Servos, smart sensors and the web

Written by: Tom Shelley | Published:

Dean Palmer reviews the last three years of British technical breakthroughs in the factory controls and automation market

For machine designers and process engineers, helping the factory to get better control of its manufacturing and helping to automate key production processes, plenty of innovative products have hit the market since 2000 to help them achieve these improvements.

Although most of the new products launched in the controls and automation market are simply extensions of product ranges or are new designs that use existing technology but in a novel way, some new products are indeed significant breakthroughs and so have merited attention from Eureka in the past. Problem is, not too many have come from British design companies, since the market appears to be dominated by firms whose main design and R&D operation is based overseas. The likes of Siemens, ABB, Omron, Schneider Electric, Moeller Electric, Mitsubishi Electric and Rockwell Automation are good examples.

Other companies in this market that are British, tend to focus on designing ‘packaged solutions’ for clients. The likes of Unimatic, Hoerbiger-Origa, Aerotech and EMS use a wide range of motion control, drives and automation equipment from different suppliers to ‘build’ an intelligent solution to the customer’s design or production problem. It’s not necessarily innovative groundbreaking technology they’re using, but innovative, intelligent solutions to application problems.

Our May 2002 cover feature described a servo system developed by Dr David Brown of Portsmouth University that advises users of faults via their mobile phone. The same drive will also detect developing problems before they become serious and advise of the need for maintenance. Application areas include aerospace and defence through to food and beverage and the medical industry.

In a demonstration given to Eureka by research assistant James Hui, a servo drive (supplied by Infranor) was connected to a laptop via its RS232 port. Disconnecting the resolver immediately stopped the drive, sent a text message with the motor number and an error code to a mobile phone, and an e-mail message with more details. Mr Hui then allowed Eureka to use a standard WAP mobile phone to command the drive to make the motor stop, start and reverse, then go through some of the operations that a test engineer might wish to subject a drive to before giving it the ‘OK’. Excessive vibrations can also be predicted and a message sent to a mobile phone and e-mailed.

In Feb 2001 Logic Machine Controls of Gloucester had what could be described as a Eureka moment when it came up with the idea behind the iSite. This was a communications module which connected virtually any piece of equipment directly to an Ethernet network, and gave it its own presence on the web. User configurable messages can be assigned to single or grouped digital inputs from the 16 isolated inputs available. These messages can then be shown on a password protected website hosted within iSite. This website can then be accessed from any computer on the network using a standard web browser. Up to 64 different messages can be shown using text or graphics and encoded analogue values can be displayed. Signals are also logged so nothing is missed even when the unit is ‘offline’.

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