Machine retrofit: Network, virtualization

An industrial conveyor manufacturer needed to put computer-aided design (CAD) software into the cloud, eliminate outdated Microsoft Windows 7 PC software, and keep a steel cutter with RS-232 communications connected to receive CAD outputs. See two virtualization obstacles.

By Jeorg Hecke January 2, 2020

A manufacturer of bulk-material conveyor for heavy industry, Loibl Förderanlagen GmbH, also produces equipment as bucket, pipe, and crop conveyors, as part of a larger contract to engineer, plan, service and modernize industrial plants.

To design and create such machinery, the 140-employee company, based in Straubing, Germany, used a Messer Group steel-cutting machine. In a modernization effort, Loibl engineers set out to virtualize and encloud the on-site, Microsoft Windows 7 PC that ran the steel-cutting machine’s design software. The computer-aided design (CAD) program helped Loibl engineers design metal parts and the cutting layouts (“nesting”) to deliver the most parts in the least material. The software output directs the computer numerical control (CNC) thermal cutter.

Two virtualization obstacles

Two obstacles to the virtualization effort were common, though not often seen, together.

  1. The CAD-running PC had communicated with the steel-cutting machine’s control unit over an RS-232, short-range serial interface, requiring the computer to reside in close physical proximity to the machine (rather than blocks or miles away in a data center).
  2. Like many industry-specific design programs, the CAD software license rested in a physical USB dongle, inserted in the same PC. The planned virtual computers, by definition, would not have physical USB ports.

Replacing the RS-232 interfaces of the cutting system was not an option. (See “Before Virtualization,” top of diagram). Baycix, an IT systems and service provider, resolved the challenges by preserving existing machinery and control unit by converting the serial data to USB, and using a rail-mounted serial-to-USB converter.

Double-duty device, license dongle server

A separate device server encapsulates USB data for transport over Intranet and unpacks it at the receiving point. The conversions occur in the shop-floor control cabinet, and the virtualized CAD-running PC, with updated operating system, communicates over the network with the cutting machine. Because the added device server has two USB ports, it can perform double duty. It accepts the USB dongle on behalf of the (now virtual) PC and sequentially extends the license to anyone accessing the software across the intranet. In so doing, it remains within the license’s one-user limits.

The BayCIX December 2018 test ran for six weeks, beginning with cloud migration of the CAD software and installation of the serial-to-USB converter and USB device server. Now, the virtual PC communicates with the device server to access the USB license dongle and send its command file to the metal-cutting machine across the network over IP.

Both devices were installed on DIN rails inside the control cabinet. Operators were relieved to retire the computer and migrate updated software to the cloud, without changing or reconfiguring the serial-based machine.

Hermann Lehner, operations manager at Loibl, said, “We value the stability and flexibility of the entire system. It’s convenient to be able to configure settings with RS-232, which is easy to use despite its age, thanks to” the new devices.

Jeorg Hecke is head of product management, SEH Computertechnik GmbH. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology,


KEYWORDS: Retrofit, virtualization, network upgrade

Steel cutting machine needed a software update

Connected network also required an update.

New devices helped with CAD software integration.


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Author Bio: Jeorg Hecke is head of product management, SEH Computertechnik GmbH.