Desktop Factory Teaches PLC Programming

How to train young engineers in industrial automation is a thorny issue. Most factories have big things that can do a lot of damage and cost tons of money if the newbie causes a crash. Solution: shrink the factory down to desktop size and let them practice on that.

Luckily for [Vadim], there’s an off-the-shelf solution for miniaturizing factory automation: FischerTechnik industrial training models. The models have motors, conveyors, pneumatic cylinders, and sensors galore, but the controller is not exactly the industry standard programmable logic controller (PLC). [Vadim] set out to remedy this by building an interface between the FischerTechnik models and a Siemens PLC. He went through a couple of revisions of his board, including one using rivets from the sewing store to interface with the FischerTechnic connectors. Eventually, he settled on more robust connectors and came up with a board that lets students delve into PLC programming without killing anyone. The video below shows it going through its paces; we can only imagine where playing with these kits as a kid would have led us.

As great as [Vadim]’s system is for training engineers, we can also see it helpful in getting kids interested in a career in industrial automation. We recently covered a similar effort to show kids big science using LEGO Mindstorms. Both of these can help get STEM kids to see the wider world of technical careers and perhaps steer them into automation. After all, the people who make the robots are probably going to be the last ones obsoleted, right?

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Industrial Indicator Makes the Move from PLC to FPGA

Industrial controls are fun to use in a build because they’re just so — well, industrial. They’re chunky and built to take a beating, both from the operating environment and the users. They’re often power guzzlers, though, so knowing how to convert an industrial indicator for microcontroller use might be a handy skill to have.

Having decided that an Allen-Bradley cluster indicator worked with the aesthetic of his project, a Halloween prop of some sort, [Glen] set about dissecting the controls. Industrial indicators usually make that a simple task so that they can be configured for different voltages in the field, and it turned out that the easiest approach to replacing the power-hungry incandescent bulbs with LEDs was to build a tiny PCB to fit inside the four-color lens.

The uniquely shaped board ended up being too small for even series resistors for the LEDs, so a separate driver board was also fabbed. The driver board is set up to allow a single 5-volt supply and logic levels of 3.3-volt or 5-volt, making the indicator compatible with just about anything. The finished product lends a suitably sinister look to the prop.

If you’re not familiar with the programmable logic controllers such an indicator would be used with in the field, then maybe you should try running Pong on a PLC for a little background.

Mod Your Camera With ModBus

Industrial hardware needs to be reliable, tough, and interoperable. For this reason, there are a series of standards used for command & control connections between equipment. One of the more widespread standards is ModBus, an open protocol using a master-slave architecture, usually delivered over RS-485 serial. It’s readily found being used with PLCs, HMIs, VFDs, and all manner of other industrial equipment that comes with a TLA (three letter acronym).

[Absolutelyautomation] decided to leverage ModBus to control garden variety digital cameras, of the type found cluttering up drawers now that smartphones have come so far. This involves getting old-school, by simply soldering wires to the buttons of the camera, and using an Arduino Nano to control the camera while talking to the ModBus network.

This system could prove handy for integrating a camera into an industrial production process to monitor for faults or defective parts. The article demonstrates simple control of the camera with off-the-shelf commercial PLC hardware. Generally, industrial cameras are very expensive, so this hack may be useful where there isn’t the budget for a proper solution. Will it stand up to industrial conditions for 10 years without missing a beat? No, but it could definitely save the day in the short term for a throwaway price. One shortfall is that the camera as installed will only save pictures to its local memory card. There’s a lot to be said for serving the images right to the engineer’s desk over a network.

We’ve seen [Absolutelyautomation]’s work before – check out this implementation of Pong on an industrial controller.

Japanese Lab Builds 5-Axis 3D Printer

A Japanese lab is investing some time in the possibilities of a 5-axis 3D printer. They show it printing using five axis as well as doing finish machining on a printed part. We’ve covered parts of why this is the right direction to go for 3D printing in another post.

It looks like they have modified an existing industrial machining center for use with a 3D printing nozzle. This feels like cheating, but it’s the right way to go if you want to start playing with the code early. The machines are intensely accurate and precise. After all, building a five axis machine is a well known science, 3D printing with one opens a whole new field of research.

There isn’t too much to show in the video, other than it’s possible and people are doing it. The Five-axis 3D printing and machining is uninteresting, we have been able to machine plastic for a long time.

However, they show one blue part in which the central axis of the part was printed vertically, but revolute splines along its outer perimeter were printed normal to the surface of the already printed 3D part. Which is certainly not commonly done. Video after the break.

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Vacuum Gauge Display; Arduino Replaces Industrial

Arduinos! They’re a great tool that make the world of microcontrollers pretty easy, and in [cptlolalot]’s case, they also give us an alternative to buying expensive, proprietary parts. [cptlolalot] needed a gauge for an expensive vacuum pump, and rather than buying an expensive part, built a circuit around an Arduino to monitor the vacuum.

pressure-gauge-thumbThis project goes a little beyond simple Arduino programming though. A 12V to 5V power supply drives the device, which is laid out on a blank PCB. The display fits snugly over the circuit which reduces the footprint of the project, and the entire thing is housed in a custom-printed case with a custom-printed pushbutton. The device gets power and data over the RJ45 connection so no external power is needed. If you want to take a look at the code, it’s linked on [cptlolalot]’s reddit thread.

This project shows how much easier it can be to grab an Arduino off the shelf to solve a problem that would otherwise be very expensive. We’ve been seeing Arduinos in industrial applications at an increasing rate as well, which is promising not just because it’s cheap but because it’s a familiar platform that will make repairs and hacks in the future much easier for everyone.

Building an Industrial Control Unit With an Industrial Control Unit

Back in the 70s, industrial control was done with either relays and ladder logic or new programmable logic controllers. These devices turned switches on and off, moved stuff around a factory, and kept the entire operation running smoothly. In the late 70s, Motorola came out with an Industrial Control Unit stuffed into a tiny chip. The chip – the MC14500 – fascinated [Nicola]. He finally got around to building an ICU out of this chip, and although this was the standard way of doing things 30 years ago, it’s still an interesting build.

[Nicola]’s ICU is extremely simple, just eight relays, eight inputs, the MC14500, a clock, and some ROM. After wiring up the circuit, [Nicola] wrote a compiler, although this chip is so simple manually writing opcodes to a ROM wouldn’t be out of the question.

To demonstrate his ICU, [Nicola] connected up an on/off switch, a start button, and a stop button. The outputs are a yellow, green, and red lamp. It’s a simple task for even a relay-based control scheme, but [Nicola]’s board does everything without a hitch.

If you’re looking for something a little more complex, we saw the MC14500 being used as an almost-CPU last year.

Video below.

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Building Things with Lean Pipe

Sometimes you just want to build something quickly and easily. Maybe you just need a basic structure for your actual project, or perhaps you want to be able to easily modify the design. Maybe you don’t have access to many fancy tools to build a solid, lightweight structure. Another possibility is that you want to be able to break down your structure and move it at a later date. In cases like these, you might want to consider using lean pipe.

Lean pipe is kind of like K’NEX for adults. It’s made up of metal pipe and specialized fittings. If you’ve ever worked with PVC pipe before then this may sound familiar. The difference is lean pipe is stronger and designed specifically for building sturdy structures. The fixtures designed for use with lean pipe are much easier to work with than PVC pipe. With PVC pipe, it seems like you never have the exact right fitting and you have to build your own adapters, quickly increasing the cost of the design.

A typical lean pipe fitting will either slide over the end of a section of pipe, or wrap around it somewhere in the middle. An adjustment screw can then be tightened to clamp the fitting in place around the sections of pipe. The video below does a good job demonstrating the different possibilities with fittings. The primary issue with this material is that you might not be able to find it at your local hardware store. Luckily, a quick Internet search will turn up a number of online purchasing options.

So what can you build with this stuff? Cody has been building himself computer desks with an industrial look. He first starts out with the frame design. This is the part that’s made from the lean pipe. Once the frame is completed he just needs to work on the wood surfaces. All he really needs to do is cut the wood to shape and then finish it to look nice. It then lays in place and can be bolted down for extra security. Continue reading “Building Things with Lean Pipe”