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Factory Automation Relies on Ability to Communicate

From a remote room, observers monitor the fabrication of gear boxes. The conveyor brings pallets of raw materials to the robots. The robots load and unload mills and lathes and assemble the fabricated parts. They screw the boxes together and deposit them back on the conveyor. The conveyor routes the gear boxes to the finished goods station. The observers break out in applause.

The factory is a commercial teaching facility in the Midwest. The observers are university graduates and factory workers who are getting their first lesson in automation. The facility's director is responsible for making all the devices talk to each other.

"We've been at this for years," says the director. "So when somebody asks me about how we fit onto the 'Information Super Highway,' I just have to tell them we've been commuting for quite a while. It doesn't matter if the students are in Michigan or Alaska -- they still keep track of material-on-hand and finished goods and they still learn how to put one of these (factories) together."

The firm wanted to use standard equipment so their students could immediately apply what they learn to the real world. That's why they picked PCs and Quadron cards for communications. "The young ones just want to see what it does, but the older students want to know how it works, so we have to use equipment that's current and readily available."

The director will tell you that they didn't stop with the basics. "Making PCs talk to robots and send instructions to lathes and collect production data all at once can be tricky, so we show them how to use advanced programming tools as well." With more than ten years of experience programming processors in assembler, the director was glad to come across programming tools from Quadron Corporation.

"From a programmer's perspective, the best thing about using Quadron's qCF is the time it saves and the mistakes you don't make. qCF provides a full C application program interface to the ARTIC operating system. When I write one command in qCF, I don't have to write ten or twelve low-level commands. So, I can write a lot more a lot faster and my chances of introducing bugs goes way, way down."

Not only is the firm increasing programmer productivity using Quadron products, they're boosting communications hardware productivity as well. Where they used to use serial cards to talk to shop floor devices one at a time, they now use cards with Quadron's port expander software, qCOM. The additional CPU on the card and the ability to access additional ports simultaneously has a big impact on what they teach.

"We've added features we just didn't have enough ports for. We used to just monitor the flow of goods through the factory and we'd have to program the mills and lathes off-line. Now we can change their instructions on the fly. We've also added gauging stations so we can measure the parts before they go to finished goods. So now we have active controls, full data acquisition for better quality control and the students can review summary reports on the same PC all at the same time."

What's on the horizon for factory automation? The director is careful about revealing trade secrets and future plans as the training business is very competitive. But he did give us one glimpse into the future, "Our next class will be manufacturing chess sets!"


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