Drives and Controls Magazine
Move away from control cabinets gathers pace
Published:  07 February, 2023

One automation trend that has been gaining traction in recent years is the move towards control systems that use rugged, decentralised, modular components instead of traditional centralised control cabinets. At the recent SPS exhibition in Germany, there were several companies were showing the latest examples of this trend in practice.

One is Beckhoff’s MX-System, launched as a concept in 2021, and now a reality according to managing director, Hans Beckhoff. The company is continuing to expand the system, adding items such as preconfigured cables. It claims that the technology can be used to create control systems in hours rather than days, taking about a fifth of the time needed to construct comparable cabinet-based systems. The system can also save space, boost productivity and throughput, and reduce the need for maintenance, according to Beckhoff.

Another company promoting the cabinet-free approach at SPS was the Israeli-headquartered motion control a and servo supplier, STXI Motion. It claims that its decentralised products – which include integrated closed-loop stepper systems, including a new Nema 17 EtherCat model, and integrated servomotors with 60 or 80mm flanges – offer design flexibility, ease of use and operation, shorter build times and smaller footprints.

A third contender is Murrelektronik which describes its Vario-X system as “the first completely decentralised automation platform that brings devices into the field without control cabinets”. Combined with a digital twins, it is said to save time and money at all phases of a project – planning, installation operation, and servicing.

Vario-X brings sensors and actuators into the control environment and ensures reliable voltage, signal, data management and integration of decentralised servodrives. At the heart of the system are IP65-rated waterproof and dustproof modules including power supplies, controls, disconnect switches, safety components and I/O connections. They can be assembled side-by-side on a rugged backplane with integrated mechanical mounting. Equipped with multicore CPUs, the system can be integrated with higher-level industrial Ethernet networks to create an open control platform.

Installation and cabling is plug-and-play using M12 and MQ15 connectors, eliminating wiring errors and cutting assembly times as well as laborious cabinet work such as stripping wires, and labelling and grounding components. Stations can be distributed around a machine and connected to each other – for example, adding power supplies to support local servomotors. Remote IO modules can be connected to the system to process and control sensors and actuators without needing a backplane or cabinet I/O.

“Vario-X offers 100% decentralised, cabinet-free automation,” says Olaf Prein, head of Murrelektronik’s global automation business. “Our automation platform ensures modular and transparent processes, higher added value in all areas of a company and consequently more competitiveness and profitability in machine and plant engineering. Thanks to the integrated installation concept alone, Vario-X shortens a machine installation by around 40%.”

Murr says its decentralised automation platform can cut machine installation times by 40%

The associated digital twins can provide 1:1 images of virtual systems containing all of the functions and parameters of the physical system, before a component has been ordered or assembled. Murrelektronik has created kinematic software which simulates a machine’s movements and processes. The same software is then run to control the real machine. The digital system can be inserted into the manufacturing process using augmented reality (AR) on a mobile phone or tablet, allowing all movements and functions to be viewed virtually while the machine is being assembled or is in operation.

“This reduces assembly and commissioning time, because many problems that might only be discovered during assembly do not occur,” Prein explains. The digital twin can also be used by assemblers as a “3D blueprint” – for example, via an AR app or virtual reality glasses. This is often much faster than understanding a 2D plan.

“We are providing the answer to the pressing questions and challenges of production, plant and installation planning in automation technology,” Prein argues. “Vario-X helps to avoid ‘silo-driven’ planning and to break up static planning processes.”

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