Industrial machines becoming more complex, and more straightforward


The complexity and precision of advanced industrial machines are a great challenge for developers and manufacturers. Machines are becoming increasingly more autonomous and are assigned with increasingly more varying functions. On the other hand, the controls and the interfaces with other machines are becoming more straightforward due to standardization. A modular approach during development also reinforces simplification. Technolution will reveal more about this working method.

Article from Mechatronica & Machinebouw #4, June 2018

What makes a machine complex? Essentially, all electronic devices have a high level of complexity. Not many people know how a television works, for instance. The modern-day PC is also a highly advanced device. Nonetheless, twelve-year-old students can successfully assemble a custom PC with loose components. Complexity is a relative concept. The different parts of the PC, like the central processor, graphics card and the memory, are complicated to design and produce, but the interfaces are mostly completely standardized. The motherboard has a standard socket for the processor, standardized slots for the memory and USB ports for peripheral equipment. When a new part or device is connected, it is automatically recognized and configured by the system: plug & play.
Industrial machines have yet to reach such strong standardization, but there is a definite trend in that direction. A lot of work is being done on the development of widely supported standards. Large industrial suppliers already support various open interface standards and are looking for more collaboration. This is required in order to take the next step into the future (Industry 4.0). In addition to clearly defined interfaces, a well-designed modular system approach is necessary. The EU's research program I-Mech (see textbox) is an example of this trend.

I-Mech is working on plug & produce modules
I-Mech is a European program in which over thirty knowledge centers and businesses, including Technolution, develop plug & produce building blocks for industrial applications. It focuses on motion operating systems in five pilot projects. The innovations are aligned with existing architecture standards for maximal applicability. The emphasis is on the interchangeability of the modules and the standardization of interfaces.
One of the I-Mech pilots develops building blocks that are validated in a steel transport conveyor for industrial inkjet printers; a product of Sioux CCM. The conveyor transports all possible types of printable media: from paper to foil, from wood to glass. The medium is being transported with an accuracy of less than ten micrometers. This allows industrial inkjet printers to print high-resolution prints with multiple printer heads in one run. Among other things, building blocks are being developed for high-speed visual checks, data processing and innovative control algorithms. Quick transport, smart visual position sensors and low maintenance costs are the underlying goals.
A different I-Mech pilot is working on wireless sensors in order to monitor the milling heads of extremely accurate CNC milling machines by Nicolás Correa. The pilot will result in wireless temperature probes, proximity sensors, vibration sensors based on accelerometers and embedded electronics for processing data. The goals are, among others: improving performance, less downtime and longer lifespan of the milling heads.

Integration and autonomy

Increasingly more varying functions are being integrated into modern-day machines. Industrial printers of photo albums are a good example. These machines are made for mass production, but each printed photo album is unique. A customer can choose the photos for the album on his/her PC at home, make a page lay-out, add text, select the type of paper and choose the cover. All these different photo albums need to be produced by the same industrial printer. Modern printers do not only print the albums, but also check the quality, monitor their own maintenance and predict any failures of parts so they can be replaced before they stop working. For these additional tasks, the machine requires more integrated intelligence.

The example of the industrial printer is a good indicator for developments in the near future. Complex machines like these will become a more standardized link in integrated chains due to well-defined functional modules and standardized interfaces. On-demand mass production of custom products is becoming the norm. Failure is prevented by preemptive maintenance and replacement of modules. Networks of sensors and actuators provide insight into all the processes; from production to quality control and maintenance. Automatic configuration and calibration, high-quality data analysis and artificial intelligence are taking industrial devices to a higher level while changing the role of the human from machine operator to process manager.

The increasing complexity, integration of functionalities and increasing autonomy demand that the development of new machines requires a well-thought out approach. Most producers cannot manage to design all the components themselves. That is why there are usually several parties involved in the development of complex devices. With our expertise in the field of system integration, Technolution is often one of the consulted parties. During development, two aspects are crucial: understanding and boundaries. A profound understanding of the machine and boundaries within the modules allow for better controllability of the complexity.

Step 1: understanding

The client has a concept for a new machine. The first challenge for the involved developers is to have a proper understanding of this concept. What are the machine's tasks? Within which context and preconditions does the machine need to function? Who are the end users and which interfaces do they require? Which technical and functional connections are there with other machines? Choosing the architecture can only truly begin when these and other questions have been answered clearly.

Mutual trust and good communication between the client and the developing partners are essential in order to make this phase a great success. The client wants to meet the demands and preferences of its own customers as well as possible with the new machine. If he wants to make the most of the expertise of his partners, he will have to reveal some of his trade secrets. Only then can developing partners have sufficient understanding to clearly define the specifications of the new machine.

Step 2: boundaries

When all specifications have been determined, it is crucial to properly define the different modules within a machine. These boundaries serve multiple purposes. Since the functionalities of the machine are divided between various modules, it allows for a clearly defined image of the construction of the machine, the coherency between various modules and the required level of integration. In addition, it is essential for all parties involved to know who is responsible for which module.

Taking future standardization and re-usability of machine components into consideration, it is important to aim for self-contained modules as much as possible. These modules have everything they could possibly need in order to functions already integrated. The interfaces between modules within a machine need to be as simple as possible and preferably created with existing connection protocols, like Ethernet. The modules must be individually submitted to tests and be able to function based on simple instructions. This working method results in modules that are reusable and interchangeable. New and replacement modules can also be dropped in easily and functionalities can be added at a later stage.

When the modules are developed by different parties, the mutual interaction deserves special attention. A technological choice within one of the modules can have great consequences for other modules. Again: proper coordination and collaboration between the involved parties are an absolute must. Even within the individual modules, clearly set boundaries are necessary between software, programmable logic, electronics and mechanics. Keeping the balance between all elements involved in the new machine is a complex process that requires all the parties (not just the client) to take responsibility.


Eventually, the aforementioned approach will result in more complex machines that mostly consist of standardized functional, intelligent modules. Similar to the plug & play components of a custom PC, they will be connected through properly defined and simple standard interfaces.

Obviously, designing all these elements still requires a lot of technological expertise from the developers and their partners. However, the development process can be managed more easily by standardizing functional modules and interfaces between modules, machines, and users.


Edwin Hakkennes is an architect, Marc van Eert is an applied scientist and Anton Hoexum is corporate writer with Technolution.

Editing: Alexander Pil



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