Electrical Power & Protection


PC-based control for film and paper converting machines

February 2023 Electrical Power & Protection

Machine builder Azco from Fairfield, New Jersey, has showed how it is possible to combine machine modules for feeding, cutting and placing flexible materials, thereby minimising engineering effort. An update using Beckhoff’s modular and finely scalable control technology brought Azco’s Building Blocks of Automation approach to a new level.

Flexibility has been central to Azco since its inception. The specialised machine builder serves a range of customers in medical device manufacturing, converting and packaging, as well as machine builders that serve these markets. The company has carved out a niche in feeding, cutting and placing flexible web materials, offering numerous modules that can be integrated easily into the process.

The Building Blocks of Automation system for film and paper converting machines allows customers to select specific modules that mount on a standardised frame called a Smartframe. Customers only need to connect power, Ethernet and air supply to the modules to begin production. Modules can be removed, added or rearranged to adapt to new products, materials or processes. A recent machine for a large end-user includes 17 modules: several unwinds for the material, transducers for tension control as roll diameters change, a product accumulator to switch from intermittent to continuous motion for feeding material before cutting it, a slitter and traversing knife, as well as a lamination station. “To provide this much functionality, most companies would have to design a machine from scratch. We simply selected from our standard components and installed them on a Smartframe,” explains founder and president of the company, Andy Zucaro.

Flexible and scalable control technology

A prerequisite for the Building Blocks of Automation’s inherent flexibility is flexible control technology. The machines need to be able to connect to existing production lines or other equipment, which means communicating with a wide variety of fieldbuses. In addition, the control components must sit inside a compact enclosure along the Smartframe. “With the Building Blocks of Automation, we preprogram and preconfigure as many pieces as possible, so we don’t have to redesign and retest later,” says Azco controls engineer, Krunal Padmani. “We want to develop our programs using function blocks and subroutines assigned to different subassemblies so that operators can easily turn them on or off from the HMI.” However, the company’s legacy PLC and networking technologies struggled to provide adequate capabilities to switch out modules. During this time, Zucaro recalled a PC-based controller from Beckhoff, which he had seen when attending Hannover Messe 2018. “The integrated control philosophy offered a perfect fit for the Building Blocks of Automation, with a similarly flexible and modular design,” says Beckhoff applications engineer, Matt Kleven.

The broad I/O portfolio from Beckhoff for the powerful and flexible EtherCAT fieldbus system provides a wide range of networking options. The Hot Connect feature of EtherCAT also helps to make the Building Blocks of Automation concept work; engineers simply plug in any module to a CU1128 EtherCAT hub via standard RJ45 sockets. Hot Connect also allows the remaining modules to continue working when one piece is removed.

The electrical cabinets feature several EtherCAT components. “The output terminal supports pulse train functionality up to 24 V DC, which is ideal to operate several third party DC servomotors,” Padmani explains. Along with a new implementation of integrated functional safety via TwinSAFE Terminals, Azco uses the EK1100 EtherCAT Coupler to connect the I/O segments to the machine controller.

For module control, CP6606 Economy Panel PCs are used. These space saving devices combine a 7 inch touchscreen and ARM Cortex-A8 processor, a 1 GHz clock speed and 1 GB DDR3 RAM. TwinCAT 3 automation software allows engineers to easily reuse code for each new machine, further modularising the design.

A clear migration path for the future

“We use the PLC, HMI and motion control functionality in TwinCAT, but in the future we plan to offer customers additional communication options, like OPC UA, MQTT and AMQP,” says Padmani. “The collaboration between Beckhoff and Azco has only just begun. As customer specifications develop, the flexibility of the Beckhoff system will allow Azco to expand into areas such as IIoT, remote I/O or plug-and-play solutions to add new building blocks.”


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