In a recent interview with Brendan O’Dowd, general manager for industrial automation at Analog Devices, we got the chance to hear about new devices — even to the chip level — that allow better integration of robotics into motion designs and machines for automation.
Eitel • Design World: We cover motion control as it relates to motors, power transmission, and automation. What new developments in these areas do you consider most significant?
O’Dowd • Analog Devices: Our company has been around for 50 years. For some time, we’ve investigated the systems into which our parts go … to create better solutions for these designs. For example, sometimes engineers asked us to reduce power consumption. Usually there was something specific prompting the question — such as thermal dissipation being an issue. We learned that it’s not always the posed question needing addressing — but something related to it. So we began using technology and our silicon experience to solve problems in new ways.
On connected motion and servos and drives, several parts are involved in the sequencing. There’s the processor — the system brains — and the PWMs driving the signal … as well as the isolated gate drivers (IGBTs) … and the measurement of the currents returning — for a complete control-loop algorithm. We’ve worked to optimize many of these.
But from a system point of view, communications have become more critical — and deterministic Ethernet is increasingly a part of these communications. Even in factory control and process automation where 4-to-20 mA and fieldbuses have reigned for a long time, Industrial Ethernet is coming to the floor … in an array of standards.
Eitel • Design World: Our industry sees a lot of proprietary standards — all good for certain things — but not always able to work together.
O’Dowd • Analog Devices: They’ve been successful … but now as we need higher speeds, there’s migration towards unified standards — with the TSN collection of standards currently leading. In fact, nine or 10 different IEEE standards are part of that TSN bundle. They cover things such as ingress policing (for the prevention of traffic overload conditions on a network) and other network functions. We expect TSN standards to supersede most existing industrial Ethernet protocols.
Eitel • Design World: But it’s unlikely that those invested in existing industrial Ethernet networks will abandon what they use … and those networks’ unique benefits — especially for real-time functionality.
O’Dowd • Analog Devices: Yes — and with the growing tide of robots and especially cobots, real-time functionality is absolutely critical. So we’ve invested in multi-protocol solutions … because it’s okay if you’re Siemens, Rockwell, or Beckhoff with all your equipment the one standard you sponsored — but many smaller players must deal with these different standards. For them, it means unless they’re designing for an all-Siemens factory or an all-Beckhoff factory, they must support multiple standards.
Eitel • Design World: What kinds of products support all major protocols?
O’Dowd • Analog Devices: Some of our Ethernet switch ICs have built-in TSN features to support several IEEE TSN standards. We aim to offer compatible updates to next-generation TSN as those standards are finalized. As any latency-controlled Ethernet standard, TSN standards allow synchronization of the Media Access Control (MAC) physical interface on different boards at different parts of the system.
For a drive, motor, or robot, actual motion is controlled by PWM output. The time synchronization then has to make its way through the communications stack and through the motion-control stack and out to the PWM output — to drive the actual gate drivers to time the motor. So many view TSN from the Ethernet point of view — and focus on getting that synchronization down to the boards … a significant problem itself. But they leave the rest of the problem to individual designers.
That’s why we bring motor-control-and motion-control signal-change domain expertise to our Ethernet work. We aim to deliver system solutions, and not just pieces of silicon.
The key point is when a semiconductor supplier can apply domain expertise to silicon design, it is possible to solve wider system-level problems.
Eitel • Design World: How does that relate to robots and the new wave of cobots in automation?
O’Dowd • Analog Devices: The latter are about sensing and understanding the environment … with many offerings today being very much in the analog domain. But using technologies borrowed from other fields — such as radar and LiDAR from automotive, for example— will come to expand the array of system-level domains in robotics. People often ask why we’re acting more as system suppliers and not acting as a traditional component supplier. Well, it’s because we’re working to be relevant at higher levels — by leveraging our domain-level expertise and newer expertise in robots, motor control, condition monitoring, and Ethernet.
Eitel • Design World: Just to be clear for engineers who don’t usually think of design work at the chip level — would you explain what you mean by domain in this context?
O’Dowd • Analog Devices: Sure. There are IC technology silos — for A-to-D converters, performance amplifiers, processors, and power supplies, for example. We also have experience silos for automotive, motor control, and process control. Some we developed internally from work with customers on applications. Some we’ve hired into the team — for example, in robotics and motor control design — to get views that are different from a silicon designer’s view.
The challenge is that silicon designers think in terms of what they know — transistors and fab processes and so forth — whereas motor-control designers think in terms of PWMs, and current feedback, and control loops. So having them work together for weeks, months, and years spurs richer conversations and solutions that wouldn’t have been created otherwise. That’s what constitutes domain-level design.
Eitel • Design World: You’ve been gracious in not mentioning specific Analog Devices products for such flexible functionality. But may I ask what those are?
O’Dowd • Analog Devices: Our single piece of silicon — the fido5000 REM Switch IC — is configurable with a binary download we supply.
That means engineers can setup for an EtherCAT version of a field instrument … or a PROFINET version … or Ethernet IP version … and it’s the same hardware, just with a different binary download. With less designing and debugging, that in turn reduces time to market and models in inventory … and boosts assurance that what gets shipped to the end user will be the right version, as it’s just a software image.
In this way, the fido5000 REM Switch IC is a flexible part — with TSN protocols ready to go and pin-for-pin replacement compatibility.
Eitel • Design World: Many proprietary offerings provide real-time functionality. Does your new offering adhere to IEEE standards for that?
O’Dowd • Analog Devices: Our Deterministic Ethernet Technology Group (DET) director Jordan Woods also represents us on the standards bodies — so we can sell standards-ready silicon from day one. Even when standards aren’t finalized, we have customers evaluating our ICs’ functionalities to deliver on what’s coming.
Eitel • Design World: What in the motion and robotics markets are driving innovation?
O’Dowd • Analog Devices: Motor control and robotics are driving the need for higher bandwidth. Some in factory automation resist the idea of needing GbE — accepting 100 Mb as enough. But they’ll need higher bandwidth in the future. Even in residential homes, the number of Internet-connected things has risen dramatically. Factories are no different — and high-bandwidth items such as cameras and radar (for time-of-flight measurement and positioning, for example) are leading the charge. Such technologies are key to knowing where people are around a robot, for example. Having a work cell’s cameras execute auto recognition on workpieces … or artificial intelligence — these too demand big bandwidth.
What’s more, some design engineers are frustrated with accommodating lots of standards.
These two things are driving the trend towards standard TSN. So I predict the big players will continue to support legacy equipment with proprietary standards — even while next-generation standards are still being worked out. Rest assured we’ll be there to support the latest solutions.
Eitel • Design World: Do you offer software for configuring your chips?
O’Dowd • Analog Devices: We sell preconfigured chips — and supply the binary … already certified with the standards body — so the chips are ultimately pre-certified to EtherCAT or PROFINET or to the applicable standard. That minimizes work for the engineer. But higher-level software — that lets engineers configure networks — that’s not something we offer yet. At the moment these offerings are tied to more integrated designs.
Eitel • Design World: On the topic of more connectivity between motor-driven machine axes and robotics — what’s particularly innovative here?
O’Dowd • Analog Devices: We’ve supplied lots of I/O for PLC-based control … analog out and in … digital out and in. We see such controls moving to higher data rates as well — and I think TSN standards will become very prevalent here. But at Ethernet IP becomes standard in the factory everywhere — and not just in parts — it will replace some 4-to-20 mA and fieldbus connections. So while motor controls and drives will spur higher bandwidth, maybe not factory automation but certainly process control — including oil and gas and pharmaceutical industries — will increase use of lower bandwidth over longer distances.
Eitel • Design World: Another area of interest is network security.
O’Dowd • Analog Devices: Standard approaches to using PCs and IT infrastructure with firewalls and certificates doesn’t work well at the factory level. After all, firewalls between machines could quickly bring down production. So configuration and setup must be well engineered. Our security company subsidiary Sypris Solutions works on this for us.
Eitel • Design World: How does this relate to another connectivity-enabled function — that of condition-based machine health monitoring?
O’Dowd • Analog Devices: We’ve been doing MEMs vibration sensors for 25 or 30 years … with most airbags in the world controlled with our MEM sensors, for example … and first-generation Nintendo Wii consoles as well. With our motion and vibration-sensing expertise, now we’ve begun exploring ways to use MEM sensors in motor control … as a lot of information can be gained from monitoring motors over time to understand their states — as bearings wear or loads begin to have issues, for example. We’ve all heard stories of that one guy who can hear problems or lay his hands on a machine to detect issues — or skillfully use probes for measuring various characteristics.
In short, there is now a way to have this level of monitoring using technology rather than a highly skilled “machine whisperer” …