The increasing sophistication and complexity of medical devices is compounded by strict regulatory requirements that demand systems that can produce consistent, repeatable results. Automation has been key to achieving these goals while maximizing output and minimizing downtime.
Progressively shorter product life cycles are increasing the demand for highly productive, cost-efficient machines and systems in medical device production environments. Manufacturers must now speed up development and make it even more cost-efficient. At the same time, they must find ways to stand out from their competitors. All of this can only be achieved through exceptional flexibility, the shortest possible time to market, and the highest degree of customer focus. Cost-efficiently developing machine functions that will fully meet customer needs requires an all-new level of freedom and flexibility.
The manufacture of medical devices requires the most sophisticated machining systems available. Just some of the machines used in medical device manufacturing include five-axis computer numerical control (CNC) milling machines, wire electrical discharge machining, and Swiss-type lathes. Connected automation in manufacturing enables a faster and more flexible production process, greater efficiency of material, and reduction of complexity and downtime as device manufacturers strive to speed time-to-market, improve cost efficiencies, and produce safe and effective devices.
In the world of machine automation programming, an ongoing effort to streamline the programming of these systems has led to the development of programming languages and platforms that are more open and easier to use. Innovative, specialized functions offering maximum customer benefit must also keep up with the concurrent entry of new IT technologies into the automation field — like smart devices and modern communication architectures. This increased use of high-level languages and device platforms is opening new integration opportunities for enhancing production workflow automation and flexibility.
And, as Industry 4.0 moves from potential to reality, it's clear that this automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies is highly dependent on connectivity — technically as well as organizationally within the entire value creation process connecting suppliers and manufacturers. Open standards are crucial. Industry 4.0 marks the “beginning of the end” for proprietary interfaces. Industry 4.0 also breaks the wall of existing technology boundaries — and one of the strongest examples is Open Core Engineering, which is building the bridge between automation and IT.
Open Core Engineering combines traditional engineering approaches based on the latest IEC standards with the freedom and flexibility of modern high-level language-based applications and the latest IT technologies. Open Core Engineering creates new possibilities by combining high engineering efficiency in automation with the technologies, tools, and solutions from the IT world. By opening PLC systems to high level programming languages and device platforms, Open Core Engineering enables the implementation of new services and business models for both machine builders and end users. Standards such as IEC 61131, “Programmable Controllers,” and PLCopen have helped improve machine automation programming. PLCopen, for example, is an independent organization that aims to create “efficiency in industrial automation by harmonizing logic, motion, safety, communication, and data exchange.” However, traditional PLC programming languages remain relatively unknown in modern computer science.
Many programmers — including those recently out of school or with backgrounds in computers, networking, and Web applications — are wellversed in standard programming languages like C++, Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), and Java, or mobile platforms such as Android and Apple iOS. When they start working in an industrial environment, the first thing they face is learning to program automation applications using languages that are very specific to industrial controls, most often based on ladder logic, a programming language that represents a program by a graphical diagram based on the circuit diagrams of relay logic hardware.
Many programmers may have innovative ideas for new applications that can be created with higher-level languages commonly used in the IT world. But translating those ideas into applications using traditional PLC programming tools can be difficult and time consuming. For example, if a machine builder wants to offer a customer a data-gathering application that automatically captures and generates Excel reports on specific machine sensor data, a programmer would typically use Microsoft's VBA to write some simple code to capture that data.
However, it can be challenging to have that application communicate with PLC platforms using the VBA language — and if the programmer wants that application to have a mobile app interface that runs on both iOS and Android devices, the challenges multiply. It can be done, but it can take multiple software steps, instead of a simple function.
Bridging the Gap
It's time to bridge the gap with common languages and a platform that more easily opens up industrial controls programming to the wider world of higher level languages. This doesn't mean leaving IEC 61131/PLC languages behind — they are amazing tools that deliver great performance for many of the fundamental automation tasks they were designed for.
A new automation functionality in the form of Open Core Engineering is helping address this need. Open Core Engineering is a new approach to machine automation programming that combines the previously separate environments of PLC platforms and IT programming into one comprehensive software portfolio.
With Open Core Engineering, the PLC core kernel is opened to enable programmers who use IT industry standard development tools such as C++, VBA, and Java to create automation functions and applications, as an alternative to utilizing IEC 61131 and PLCopen programming environments.
Open Core Engineering is based on a portfolio of software tools, function packages, and support for higher-level languages. It helps streamline the automation engineering workflow, from initial configuration to actual production operations. Detailed and time-consuming machine process programming can now be replaced by a simple assignment of parameters.
Although it was previously possible to create automation applications and motion sequences using higher-level languages (instead of PLC/IEC 61131-compliant tools), the process of integrating the programs written in those higher-level languages could be convoluted and difficult to accomplish efficiently. If a machine builder wanted to include a new type of remote diagnostic capability, for example, building that capability into the machine's operating system using standard PLC programming languages might not be easy, and integrating it into the PLC may require added resources such as the purchase of a specialized translation module, revisions to PLC firmware, or support from an outside PLC programming consultant.
For external applications, a library of Open Core Engineering functions utilizes a programming interface (Open Core Interface) to allow programmers to create high-level language-based applications that communicate directly to the core of the PLC. Up to this point, PLC authoring platforms have typically been standards-based proprietary systems, custom-designed by PLC controls providers.
The need to achieve progressively shorter product life cycles is driving the demand for highly productive, cost-efficient machines and systems in medical device production environments. To set themselves apart from competitors, medical device manufacturers often turn to automation to speed up development and make it even more cost-efficient.
Open Core Engineering opens a new range of possibilities for flexibility and productivity. It means more innovation, as software professionals and programmers who are experienced with technologies like mobile platforms and smartphones will not necessarily need to become experts in IEC 61131 PLC programming languages. The result is that machine developers and medical device manufacturers will have a wider range of programming options to improve machine automation performance.
This article was written by Scott Hibbard, Vice President of Technology for Bosch Rexroth Corp., Charlotte, NC. For more information, Click Here.