From Mass Production to Reconfigurable Automation

In 1908, Henry Ford introduced the Ford Model T—“the motorcar for the great multitude.” Mass production drove down costs, and at $825 apiece, Ford sold more than 10,000 Model T cars in the first year of production, setting a new record for any automobile model.

While the high volumes made the car affordable to the masses, the Model T only was available in one color—black, not catering to the preferences of every individual.

According to Prudential Equity Group LLC, Toyota will replace 93 percent of its North American sales volume with all-new or redesigned vehicles by 2007; Honda will replace 108 percent; Nissan 134 percent; Ford 73 percent; Chrysler 79 percent; and GM 86 percent. The day is not far off when you will be able to order your custom-built sports limousine for the price of a regular vehicle. Reconfigurable automation will be essential.

Field programmable

A reconfigurable automation system consists of modular components such as actuators, fixtures, tooling, input/output (I/O) devices and software. These components can be rapidly configured to form an automation workcell for a specific task. Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGA) technology is key to reconfigurable automation. FPGA devices feature reconfigurable digital circuit architecture with a matrix of logic blocks, where one can program the logic network into the device after it is manufactured. FPGAs are programmed using low-level languages such as Very High Speed Integrated Circuit Hardware Description Language (VHDL) or other, vendor-specific graphical development environments.

For example, imagine you need to manufacture 100 beverage cans with label A in the morning. This process requires that the cans pass through the assembly line with precise timing. Your control system in this case would be a motion controller that controls the position of the cans at different stages in the manufacturing process.

In the afternoon shift, you need to produce 200 beverage cans—100 with label A and 100 with label B, both types with similar contents. The assembly line in this case bifurcates into two parts toward the end, one producing cans with label A and the other with label B. To sort the cans effectively, the control system needs to incorporate logic as part of the program. You would now need a programmable automation controller (PAC) that includes motion control and logic.

In the evening shift, you need to manufacture 50 beverage cans that are larger in size and weight. These heavy cans sometimes cause vibration, and the assembly line needs to be stopped if the vibrations exceed a certain level. The control system now needs to incorporate motion control, logic control and vibration monitoring.

Without reconfigurable automation technologies, you would have to install three different control systems—one for each type of control. With a configurable I/O system, you could reconfigure the FPGA first for just motion control, and then for motion and logic control. For the evening shift, you could include vibration monitoring as part of the program being downloaded to the FPGA—all without manual intervention. In fact, control software running on the host controller can invoke Web Services that act on data from the manufacturing execution system (MES). Your reconfigurable automation system can be intelligent enough to start manufacturing products for which you have raw material in stock, or those that are in higher demand.

Reconfigurable automation will be the next wave of manufacturing after mass production and flexible automation. Get set to order your dream vehicle from a factory next door.

Rahul Kulkarni,, is Product Manager, Industrial Data Acquisition and Control, at National Instruments, in Austin, Texas.

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