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Who should spec an automation platform?: August 27, 2008

Editor's note: Several weeks ago in this newsletter I published some thoughts on whether it's best for packaging machinery builders or their end-user customers to decide which controls platform should be controlling a packaging machine. I also asked readers for their thoughts on this subject. In the next few weeks, I'll publish a few of the comments I received. This one comes from Graham Harris, president of Beckhoff Automation.

Pat, your recent insights article should raise a lot of heated discussions and opinions. As a control supplier, we are constantly involved in this argument as we have many potential OEMs tell us that they see a lot of value in our products whether it is performance, price, communications, size or a combination but they can't use us because their end users always spec Company A. Our view is that the standardization approach of many end users is based too much on events from the 80's and 90's when machine control systems needed lots of disparate product to handle the automation tasks, and the maintenance staff had to manage multiple types of devices to keep the machines running. End users are being pushed today to reduce costs, improve productivity, reduce operators, get machines connected to the IT world for various needs for data, be more flexible as products are changing faster in smaller batches than before and are therefore pushing OEMs to be more innovative. They then throttle back the possible innovation that can come from considering other solutions and specify the control products to be used because they perceive that to be less risk due to support issues. The OEM is therefore restricted in their options to innovate.

We work with our customers to utilize a central controller for Logic, Motion and HMI as much as possible to reduce hardware and software and provide integrated diagnostics so that maintenance staff don't need to get separate programming and troubleshooting software to go looking for the fault. Looking at a ladder logic diagram to find a machine fault is from the 80's and 90's era when PLC Ladder Programming was the main diagnostic tool derived from relay control. One way to look at this issue is to ask "If the window into the machine for the operator and maintenance engineer is the HMI, and the HMI id designed to meet the user needs, then what does it matter what is behind the HMI as long as it is reliable?" We understand that innovative machines that don't meet the uptime needs of the user are not going to be cost effective but newer control systems today use far fewer devices to run a machine, are far more reliable and the capability to display useful diagnostics, video, web access and on-line documentation greatly reduces the tasks needed to keep machinery running. The newer solutions also need fewer parts to be stocked.

We also have this confusing issue with the ISA/OMAC packaging initiative. In this one, programming standards to allow the mixing of control suppliers was promoted by several large end users so that they could buy packaging machines from different OEMs with different control systems. When we approached some of these end users to consider our products as we had developed solutions to meet the OMAC specifications, we were told that they couldn't as they were standardized on Company A. Go figure.

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