Programmable logic controllers (PLCs) are widely used in manufacturing to oversee and influence various processes. Many decision-makers who apply PLCs in manufacturing find the approach allows them to improve and scale their technology usage.
1. Support 3D Printing
3D printing has opened opportunities for manufacturers to produce products faster. Companies may use a 3D printer for in-house prototyping much more efficiently than other methods allow. Then, design teams can make potential iterations with few or no bottlenecks. Organizations have also turned 3D printing into a viable business model by producing spare parts formerly purchased from suppliers.
Such was the case with the German company Stegmaier Group, which manufactures and supplies trucks. Leaders turned to in-house 3D printing of vital parts, including oil filler neck caps. They can prevent vehicles from functioning properly when they break, but getting new components through traditional means could take several days. That was problematic, especially when the part failure stopped the movement of perishable goods. 3D printing solved that bottleneck.
One way to apply PLCs in manufacturing is to automate some aspects of 3D printer functionality. For example, researchers achieved closed-loop control of the 3D printer’s voltage and could set the printer parameters using the PLC. The programmable logic controller also allowed for maintaining a constant distance between the 3D printer’s nozzle and the workpiece, which enhanced quality control efforts.
3D printing continues to gain momentum in manufacturing and elsewhere. The results here reinforce why PLCs are often crucial for those setups, allowing producers to get consistently excellent results.
2. Improve Quality Control
Manufacturers face the challenging job of supervising quality control efforts throughout gigantic facilities. That could mean inspecting consumable goods for foreign objects that could sicken or injure people, verifying critical components get produced within specified tolerances or ensuring products leave assembly lines without cosmetic defects or functional flaws.
A continual commitment to quality control can bolster a business’s reputation, regardless of what it produces. Plus, product recalls can be prohibitively costly. PLCs play a vital role in operating the automated technologies that make quality-control systems function as expected.
Consider one example of a computer-vision inspection system at a syrup-bottling facility that integrates with a PLC and can inspect up to 500 bottles per minute. Some checks involve ensuring each bottle has the correct label and that the identifier is in the proper position. If a syrup container does not pass the inspection, the PLC can identify and track its location on the conveyor until it reaches the reject station. This setup prevents faulty containers from shipping elsewhere.
PLCs also participate in machine-based communications about whether the label shows the correct ingredients. That’s particularly important since many consumers rely on ingredient information to check that products are free from known allergens.
3. Expand Predictive Maintenance Programs
PLCs are like most other components in that they need ongoing upkeep and replacement is necessary for those that reach the end of their useful life spans. However, only three types of PLC failure comprise four out of five cases. More specifically, issues commonly involve power supply faults, field device problems or input/output module issues. Manufacturers’ maintenance concerns span beyond PLCs, though.
Many leaders apply PLCs in manufacturing by letting the devices gather and transmit data from sensors that tell if critical machines are performing as they should. Suppose a machine begins operating at an unusually high temperature or develops a strange vibration.
In that case, a manufacturer’s smart sensors can detect those changes and alert the necessary parties to what’s changed. That approach often means people become aware of problems sooner and can address them before whatever is wrong causes a factory shutdown.
Sometimes, equipment operating at approximately 1,800 rotations per minute has low-frequency vibrations ranging from 2 to 1,000 Hertz. Such characteristics can indicate problems like machine imbalances, improper alignment or mechanical looseness. Adding vibration channels to PLCs is a more cost-effective option than relying on standalone detection equipment.
PLCs can also send machine data directly to the cloud or a company’s IT systems. That helps manufacturers study the information with minimal delays, meaning they can act on it faster and trust that the content is current.
4. Increase Machine Functionality
People continually look for ways to apply PLCs creatively and highlight new possibilities. That’s one reason why miniaturized designs are increasingly popular. One enterprise’s version has a 17.5-millimeter build, making it conveniently pocket-sized.
Manufacturers are interested in process improvements, especially if those changes cause long-term productivity boosts. Researchers recently developed technology that can integrate with a PLC and make industrial equipment recognize voice commands. It includes directional microphones and an internal noise-canceling system, allowing machines to detect people’s requests when they speak into headsets or stationery mics.
A machine with this technology can recognize hundreds of commands and respond to multiple voices. It’s also easy to program a piece of equipment to know additional voice cues. Plus, workers don’t need to scroll through menus to tell machines what to do. Instead, they can use voice commands — which are typically more intuitive and natural — meaning humans have minimal or no workflow disruptions.
The people behind this project said this option to apply PLCs in manufacturing also reduces how far employees need to walk when controlling machines. They can use mobile devices to send voice commands from a distance, helping them save time and steps.
How Will You Help People Apply PLCs in Manufacturing?
These are some primary ways manufacturing companies use programmable logic controllers to support various workflows. As these options suggest, there are plenty of possibilities, including those not directly mentioned here.
For example, a manufacturer might use PLCs to control a mobile robot fleet carrying items around a large factory. They could also do so to improve machine-to-machine communication in pieces of equipment spread around large factories.
However, knowing how some manufacturers use PLCs now is the starting point for expanding upon those capabilities for an upcoming project. It’ll then be clear that PLCs are essential, especially with so many modern factories becoming increasingly connected.
Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized and an industrial writer who enjoys researching and writing about how technology impacts different industries.