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Future shock (sidebar)

Controlling the future of packaging

Many of our experts agreed that in the future, packaging equipment controllers-whether they're PLCs or PCs-will be increasingly networked together.

"We see a lot of people starting to connect their packaging equipment on a common network," says Bill Cegles, president, C-F Packaging, a packaging consulting firm. Networking packaging machinery streamlines the flow of information between packaging equipment for tighter line integration. It also permits operators and mechanics to call up information on any machine through a single touchscreen interface. Data acquisition also becomes possible, a task that Cegles says many of his customers are now employing.

However, there's still progress to be made. "I see equipment manufacturers as being quite a few years behind," says Cegles. "Most are dealing with a single piece of equipment rather than looking at it from an overall perspective of how to bring it all together."

Ron Morse, a senior packaging engineer at Coors, agrees. "We're struggling with data acquisition plant-wide," he says. "I think the machine vendors could help us." Specifically, he'd like to see an improvement in feedback of packaging data to the machine operator, as well as to other departments such as maintenance.

PLCs versus PCs

PLCs versus PCs

In controls circles, one of the most contentious issues to crop up in years is the issue of using PCs instead of PLCs for packaging machine control. To date, most packagers have been leery of embracing PC-based control on a wide scale. But many packagers do have their eye on the technology as it continues to mature.

"I think the industry is right on the edge, getting away from PLCs moving to PCs," says Morse.

"We're looking into it," says Leslie Moore, engineering manager at Granutec, a generic pharmaceuticals maker in Largo, FL. "The PLC was a great innovation, and it does wonderful things, but it's time to move on. With PCs, it won't be as hard to write the code. And it's going to be much easier to get people skilled in PC programming than having them learn programming languages for several different brands of PLCs that we now have on the floor."

According to Keith Campbell, manager of manufacturing and technical systems at Hershey Foods, packaging machinery builders will eventually use a single PC to perform the functions of the separate PLC, motion controller and human-machine interface (HMI), all components typically found on today's packaging equipment.

Moreover, with PC-based controls, the actual "controller" becomes the software itself, not so much the hardware it runs on. This sea-change shift of the control functionality from hardware to software makes for interesting possibilities in the long term, according to Campbell.

For example, instead of buying a new flow wrapper, one might just buy new flow-wrapper software and load it into the PC-based control of an existing machine. "Suddenly, you would have new flow-wrapper functionality implemented on your machine," says Campbell. Of course that assumes such software would be designed for that machine.

What makes this scenario interesting, however, is that such software could come not only from the original equipment manufacturer (OEM), but also from a controls vendor, or a third-party software developer, or even from a competing flow-wrapper OEM.

Still, the battle to re-invent controls in packaging will be hard-won, says Granutec's Moore. "There are mechanics who have been working with these machines for fifteen years, and if suddenly you're going to put in a touchscreen with bells and whistles on it, it frightens the damn life out of them."

An Internet influence

In controls circles, Campbell himself has heard some far-out predictions. In the not-too-distant future, packaging equipment will begin to incorporate some of the open systems technology that has been proven on that ultimate network of networks-the Internet.

For example, Campbell explains, one day each packaging machine may have its own embedded "web server" that dishes up operating screens to the operator in the format of a web page.

Operators will control the machine through web browsing software running on each packaging machine's PC control. Plus, that machine's web server will be able to serve data in the form of web pages to any authorized computer or PC-based control on the company's intranet, or private network-across the hall or across the world.

The lure of Internet open protocol for non-Internet applications boils down to more compatibility on the packaging line between different machines from different vendors. It also means tighter integration with a packager's internal network and external networks with suppliers and even customers.

Internet protocols will simplify the process of building and configuring controls for both machinery builders and packagers, potentially lowering costs, adding functionality and reducing time spent on controls engineering for packaging.

Campbell says some of the leading machinery builders that Hershey works with are already looking into this. And at the recent National Industrial Automation show in Chicago, Packaging World spotted software vendors beginning to offer Web-based protocols built into software packages.

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