Over the past ten years, industry has experienced two significant technological booms: one in the advancement of automation technology, and the other in data collection and analysis. Although these technologies are converging to add new value for manufacturers, there are certain limitations that remain — namely, cabling complexity and constraints. Here, Stephen Hayes, managing director of Beckhoff UK, explores how the next generation of transport systems are helping to move the barriers of intelligent automation design.

If we were to reflect on the biggest trends in the industrial space in recent years, most people would immediately cite Industry 4.0 and the greater move towards autonomous connectivity. While this has certainly underpinned many of the developments and challenges faced by industrial businesses and machinery original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) alike, the reality is far more complex and granular.

Data collection and analysis have certainly grown in popularity, with the growing prevalence and affordability of sensors making more processes measurable than ever before. This has coupled with faster communications protocols, such as EtherCAT, to provide real-time insight into processes and products. The availability of this data supports improved efficiency and productivity — arguably the primary motivation behind most automation deployments — but often comes with new cabling requirements and bulkier systems that occupy more space.

Simultaneously, there is a move among machine builders to strive for more streamlined machinery that still offer the most advanced motion capabilities possible. At Beckhoff, we’ve worked with many builders in recent years to provide a system that can make complex automation processes possible in smaller footprints, or even in challenging shapes. It’s one area where the Beckhoff XTS modular linear transport system has proven effective — for example, by allowing L-shaped geometries that can add efficient product handling around obstacles such as other machines or pillars.

However, one challenge has remained in terms of product measurement or processing. The XTS system is designed to quickly and efficiently transport products, with the individualised profile of each mover reducing time loss at each station. As a result of the non-linear product stream, the cabling requirements of monitoring, measurement or processing during operation can become complex or impossible.

To see continued innovation and development in compact machinery that can provide continuous improvements in efficiency, Beckhoff has taken steps to minimise the cabling requirements of modern automation. While we have developed many automation components that now feature one cable technology (OCA) to reduce complexity, for the XTS we have been able to go one step further: no cable technology (NCT).

The new XTS with NCT marks a leap forward for motion systems. Based on the original XTS track and magnetically-driven mover design, the new version features an AT2100 motor module fitted to straight line sections of the XTS line. This wirelessly provides a continuous 75W power transfer to the movers, as well as synchronous data transfer with a communication cycle time of 25 microseconds. Because all the hardware to support NCT is integrated directly into the motor, the lines retain their compact design.

Yet it is the mover itself that makes NCT a sea change in material handling. The NCT movers are mounted with electronics that can be easily connected to sensors and actuators, all of which communicate back to the TwinCAT control platform. With sensors on the movers, products can be monitored or measured in transit rather than at a specific station. For example, temperature of baked products could be measured to confirm that the product was still within an appropriate temperature threshold during handling.

Movers can also be fitted with a range of tools such as motor-driven grippers, suction units and electric lifting magnets. This effectively turns the XTS into a multi-robot system, able to individually sort product flows, realign individual products or pick and place materials. All of this is made possible with NCT and integrated communication to the control system.

The past decade has brought many changes — technological and otherwise — to the industrial sector. On the technology front, we can consider convergence as a driver of many new developments. By embracing technology that allows for greater flexibility and freedom from cabling, we can see the convergence of advanced automation and intelligent data insights accelerate and help more businesses to bolster productivity.