Beckhoff has experienced very dynamic development over recent years. From the crisis year 2009 the company initially emerged with above-average growth: turnover doubled within two years, reaching 465 million euros and 34 % growth in 2011. Initially I asked Hans Beckhoff about the current status of the company after the last two turbulent years and about his prospective visions for the future. Hans Beckhoff said: “The current year is progressing as planned and expected, and under the circumstances we are satisfied. We experienced two years with very turbulent development in 2010 and 2011, with growth that was way above average, even for Beckhoff.” Our economic situation is therefore robust. According to Hans Beckhoff, only the renewable energy sector is a little worrying, particularly in China. “Our previous above-average growth is currently undergoing a correction, due to the fact that two of our growth sectors are stagnating. One of them is the solar industry: over recent years, we were able to able to gain significant market share in this segment, specifically in control systems for solar module production machinery. However, turnover in this sector has essentially stalled since the middle of 2011. The second sector affecting our business is the Chinese wind turbine manufacturing sector, which for various reasons experienced a strong contraction since the middle of 2011.” These market developments didn't come as a surprise for Beckhoff, and the company was therefore able to adjust to the new situation. Losses in these fields were largely compensated in other, more successful areas, mainly machine construction and building services: “Since the middle of last year we were aware of the difficult market situation in the wind and solar sectors and it was clear that the situation would continue. As such we had no growth expectations for 2012, and this is indeed what happened. We expect to end the year with little growth or perhaps even a slight reduction. The overall result will become clear in the 4th quarter. However, sales in the machine construction and building automation sectors and the turnover with our customers in all other areas have developed well, so that we were able to compensate the reduction in the renewables sector to a large extent,” said Hans Beckhoff. It is worth noting that this development had no impact on the number of staff employed by Beckhoff, on the contrary: “The number of staff in production has remained constant, and we continue to expand our engineering, R & D and support divisions as planned.”
Motors made by Beckhoff
At SPS IPC Drives 2011 in Germany, Beckhoff presented servomotors produced in-house for the first time. The motors are manufactured by Fertig Motors GmbH, a company which is part of the Beckhoff group and is headed by Elau founder Erwin Fertig. Fertig had sold Elau to Schneider Electric, but decided to become involved in the motion control industry again and established Fertig Motors together with Hans Beckhoff. The first product lines to emerge from the joint venture were the AM8000 servo motor series and the AM8800 stainless steel variant (as reported previously). When asked about this cooperation, Hans Beckhoff said: “Fate has been kind to us and offered us an opportunity which a more systematic plan may well have missed.” This initial opportunity has since been developed and progressed consistently. But aren't motors a commodity product that can essentially be bought at every street corner in similar quality? Hans Beckhoff doesn't agree and refers to a subtle distinction: “Automation technology is based on a number of basic components. The motor is one of them, I/O components and the Industrial PC are others. For each of these product categories one could naturally say that the markets are already occupied, but innovative steps occur in each of these product areas, which then lead to a competitive advantage for the users. The level of innovation and the price level determine the success of these products in the market. And I believe that one can be successful with servomotors and a corresponding level of innovation. With the AM8000 series, for example, we are some distance ahead of our competition, for example in terms of dynamic properties, the internal mechanical design, the saturation behavior of the motor in the event of overload moments, etc.” According to Hans Beckhoff, Beckhoff the company can offer even more. The interaction of different components creates a system with additional benefits and clear added value for the user: “We are known to be experts in the disciplines of communication and real-time software. It is this expertise that led to the One Cable Technology (OCT) for connecting our servomotors, for example. The fact that Beckhoff produces motors in-house also enables the creation of solutions such as the AM8800 stainless steel motor series. Without our own motor company this would not have been possible. For certain packaging applications such a stainless steel motor is a unique selling point.” Beckhoff introduced OCT (see sidebar) at the same time as its AM8000 motor series. Hans Beckhoff is convinced that this new streamlined cabling methodology is a winner: “Our users are impressed by it, since this type of motor connection reduces the complexity and therefore also the costs.”
With new Drive Technology to “one-stop shop” provider status
For Hans Beckhoff, the linear eXtended Transport System (XTS), which Beckhoff presented as a major highlight at this year's Hanover Fair, is added proof that it makes sense for automation specialists to produce their own advanced drive equipment: “XTS is a solution that combines electronic hardware and software from Beckhoff with the motor and magnetic field expertise of Fertig Motors in an ideal manner. It illustrates that being experts at both opens up totally new opportunities.” For users the broad and deep technological positioning of the automation providers is also a big advantage, as Hans Beckhoff explains: “In modern machines, Drive Technology tends to be responsible for more than 50 % of the automation costs. It is good if automation users have a specialist on board who understands all areas of automation, including control technology, fast Drive Technology, measurement technology, software engineering and visualization technology.” This also benefits users who don't use XTS but simply need dynamic servo control in their machine, said Hans Beckhoff: “There is a category of machine manufacturers who have deep process and technology expertise and want Drive Technology that enables full control right down to the motor current. Our knowledge embodied in our innovative motors, our power electronics and our high speed TwinCAT and XFC technology enables us to simulate the motor model on the PC and adjust it, if necessary. Many of our customers find this rather exciting, because it enables them to implement their intellectual property and expertise without having to disclose it to the controller manufacturer.”
TwinCAT 3 as a basis for integration
TwinCAT 3 is the central software component of the Beckhoff world of automation. All aspects of automation and control come together in this engineering system. With the third version of TwinCAT, which was officially launched a year ago, the framework is fully integrated into the Microsoft Visual Studio® world. It means that developers not only have the IEC 61131-3 programming languages available for programming and debugging applications in real-time, but also the C/C++ languages. On the basis of the C/C++ integration, modules can also be developed in Matlab®/Simulink®. For these modules, code is produced with the Matlab® and Simulink® C or C/C++ code that can be executed again in the TwinCAT real-time. Visual Studio® also offers the possibility to use the familiar tools for source code administration. The Microsoft Team Foundation Server, for example, is simply integrated into the development environment. For Hans Beckhoff the integration of TwinCAT in Visual Studio® is a clear signal for the direction in which automation engineering will move in the future: “The world of automation technology is large and colorful and touches all areas of our life. Accordingly, there are many ‘flavors’ when it comes to realizing automation. For example: the American semiconductor industry mainly uses C, while IEC 61131-3 is virtually unknown there. In Europe there are also a number of large machine manufacturers who use their own control technology and never implemented IEC 61131-3. I estimate that around 30 % of all automation applications in machine construction are based on C. If one looks at the worldwide training of young talent one quickly realizes that everyone learning a technical profession today will subsequently be able to do a little programming in C, but not necessarily in the IEC 61131-3 languages. Today, many young people can also use Matlab®/Simulink®, which is the working language of simulation technology. We can therefore be proud of the very successful integration of C in TwinCAT 3.”
Integration with advanced capabilities
For the integration of TwinCAT 3 in Visual Studio® Beckhoff wasn't content with a simple consolidation of the user interfaces, explained Hans Beckhoff: “We added many new features to Microsoft C, which weren't present inherently. This makes it similar to a PLC. We refer to it as CCAT, i.e. C for Control Automation Technology. It includes features such as a cyclic process image, monitoring of variables without having to stop the system, etc. We made C/C++ suitable for automation applications and believe that this is a good route for many users. On the other hand we added many new features to the IEC 61131-3 languages, so that they become even more similar to high-level languages. We offer customers a choice. The first applications that were entirely developed in Matlab®/Simulink®are already available.” The reason may be the simplicity of the system, even for complex applications. Hans Beckhoff said: “Matlab®/Simulink® has extensive libraries. Only a few years ago, if someone required a 6th order filter for eliminating an interference signal, for example, they had to develop the software themselves. With Matlab®/Simulink® the user can simply click on the 6th order filter, compile it and make it available as a function block in the Beckhoff PLC – it's as simple as that.” These facts speak for themselves.
Measurement technology in the machine
Another key topic which was not to be missed in our conversation with Hans Beckhoff was measurement technology at the machine level. It represents one of the core competencies of the company, because, based on eXtreme Fast Control (XFC), signals can be sampled and transferred in the control system with extremely high resolution. Hans Beckhoff explains the benefits as follows: “In cases where control and measurement technology are separate, there is always the question of synchronization. With integrated measurement technology the situation is quite different: the machine already ‘knows’ what it is doing at any given time. In a critical process it knows the flywheel angle and the situations resulting in vibration. Therefore, the correlation between what the control system already knows and what additional measurements are required is best solved through integration of control and measurement technology. This approach leads to better results more easily and more quickly than trying to synchronize control and external measurement technology via start/stop trigger.” The fact that Beckhoff has been using PC-based control technology ever since the company was established benefits users in a further way: “The PC on which TwinCAT runs can also be used for the measuring tasks. One simply has to add the cost-effective measuring I/O terminals and activate the relevant software library under TwinCAT 3. This simple functional expansion of the basic PC control principle is an important system characteristic of software-based control technology, which has many benefits for the user. For any supplier worth its salt the integration of PLC and motion is a matter of course today. In the future, the same will apply to the integration of machine-level measurement technology in the control system. Beckhoff is already offering this.”
New products for SPS IPC Drives 2012 in Germany
At this year's SPS IPC Drives, new Beckhoff products for all technology areas will be on display. Version 3.1 of TwinCAT, a further development of the new Beckhoff software generation launched in 2011, will be presented. An important new feature here is support of 64-bit operating systems for the runtime. The development environment is integrated in the new Microsoft Visual Studio® 2012. The eXtended Automation Interface now covers PLC applications and enables user-friendly automatic configuration and programming. The modular new multi-touch Panel series has been extended with additional functions and variants: apart from the key extensions for electromechanical operating elements, the range is supplemented by additional display sizes of 7, 12 and 21.5 inches. The CX2000 Embedded PC series – multi-core technology on DIN rail – is expanded with modular fieldbus master/slave interfaces. Safety technology has been expanded with a compact safety controller for small and medium applications. Beckhoff offers further innovations for Drive Technology: in order to meet the demand for larger performance classes, the AM8000 servomotor series is now also available with external ventilation, which increases the performance of the motors by up to 50 %. For CNC applications in tool and woodworking machines the new AM8500 series with increased rotor inertia extends the range of motor products.
Published in: SPS-Magazin 11/2012 www.sps-magazin.de