"Plastics processing demands highly responsive automation"
automotion: Mr. Rienessl, what are some of the unique demands placed on automation systems by the plastics industry?
Thomas Rienessl: Plastics processing technology is extraordinarily diverse. It begins with the wide variety of materials being processed, each of which presents a unique set of properties. This includes not only the well-known thermoplastics polyethylene and polypropylene, but also Duroplast and elastomers as well as a growing list of new composites. This diversity continues with the methods used to process these these materials, which include extruding, injection molding, blow molding, deep-drawing, just to name a few. More and more often, multiple processing steps need to be combined in order to produce complex plastic parts with integrated metal and rubber components. The production of plastic parts is almost fully automated with extremely fast cycle times.
Where do you see B&R's position as an automation supplier for the plastics industry?
For many years now, B&R has been firmly as a market leader. Each year, more than 20,000 plastics processing machines equipped with B&R automation technology are commissioned around the world. We offer solutions for the entire production chain, from the chemical preparation of raw materials to the packaging of finished goods. Our solutions for plastics machines are highly efficient and completely integrated – from dosing and molding to all of the different types of post processing.
What is the secret to B&R's success?
The quality of plastic products depends heavily on the speed and precision with which they are processed – when controlling pressure during injection molding, for example. This is what has made requirements like high-speed signal processing and control precision down to the microsecond develop more quickly in the plastics processing industry than in other sectors. These are precisely the qualities that have made B&R solutions stand out from the very beginning. Our systems are well known for their exceptionally fast sensor-controller communication. B&R is a pioneer in the field of high-speed control technology and develops hardware components that are perfectly tuned to the demands of the market.
What advantages do B&R solutions offer?
Our customers are able to tailor the automation of their machines to each unique application and adapt them as the needs of their market evolve. This is all thanks to B&R's commitment to modular solutions built on an open platform, which allows only the required components to be selected to accomplish the specific goals of each application. Automation systems from B&R encompass every element of today's most sophisticated machine automation technology – from motion control and HMI to integrated safety technology and process automation. We offer energy monitoring and condition monitoring integrated directly on the machine – added value that also serves as a great selling point for machine manufacturers.
Software engineering is playing an increasingly integral role in machine development. How do you support your customers in this area?
We have developed technology packages specifically for plastics processing machines, which we provide as fully programmed, fully tested application modules and function blocks. These packages make even the most complex processing tasks surprisingly easy to implement, while still ensuring compliance with established EUROMAP standards. Preprogrammed software blocks reduce the amount of new development required, help ensure that resources are utilized efficiently and accelerate the commissioning process.
What are some of the technical developments that have shaped this industry?
B&R has played a pioneering role in one of the most significant changes in the recent past – the shift from hydraulic systems to servo-hydraulic pump drives with demand-based pressure generation. In addition to the energy costs that can be saved with this extremely efficient technology, the significantly lower noise levels it produces create a much more pleasant working environment. Another fundamental shift in methodology has taken place in the area of small to mid-sized injection molding machines, where hydraulic systems are being replaced with fully electric drives. With their simplified construction, these machines provide increased precision and are much easier to maintain.
Where do you see things moving at the moment?
We've been seeing the degree of integration rise steadily for many years now. This trend will continue, with more and more processing steps being handled on a single machine. This not only increases a machine's added value and simplifies material logistics, it also means faster cycle times and lower production costs. The second major trend is – as in all areas of machine manufacturing – modularization. Users are being offered a wide variety of models and options to build exactly the machine they need. At the same time, it must be possible to add this optional equipment sometime in the future without jeopardizing the machine manufacturer's valuable technological know-how and trade secrets. We're also seeing growing demand to reduce the amount of energy consumed, not just by each individual machine, but also by production lines in their entirety.
How is B&R responding to these trends?
As the functions within a machine grow more and more intertwined, there is an increasing need for high-speed synchronization of ever greater numbers of axes as well as integration of various robotic systems. From a communication standpoint, this is made possible by the unparalleled performance and hard real-time capabilities of Ethernet POWERLINK. When it comes to development, B&R's software engineering environment allows users to integrate individual robots for all types of motion tasks and manage them as part of the overall project.
What is B&R's approach to modularization?
B&R hardware such as I/O and motion control systems are designed with modularity as a top priority. These devices are available for installation either inside or outside the control cabinet. This approach makes it easier to create modular machine components and even allows corresponding code to be encapsulated in software modules that can easily be added to a program whenever needed. As a result, it is very easy to integrate third-party equipment such as dosing or handling units. Another significant contribution to efficient modularization is made by our integrated safety technology, which can be seamlessly incorporated into the overall machine design. B&R safety solutions are based on the fieldbus-independent openSAFETY protocol. This protocol's extremely fast response times allow manufacturers to design more compact machines, which plays an important role in keeping costs down.
How does B&R help its customers meet demands for lower energy consumption?
The seeds of optimum energy efficiency can be planted during development by ensuring that machine components and motion profiles are perfectly dimensioned. B&R's drive components contribute further by regenerating braking energy via a DC bus circuit so that it can be reused in the drive network or fed back into the power grid. Cold plate mounting technology eliminates the need to install expensive climate-control equipment in order to draw dissipated heat out of the control cabinet.
You mentioned that B&R offers solutions for every processing step. Does that include the process control level?
Absolutely. Our APROL process control system handles all aspects of higher-level automation for production lines and entire plants. We also offer easily integrated complete solutions. Countless users have these solutions in place to monitor and process their operating data and machine conditions. The main focus here is primarily on condition monitoring and energy consumption. Collecting this data allows users to optimize their production processes and make well-informed investment decisions.
What significance will the plastics industry have for B&R going forward?
The plastics industry places extremely high demands on automation, which makes it an important market segment for the cutting-edge solutions B&R offers. At the same time, the technology we've developed has brought about advancements that have increased the demands on automation in their own right. This cycle of progress will continue, and B&R will remain a driving force behind it.