Computerized controls have brought a lot of benefits to the plastics processing industry. But the trouble is, there are a whole lot of different types—different control platforms and human-machine interfaces (HMIs). And, when different pieces of equipment have to work together—like the different pieces of auxiliary equipment that support plastics processing lines—it doesn’t make too much sense to have controls that all look or operate differently.
That’s why, in a first for the plastics industry, Conair is introducing a common, or universal, control platform and human-machine interface (HMI) for all of our PLC-controlled auxiliary equipment. As it rolls out over the next year or so, this approach will give users the same look and feel regardless of the type of equipment they are operating.
What products share Conair’s “common control”?
This common control and HMI are already built into the new SmartFLX™ material handling system, introduced in January 2021, so everything that operates on that platform, including Wave Conveying, our new AutoWave™ phase-selection feature, as well as Conair’s new RFID-proofed resin-selection system share the same look and feel.
The common control and HMI are also available on Conair blenders, temperature control units, and truck-fill line-proofing systems. Dryers will get the common control update in Q3, with chillers and other products to follow.
Why did Conair build a common control now?
Conair adopted a common control and HMI for several reasons.
First, we heard from many customers that employee turnover was a major issue and the training required to get new employees “up to speed” on different equipment and controls was really hampering them.
Second, managing evolving control technologies is a huge challenge for everyone—including Conair—and moving to a common platform minimizes the risk and effort required.
Finally, we’ve heard from a lot of customers and industry partners that they’re ready to embrace Industry 4.0, and they’re looking for easier solutions.
The fact that this approach makes sense didn’t necessarily make it easy to do. Developing and realizing a common control platform for Conair auxiliaries has taken our engineering team the better part of two years.
What were the design goals for the common control?
There are two major components of the common control: the HMI or user interface design, and the hardware platform itself – the PLC, the touchscreen and all the associated I/O and communications.
When we were designing the new HMI, we wanted to:
- Offer a common user experience to help our customers reduce training time and increase operator efficiency,
- Make it more intuitive for users across all product lines, and
- Make the most important information and settings visible immediately, as soon as the user walks up to a machine.
To accomplish those goals, we worked with an industrial design firm to create new control architecture from the ground up. We interviewed customers, service personnel, partners, engineers, and other key stakeholders to learn what they needed, what was most important, and what they liked and disliked about previous controls.
Then we built, tested (and tossed out!) many iterations of prototype HMIs until we found one that met all of the many user, engineering, and “best practice” requirements, such as:
- Maintaining similar input, display, text, color, and navigation conventions across control menus, data displays, set-point entry fields, alarm/warning notifications and icons.
- Meeting minimum “button” and text size requirements across different displays – from 4.3 inches up to 7, 10, or even 15 inches.
- Managing the different amounts of information needed to operate different pieces of equipment. For example, the HMI on a blender control has a more complex menu structure, handles more inputs, and displays a lot more information than the HMI on a TCU.
What are the common features of Conair’s new common control?
As you can see on all the different touchscreen control screens, the HMI design offers common elements in common positions, so that they are, essentially, identical across display sizes and different types of equipment. Compare the similarity in organization, presentation, text, icons, and menu structures across three different auxiliary equipment types:
Behind the HMI is common control hardware, all built on the same, scalable B & R Automation platform, whose flexibility gives each machine control application the I/O, processing power, memory, display capabilities, etc. that it needs. All control programming uses the same software, which minimizes the risk associated with feature changes and upgrades. All of the I/O in the common control is interchangeable.
Maintenance or service personnel (yours or ours) can solve almost any service, parts, maintenance, troubleshooting, or repair challenges by learning and mastering a single control platform.
Will the common control support Industry 4.0?
Going forward, if the future is in Industry 4.0, you can also rest assured. Our common control platform – and all of the touchscreen HMIs and auxiliaries that rely on it – will support both OPC-UA (the leading Industry 4.0 communications protocol) and legacy control protocols like MODBUS. So, you will be able to:
- adopt Industry 4.0 on your own timeline, with the knowledge that your older equipment will continue to function properly.
- see and operate any common machine control screen remotely via virtual network connection (VNC)
- connect to Conair SmartServices, which enables powerful reporting, monitoring and remote machine control using the same common interface explained here.
- integrate high speed, long-distance machine networking with plug-in fiber-optic modules where necessary.
So, if you’re hoping to simplify equipment training requirements, reduce the risks associated with changing control technology and new investments, and take a step forward toward future adoption of Industry 4.0, Conair may well have the common auxiliary equipment control platform that you’ve been looking for.