When to automate: Economical controllers ease the entry point

With automation becoming more flexible, smaller lot sizes can make it practical to profitably automate what previously was considered only for hand assembly. Modular, flexible embedded PCs, programmable with one software platform, can lower the entry point for when to automate.


Beckhoff Automation CX8000 or CX9020 (shown) Embedded PCs, as well as Beckhoff Bus Terminal Controllers, are all supported by TwinCAT programming software (supporting IEC 61131-3 programming). BC and BX controllers vary by memory sizes, and BX has expandeEven with smaller lot sizes it can be practical to profitably automate what previously was considered only for hand assembly. Here are considerations when looking at what and when to automate. 

The engineer in me says, always automate, but the businessman side asks, why and what is it going to do for my business? What is my return on investment? If you want your machines to have sub-micron level accuracy and repeatability beyond what a human can do, then automate. From a cost-benefit analysis standpoint, if automating increases throughput and productivity, you may want to consider it, but if the driving force is only to reduce headcount and there are no other quantifiable benefits, it may not make sense.

Automating smaller modular machines that didn’t previously have automation is more feasible today than ever before, whether a retrofit or entirely new machine. Some obvious key advantages of automating are increased throughput and productivity, improved quality or predictability of quality, accountability, improved performance, enhanced speed, precise measurement, and reduced costs overall. Another key benefit is data-traceability, tying factory floor systems directly into manufacturing execution software (MES) systems, which provides more accurate tracking of throughput. From experience, you might be thinking that all these additional capabilities come with a hefty price tag, but you might be surprised to know that deciding to automate smaller systems doesn’t have to break the bank.

Numerous options are available when seeking a more cost-effective approach to automating without sacrificing reliability or performance. With the small controller renaissance well upon us, a variety of new compact controllers are available that are low cost, but still maintain high performance by traditional industry standards.

Smaller controllers, same platform

Selecting a smaller controller is a great starting point. Although small, such PC-based controllers are more than capable of producing enough power and performance for many machines in the field, especially those sitting on the line of whether to automate or not. The integration of smaller controllers can also lead to the discovery of new “small machine” niches, creating more options for the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) and end user to apply automation with compelling results.

Incorporating smaller controllers from a vendor with a unified programming environment can facilitate easier migration paths down the road when considering higher performance controllers because one software platform is used throughout the product line—simply switching to a different level of controller does not require a software platform change. Embedded PCs are quite cost-effective, especially when compared against traditional PLC solutions. Users can expect to pay between $470 and $1000 for a robust small controller.

Controllers also can integrate fieldbus communications and PLC functionality for prices between $200 and a little over $600 depending on the fieldbus and level of performance. The same programming software provides the option to program in all the languages established in IEC 61131-3. Using any of these controller options to automate a smaller system is a highly cost-effective and reliable way to introduce more automation into applications and still achieve an impressive return on investment (ROI).

- Mark Lewis is manager of technical services, Beckhoff Automation. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering and Plant Engineering, mhoske@cfemedia.com



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