What's Next for Packaging Automation Controls?

Based on user requirements, the next generation of packaging machines will likely be smarter, simpler to operate, more dependable and safer to use, says one digital drives and controls supplier.

Vendors who regularly call on large automation customers often get a strong sense of where markets are headed, based on the requests of those same large customers. And the smart vendors, of course, tailor their product development based on those requests.

At Bosch Rexroth Corp.’s Electronic Drives & Controls Division, in Hoffman Estates, Ill., Food & Packaging Industry Manager Dan Throne can quickly rattle off a list of features that his company’s big packaging automation customers have been asking for. The list includes packaging machines that are smarter, simpler to operate, more dependable and safer.

Throne sees these attributes among those that could define the next generation of packaging equipment—even beyond the still emerging generation of servo-centric machines that the industry has dubbed “Generation 3.” He calls it “GenNext.” In a recent meeting with Automation World editors, Throne described ways in which recent product introductions from Bosch Rexroth are already pushing in that direction.

One example is the IndraDrive digital servo drive platform that Bosch Rexroth unveiled to packagers last October at the Pack Expo Las Vegas show, Throne says. Among other things, the IndraDrive features more intelligence, in the form of an embedded programmable logic controller (PLC) and motion controller. “You can do single-axis, integrated motion and logic control just from the servo drive. You don’t have to use a separate PLC or controller,” Throne notes. Compatibility with IEC 61131 programming languages and communications standards such as Serial Real-time Communication System (SERCOS), as well as CanOpen, DeviceNet, Interbus and Profibus, also contribute to IndraDrive ease of use.

Diagnostics built in

New diagnostic capabilities are built into the IndraDrive. These include predictive maintenance algorithms that enable users to set tolerance bands during drive set-up for operating parameters such as torque, velocity, temperature or machine resonance, and then monitor those parameters during normal operation. These and other parameters can indicate changes in such items as bearing damage, changes in belt tension, gear play, ball screw wear, load variation, increased friction or mechanical stiffness. If a tolerance range is exceeded, the drive can either send a warning to the operator of a need for near-term preventive maintenance, for example, or it can be programmed to shut the machine down, if necessary, Throne observes.

The IndraDrive line also features integrated safety technology that complies with the EN 954-1 (European Norm) Category 3 safety standard. “This means we can really reach a new level of safety to protect the people operating packaging machines,” Throne contends. When safety functions are incorporated at the drive level, the response to safety switches can be quicker—typically in the 1 millisecond range—than when safety is handled through a separate PLC, which may require 20 to 50 milliseconds to respond to a safety switch trigger, he explains.

In general, Throne predicts that “GenNext” packaging equipment will not only make extensive use of servo motors and controls, but will also make better use of technology to assure productivity. Standards-based, intelligent controls will save time and money, while providing simpler operation with diagnostics and tools that can predict problems and show operators how to avoid them. Because GenNext machines will be smarter and easier to use, they will be more dependable, providing greater uptime. Further, the integration of smart components including safety circuitry into drives and controls will lower overall parts costs, while also providing superior worker protection, Throne concludes.

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