Networked micro drives keep production lines humming

Manufacturers today demand to know what’s happening on their production lines at all times. In response, drive makers are introducing an ever-growing number of products with built-in Ethernet, PLCs, more powerful CPUs and a host of other capabilities. This advanced technology, once found only in the largest drives, is now available even in small micro drives.

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Intelligent micro drives connected by Ethernet networks reflect the changing landscape of manufacturing. Original equipment makers, particularly those serving the packaging, palletizing, and food and beverage industries, are at the forefront in incorporating them into their machines, according to Christopher Rhodes, product marketing engineer for Mitsubishi Electric. “OEMs recognize that the high volumes in these applications mean that even the smallest incremental improvements in manufacturing productivity and efficiency can add significant returns to a customer’s bottom line.

“By monitoring machine activity and taking action when they see incremental changes in performance,” adds Rhodes,” maintenance workers are able to change components before they fail, preventing production downtime and improving plant performance. Using the information from networked drives allows them to quickly dig deep into the details to find the exact control panel and component that is causing a problem.”

While the HVAC and mining industries still prefer serial communications technology, other industries have moved to Ethernet networks to get more information from their equipment to understand and control line performance, manufacturing costs, maintenance requirements, and equipment performance.

Remote monitoring services are also playing a bigger role in generating revenue for machine builders in high-volume manufacturing and packaging operations. “Large OEMs are demanding drive miniaturization because monitoring systems are becoming more extensive in order to meet customer needs,” says Rhodes. “And as with most recent technology waves in the manufacturing industry, the earliest adopters are usually the largest companies.”

Micro drives are being used primarily for simple motion applications, such as conveyors that only move in one direction, while more expensive servo solutions have the edge when coordinated motion is required to accommodate more complex, PLC-controlled systems that combine robots, conveyors, and other equipment, according to Rhodes.

 “The benefit of networked drives is that you are able to measure manufacturing uptime, productivity, line performance, and other critical factors, including energy use, and to monitor for predictive maintenance,” says Rhodes. “Additionally, a maintenance worker can look back at machine information leading up to an equipment failure to learn what adjustments can help prevent future failures.”

As drive technology advances, drive functionality continues to change. “In the last couple of years, we’re seeing more and more drives being put into networked systems,” explains Rhodes. “More are also being introduced with built-in PLCs, allowing them to serve as either the master controller or as secondary control for a master PLC.”

The goal of all these technological enhancements is to help manufacturers and machine builders achieve greater efficiency, better results, faster process speeds, and lower costs.

“Technology is making it possible to make intelligent micro drives,” he adds, “and the next generation of drives will be exceptional performers with all the necessary functionality built into one small footprint.”

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