solutions for less money were becoming available and customers asked themselves why they were automatically specifying Rockwell. And now it seems to be coming back to some kind of middle ground where we, at least, are rediscovering advantages that do exist in Rockwell controls. Local support and training is one thing. If alternative technology providers can make a compelling case about significant benefits they can deliver, we'll certainly listen. In fact we continue to have success with, for example, Beckhoff in some major applications where that technology's performance is something that would be a stretch for a Rockwell solution. But in this new pouch machine, where Rockwell controls can do the job and do it well, why not use Rockwell?

• There isn't very wide-spread acceptance of PC-based control as the main control of the packaging machine. But I think there is potential for advanced diagnostics that go beyond what PLC-based controls can do for you. So what we talk about a lot these days here at Aagard is a separation of sorts. If you're looking for advanced diagnostics from a PLC-based control platform, you have to be careful that you don't run out of memory or run into processing times that are too slow. With PC control, on the other hand, there are all kinds of things you can do with advanced diagnostics. What I'd like to see is a relatively simple controller that people are familiar with that can be used to control the machine 99% of the time and then an ancillary controller that would help with advanced diagnostics and information gathering so that when things do go bad, when something breaks and the machine can't operate, we can point to what it is and what has to be done much faster. I think there is some real potential in separating our thinking about machine control and machine diagnostics and maybe using two different technologies or a blend of those technologies to move things forward. Maybe the PC component hangs on the back of a ControlLogix rack. Why not let the PC be in the background gathering large volumes of data and processing it but not having that affect the routine machine control at all?

• We are focused on motion.  It's at the core of everything we do. PC-based control has been a big part of that, and although we now are starting to take advantage of what PLC-based control has to offer, there is still a place for PC-based control for certain applications. While the move to start utilizing Rockwell is significant for us and we are very happy with some of the benefits it brings, we are not abandoning PC-based control or the advantages it brings either. In fact, we are using our experience with PC-based controls to leverage the Rockwell PLC platform in a way that few if any are. So, it's been a very interesting interaction between our software engineers and the technical experts at Rockwell.

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