Automobile production lines have little tolerance for errors – after all, an outage of only a few minutes can be very expensive for the manufacturer. That makes it all the more astounding that the operator panels currently being used there are hardly fit to meet this requirement. Together with experts from the automotive industry, B&R has developed an innovative HMI device that offers significant improvements for day-to-day production operations.
The automobile has alway been a highly technical product. Accordingly, the associated development and production processes are extremely resource-intensive. Considering the enormous cost impact of a single production outage, plant availability is a top priority. Particularly in terms of maintenance, technical systems must be efficient to service and recover quickly from any downtime.
In stark contrast to these exacting demands, what you find in the field is a continued reliance on operator stations with outdated designs. Typically, these consist of a standard control cabinet with a built-in panel PC and below it an arrangement of buttons, lights, key switches and an E-stop. These electromechanical controls are hooked up to I/O assemblies mounted on a top-hat rail that communicate with the assigned PLC via a bus controller.
Rather than providing reliable support for the production process, these stations represent a weak link in the chain and are slow to recover from service and maintenance.
Having seen this situation time and again, B&R decided to develop an innovative new operator terminal tailored to the specific needs of automobile production. Development was aided by input from maintenance experts and the real-world experience of users. In automobile production lines, only a few minutes of downtime can rack up tens of thousands in costs, so the most important specification was that the new devices and their components be quick and easy to replace for service.
B&R took a modular approach, dividing the new operator panels into two independent units: a Panel PC and a operating element module. The Panel PC consists of a touch screen display with an industrial PC mounted on the back. The operating element module features an E-stop, key switch and B&R's illuminated ring keys. Safety functions are also integrated.
To access the display or the PC, the service technician simply opens four quick-release captive screw connectors on the front. The cables are easy to disconnect thanks to the generously dimensioned access panel on the back of the housing, the inside of which features an illustration of the wiring layout.
The strict separation of the supply voltage for the Panel PC and operating element module ensures that replacing the panel has no effect on the operating element module. Even the safety circuit from the E-stop to the safety controller remains intact. If it's the operating element module that needs to be replaced, the process is just as simple. It, too, is held in place by four quick-release connectors.
Integration of the Panel PC and operating element module into a sleek profile housing saves valuable space for the operator. With a display size of 15", for example, the outer dimensions of the entire assembly are only 442 x 511 x 86 millimeters. The swing arm flange can be installed on the top or bottom to allow for either pendant or pedestal mounting. This can easily be changed on-site at any time.
Automobiles of a given brand are produced at various sites around the world according to uniform standards. Production workers in each country must be able to easily understand and operate their equipment. That's why the B&R operator panel not only permits labeling in local languages, but also easily customizable colors and symbols.
The user keys are identified with customizable slide-in labels protected by a transparent overlay that prevents wear.
Some applications require additional functions, such as extra control elements or an RFID reader. B&R's operator panel features placeholders – hidden behind the overlay – that can be pressed out of the front panel to add two more electromechanical controls at any time. Wiring the new controls to open I/O terminals is easy thanks to the large access panel.
On the top of the device, a four-channel signal light can be mounted on either the left or right side. Room is left on the other side for the customer to add on equipment, such as a WLAN module or barcode scanner. The internal 24 VDC power supply can also be routed to the exterior.
The service life of production equipment used in the automotive industry can vary greatly. Equipment used to construct the chassis and body has a much shorter lifecycle than the painting equipment, which can be up to ten years or longer. In this time, it is therefore not uncommon for the operator panel to require performance upgrades.
The computing power of the B&R device can be quickly boosted to meet future demands by simply switching out the industrial PC unit on the back of the display. In this way, the modular construction of B&R's solution helps automobile manufacturers operate with greater long-term sustainability.