11 Challenges machine designers face

11 Challenges machine designers face

imageBy Evan Artis


Machine design has seen rapid developments in recent years, especially with increasing popularity of smart machines. These advances include the development of intelligent components, better communication between operator and machine, automated machine decisions and more. Smart machines are more efficient, with interconnected components expanding the capabilities of machines to communicate with and respond to their surroundings like never before.

Smart machines provide a number of benefits including increased fuel efficiency, better performance and greater productivity. However, they can also present new challenges to machine designers as they learn the ins-and-outs of programming and maintaining smart components and machines.

  1. Familiarity with electrical systems. Many people experience a learning curve when it comes to specifying smart components for new applications. It is important to familiarize customers with the capabilities of electronics so they feel comfortable integrating them into their machines.
  2. Making system components work together. A primary benefit of using smart equipment is the ability to network multiple electronic components together, establishing inter-device communication that can enable significant productivity gains. However, not all components in an application will be "smart" equipment. Depending on individual application requirements, machine designers may face the challenge of integrating electronic systems with traditional mechanical components (e.g. hydraulic pumps, motors and valves) that in many cases lack sophisticated smarts.
  3. Safety. This is a growing concern for machine designers. Smart machines can improve operator safety via remote machine control. This technology allows machine operators to put significant distance between themselves and any sort of load or actuation at the machine. This technology is not limited to new machine platforms, as existing machines can be retrofitted to benefit from these technologies. Ultimately, machine designers must decide whether the additional expense can be justified based on the requirements of a given application and the potential danger to an operator with respect to their proximity to movements or loads.
  4. Updating programs or software. Smart equipment runs on software, which at some point after machine commissioning may need to be updated. Managing these updates can be a challenge. In the past, maintaining software and applications required owners or operators to be deployed in the field and manually connect their laptop to the machine in order to make these updates. Telematics technology enables remote updates via communication protocols like WiFi and Bluetooth, in addition to cell networks and satellites. Besides its obvious convenience, remote programming technology has the potential to provide significant savings in terms of both time and money.
  5. Communicating over the cloud. Telematics technology also makes it possible for machines to share diagnostics, prognostics, geolocation, and other information about components or operations instantly to the cloud using WiFi, cellular networks and satellites. When building the machine, designers must decide if this level of connectivity is necessary for each machine and its application. They need to consider whether machine operation would be more efficient, productive or safe with telematics.
  6. Choosing the level of sophistication of electronic controls. Machine designers now have to determine what type of electronic controls a machine requires. Does it need a more complex, and potentially more expensive closed loop system, or could it still benefit from a less sophisticated open loop system that lacks active feedback and control, but is also less expensive? For example, fan drive systems can be operated with both open loop or closed loop control. With open loop control, the fan can be configured to simply turn on and off at predetermined times, regardless of the temperature of the hydraulic system. In a closed loop system, temperature sensors in the circuit dictate when the fan comes on. This is more efficient because the fan only runs when needed. However, machine designers must consider these benefits as compared to the extra work and cost of programming and maintaining sensors and hardware in a closed loop system.
  7. Manufacturing footprint. Just as they do with other components, machine designers need to consider the global reach of their electronics vendor. Once a machine is in production, it's necessary to select a vendor that can source anywhere in the world. This way, parts can be easily and quickly supplied if there is an issue or repair that needs to be made.
  8. Level of support. This is also critical when selecting an electronics vendor. Machine designers need to consider whether or not a vendor will support them during application development. It's the difference between a vendor who just sells hardware, and one who supports software development as well. Since many end users are still getting comfortable with electronics, a vendor who can provide consultation and support during commissioning of smart systems can be a great added value.
  9. Selecting centralized or decentralized electronic controls. With centralized controls, all communication and control is routed through a single control source. This is in contrast to the decentralized control available on hardware with embedded electronics. There are benefits to both approaches. The former can facilitate simpler software development, while the latter can allow for streamlined wiring which can translate to reduced installation effort and cost. The size of a machine can also play a role in this decision. Some machines utilize both centralized and decentralized control based on the work function(s) involved with the application.
  10. Power requirements. Power requirements will dictate what type of hardware will be used in a given application. During the front end of machine development, it's important for designers to have a clear understanding of how much power will be required for electronic components.
  11. Software development requirements: Finally, machine designers' vendor selection will determine how much they need to depend on that vendor for software design. In contrast to propriety software development tools, open platform solutions provide machine designers with the flexibility they need to choose the software and hardware the best meets their needs, without high exit barriers that lock them in with a single vendor.

Machine designers can reduce many of the challenges associated with commissioning electronic machine control by having a clear idea of their goals and how the machine will be used. This applies to both hardware and software.

Machine designers may experience challenges with smart machines and systems while they get up to speed on new technology. As more designers realized the value of smart machines – improved connectivity, individual system performance, enhanced product life cycle, faster and smarter service, proactive maintenance and diagnostics – these challenges will seem far less daunting.