Gordon Moore articulated his all-famous Moore’s Law surrounding computing performance over 50 years ago, and its no less than a wonder that the statement has stood the test of time. The semiconductor industry continues to enhance computing power into more confined spaces at shockingly lower prices, providing consumers with incredible number of benefits.
The Glove Unique Reprocessing Unit (GURU) built by Pentamaster, an automation provider in Malaysia is a perfect case study for observing such advancements in technology. In two of the seven workstations, the GURU system has allowed the company to halve the number of industrial PCs driving the machine-vision modules.
The first of the machine-vision modules is used for processing image data from four cameras so that the gloves can be positioned properly in the automatic loading station. After chemical & thermal decontamination, the second machine-vision module receives data from four cameras, checking the gloves for cosmetic defects. The remaining three workstations are used for finding pinholes and robotically packaging gloves that have passed inspection, shredding the ones that haven’t.
In order to keep up with the evolving capabilities of machine-vision technology, Pentamaster found it necessary to upgrade the processors in the system. Executing sophisticated algorithms on chunks of data required considerable processing power. To get at par with these efficiencies, Pentamaster replaced the primitive processors in the vision modules with multicore ones that had integrated graphics handling capabilities. These processors were Intel’s 3D tri-gate Core i5 ones that were able to handle data much more effectively. In addition, these processors were backed by hyper-threading technology that enabled them to use virtual cores for handling two tasks simultaneously.
These enhancements brought great results and reduced the inspection cycle to less than 2 seconds, and boosted the inspection rate to 900 gloves per hour from the previous 600. The greater processing power also allowed Pentamaster to decommission two vision modules as they were no longer needed, simplifying administration & maintenance while putting a check on energy consumption as well.
Embedded Remote Diagnostics
The Pentamaster design team is looking for even more improvements they can make such as adding more testing routines, and quite recently, Active Management Technology that would allow the company to remotely manage, repair & protect their hardware.
This technology would allow operators & technicians to access the outlying embedded systems remotely from their computers and remote issues such as those with the firmware and at the root-level. AMT also allows users to install software through remote channels, automatically taking care of headaches caused by regular patching & detection/removal of malware.
One very beneficial aspect of this technology is that it allows the technician to diagnose problems remotely even if the embedded systems device is off. This is possible as AMT works below the operating system layer, something that differentiates it from traditionally used remote management software. This comes in handy in industrial PCs where SCADA applications have to be run. Regular updates related to security & performance issues are essential in an industrial environment, something that’s possible centrally using this technology.
Modular Machine Design
Remote diagnostics and consolidation of computing systems in industries isn’t the only reason for the cutthroat success for embedded technology in recent years. Another major reason is the general trend among machine builders to carry out the design & assembly process in a modular manner. Assembling products using pre-existing, off-the-shelf products is easier compared to building it from scratch. The complexity of machines is increasing at a rapid pace, and it is no longer feasible for companies to tailor-build their systems.
Today, customers have several key demands they put in front of the systems integrator:
- More energy efficient
- Faster throughput
- Support preemptive maintenance
- Communication with other machinery & inventory management systems
Embedded technologies can help builders meet these demands by providing modular components such as inverters, sensors and drives along with intelligent HMIs. These components are controlled & sequenced through an industrial PC or a PLC, and rely on an ethernet network that servers as the architectural backbone of the system.
Integration has also tightened under the banner of embedded technologies. One important example is the integration of dual-core ARM processors with FGPAs from Xilinx & Altera. This has allowed automation vendors to build highly integrated multi-axis drives at affordable prices, which in turn allows the control of several machines to occur in a cost-efficient & synchronized manner.
No FPGAs Needed
The dedicated, fixed function ASICs or FPGAs, which would’ve been otherwise used for embedding the protocols for linking to low-latency industrial networks has been eliminated by Industrial Communication Sub-System (ICSS), put in by Texas Instruments into its Sitara family of ARM Cortex-A processors.
Pairing of FPGA with general purpose processors has been a common practice for implementation of communication protocols or low-latency IO expansion, whenever those features are absent on the host processor. Today, on-chip, low-latency accelerators have been designed & implemented, reducing the cost & complexity of the system & development time.
The presence of ICSS also brings in modularity to the implementation of communication protocols. Vendors often find it difficult to uphold the highest levels of communication standards while following a time & cost constrained approach. ICSS solves this problem by putting a blanket over several protocols and presenting a unified module that can be pre-certified.
Juggling Operating Systems
The integration of intelligent components within a system and consolidation of processing power has been supplemented by embedded technology in yet another manner. Real-time operating systems follow the IEC 61131 standard for PLCs for running specialized graphical & textual machine-control languages. Compliance with IEC 61508 is necessary for ensuring SIL 3 standards.
Virtualization has proved as a gamechanger and flipped the entire industry upside-down. It is now possible to run multiple instance of multiple operating systems on a single machine. Vendors are rapidly developing schemes for addressing concerns such as latency & reliability. The procurement & maintenance of multiple machines for every single application is no longer necessary, and one can now utilize the complete potential of a single powerful machine rather than running multiple machines in an under-utilized manner.
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