Tag Archives: Machine Automation

What is Cabinet-Free Motion Control?

Controllers, drivers, and servomotors usually control automated platforms and machines in the automated production industry. With the evolvement of technology for machine motion, control and driving of individual machine axes is being increasingly taken over by highly intelligent electronics. Therefore, the control cabinet is assuming the central role with the rest of the system being designed around it.

With the rest of the machinery developing much more slowly, the faster evolving complex automation design and development becomes a cost-constraint for the OEM, system designers, and end users. Control cabinets need redesigning, especially with the increasing numbers of servo-driven axes. Typically, the location of the control cabinet is relatively fixed on the machine, which limits the manufacturers’ ability to modify and update the footprint of their machines.

As a solution to the above constraints, system designers are moving towards a new concept where the motion control and servo-drive mechanism is distributed rather than bound within a physical cabinet. By locating the controllers, servo drives, and power supplies nearer to the motors and axes they control, OEMs and system designers overcome several challenges arising from installation, cabling, and multiple engineering.

Initially, system designers had reoriented their designs in attempting to drive multiple machine components with a single servo motor. Although this approach had the benefit of reducing the physical number of servo motor and drives, it required a larger motor with higher power to handle the load, and several additional mechanical components for delivering the centralized power. A Cartesian motion system with a single motor for a palletizing application is an example of such a centralized approach.

By separating the servo motors on each axis, mounting them on the independent frames, and driving them separately, system engineers were able to use smaller motors, thereby reducing the overall power requirement, and developing a solution with higher efficiency.

One of the barriers to cabinet-free motion control architecture comes from PLC limitations. By limiting the axis count supported by their PLCs to 16 or 32 axes, some manufacturers force users to purchase a second PLC, which means addition of a more expensive control box with higher capacity.

For some time now, OEMs have been following a common practice of moving power supplies, servo drives, and related devices out of the control cabinet and placing them closer to each motor and its drive axis. This trend began with several leading suppliers introducing electric motors with their drives integrated into the motors’ housings. This required control electronics to be shock and vibration resistant as well as capable of withstanding the higher temperatures usually associated with environment outside the control cabinet.

Recent advances of cabinet-free components include separate ac-to-dc power supplies, independent drive units capable of mounting close to the servomotor on the machine, and power cables integrating communication capable of daisy-chaining several drive-integrated servomotors into a single circuit.

A further introduction of newer motion controllers or PLCs is helping the cabinet-free technology portfolio. These integrate the controller hardware into modules capable of mounting on the machine along with the necessary power supplies and drives. This eliminates the requirement of a control cabinet entirely.

Industrial Motors for Machine Automation

Industrial engineers use different types of motion control devices for improving the production rates and efficiencies on the floor of automated factories. Three major types of motion control devices are in demand for machine automation—stepper motors, servomotors and variable frequency drives (VFDs).

In general, stepper motors along with their drives, and controllers are widely used as they offer simple implementation, beneficial price/performance ratios, and high torque at low speeds. This motor is essentially a brushless DC version, moving in equal fixed steps during rotation, and only a single step at a time. Not requiring tuning or adjustments, stepper motors provide very high torque at speeds below 1000 RPM. They are cost-effective, as their prices are substantially lower than the cost of comparable servo systems. Since the torque they produce decreases as they speed up, it makes their operation difficult. Therefore, the work done by stepper motors becomes impractical at speeds in excess of 1000-1500 RPM.

Servomotors come with a motor, drive, a controller, and a device for positional feedback. For variable load applications, engineers prefer them to stepper motors, as they deliver high torque when rotating at speeds above 2000 RPM. Servos require adjustments and tuning, making them more complex to control compared to stepper motors. Including maintenance costs, their positional feedback arrangement can push their prices well beyond those of stepper motors.

Costing less than stepper motors or servomotors, VFD systems include an AC motor and a drive, but are unable to provide positioning. However, they can be good for applications requiring speed control on variable loads. For applications where the motor need not run continuously at full load, a VFD system can save considerable amount of energy. Another feature of VFDs is their soft-start capability, allowing a limit to high inrush currents.

In a stepper motor system, the controller regulates the position of the step, the torque generated by the motor, and the speed of the motor as it moves from one step to another. The driver operates on the control signals the controller generates by modifying and amplifying these signals to regulate the direction and magnitude of the current flowing into the motor’s windings. This way, it drive rotates the shaft of the motor to its desired position, and holds it in position with the required torque for the required time.

Controllers for stepper motors can be either open or closed loop types. Open-loop controllers are simpler, not requiring any feedback from the motor, but are less efficient. Open-loop controllers operate on the assumption the motor is always at the programmed step position and is producing the desired torque.

On the other hand, closed-loop controllers always operate with feedback based on the effective load on the motor. Therefore, the performance of the closed-loop stepper motor controller is similar that of a servo motor, and makes the operation more efficient.

Making a stepper motor rotate through each of its steps requires energizing the several windings within the motor in a specific sequence. Typically, stepper motors rotate 1.8 degrees per step, necessitating 200 steps to make a complete revolution.