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The automotive industry: Driving change

April 1, 2000
Forced to be more competitive, automotive manufacturers are demanding that their suppliers better meet their needs for open, flexible, products

With their size and clout, automotive companies can command specific capabilities and features in motion products, and they are. The Big Three have a large installed base of control equipment from every major manufacturer. But future equipment purchases are changing.

One recent request was for control manufacturers to develop open, modular, architectures in their programmable controllers and personal computers. A more recent request was for the development of standards-based motionsystem products, especially control and network products.

General Motors, in particular, has been a vocal proponent of open products — products that will easily connect and operate with other products, regardless of who manufacturers them.

Several years ago, GM engineers and management concluded that they had to cut development and manufacturing time in their operations. They also wished to reduce training time for engineers, operators, and maintenance personnel on new technologies. And lastly, they wanted greater freedom to choose best-in-class products.

The controls, software, and communications products available then would not meet those needs. Most of those products were proprietary or offered limited degrees of openness.

The engineers and managers wanted products similar to those found in the consumer personal computers. In this market, PCs have hundreds of software programs readily available. Peripherals usually plug into a port or onto the backplane. As soon as the user turns on the PC, these devices are up and running. Despite the requirements for deterministic, event-driven control and hardwired safety needs, automotive engineers still want this level of “plug-and-play” ability. They want to add the latest technological advances, quickly, while reducing the life-cycle costs of controls, communications, and other manufacturing systems.

“Such products must be based on an open architecture that facilitates the same rapid revolution for the shop floor that has occurred in office computing applications,” says James Albus, Intelligent Systems Div., National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Thus, GM engineers worked with engineers at Ford and Chrysler to develop the OMAC document, which defines the specifications for open, modular-architecture controls. That document was circulated among control manufacturers. Since then, most manufacturers have introduced products with open features. These include the use of Windows-based programs, an expanding line of integrated peripherals and I/O modules, and communication systems.

One of these communication systems, DeviceNet, has become a defacto standard. GM announced that it would standardize on this bus in many of its plants. GM also announced that it would use control and motion-control products that were compatible with the internationally accepted standard, Sercos.

In response, companies such as Indramat Div. of Rexroth Corp. and Cutler- Hammer Control and Automation Div., Eaton Corp., have introduced open-architecture products. These products connect motion control devices with the above networks, providing data access and communication from the logic platform (control) to the motor shaft.

Chrysler took a different approach. It announced a five-year arrangement with Rockwell Automation where Rockwell would bring its control and manufacturing knowledge into the design phase of new products. “Automation controls typically are considered after automotive products are designed,” said Frank Ewasyshyn, vice president, Advance Manufacturing Engineering at Chrysler. “Sharing advanced technology much earlier in the process will reduce the time spent to design, debug, and start up an automation control system.”

Rockwell Automation will develop software that helps Chrysler integrate the design of automation controls into its manufacturing design phase. This will help ensure that automation controls meet manufacturing process needs immediately upon the completion of product design. The controls supplier will also be the automation supplier of choice for Chrysler assembly plants, stamping and welding plants, and all powertrain facilities over the next five years.

This is the first time an automaker has brought an automation controls company into the process so early. Officials at Chrysler and Rockwell expect this agreement to take business relationships between automakers and controls suppliers to a new relationship level.

Ford was also a sponsor of OMAC, and it benefits from any open-architecture, standards-based equipment developed for the automotive industry. However, it leaves the decision of which products to buy to the plant managers. Each of Ford’s plants uses different equipment. The Windsor Ontario plant, for example, uses the ASI bus in conjunction with PC and PLC-based controls. The Cleveland Casting plant uses Modicon equipment. The Engine plants all use Allen-Bradley PLCs, the Windsor Aluminum plant uses Siemens, and the Essex Aluminum plant uses Allen-Bradley equipment.

The automotive companies may take different approaches, but with an annual buying power of nearly $100 million in motion-control equipment, they make their presence felt.

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