Smart Machines & Factories
AutomationML: a common language for manufacturer-independent engineering
Published:  03 March, 2017

The world stands on the brink of another potentially transformative and disruptive industrial revolution. Professor Klaus Schwab, chairman of the World Economic Forum, postulates that it will be “a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work and relate to one another. In its scale, scope and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before.” Considering the impact of previous industrial revolutions, that is a bold statement. Steve Sands, head of product management & marketing, Festo GB reports.

The first industrial revolution began in Britain at the end of the 18th century, with the harnessing of steam power to mechanise production in the textile industry, leading to the birth of the modern factory. The second began roughly a century later, using electric power and the division of labour to create mass production, embodied in Henry Ford’s creation of the moving assembly line. This enabled factories to produce huge numbers of identical products, quickly and cheaply. In the second half of the twentieth century, the third industrial revolution was digital, applying electronics and information technology to further automate production processes. Embodied by concepts such as mass customisation and additive manufacturing (including 3D printing), its applications are potentially far-reaching, but still yet to be fully realised. According to Schwab, “Now a fourth industrial revolution is building on the third, characterised by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres.”

Industry 4.0 and the digitalisation of manufacturing

In an industrial market that has seen lower labour costs in developing economies increase global competitive pressure, established manufacturing economies need to increase their productivity. The evolution of digitalisation and automation are key enablers to achieving efficiencies. Concepts such as Industry 4.0, smart machines, cyber-physical systems, factories of the future, and industrial internet of things (IIoT) have rapidly become rallying terms, engaging a broad coalition of the industrial and business community in exploring the benefits that integrated automation, intelligence, networking and communication can deliver.

There has been a continuous evolution in digitalisation within manufacturing, starting in the late 1960s and developing into the PLCs, PCs and micro controllers we know today. Now, working collaboratively with many industrial, governmental and academic partners, Festo is helping define the new language of Industry 4.0. The German-led initiative, ‘Plattform Industrie 4.0’ – with its widespread membership from office and shop floor, as well as standards associations – is working on reference models and international standards which will establish a universal set of parameters critical for true collaboration.

The Industry 4.0 strategy lays out a series of standards that will ensure common interfaces, languages and understanding between machines and users. It is intended to extend the vision of plug & play engineering into a continuous digital work stream where intelligent devices describe themselves and autonomously find the right collaboration partners, optimising their own and the system performance. In the future, adding value to components using digitalisation will be as important as manufacturing the physical parts.

AutomationML: the case for a common language

A 2005 AIDA study of factory automation costs (see Figure 1) found that nearly 60% of all costs are rooted in engineering and commissioning, with roughly only a quarter going on bought-in parts. Further research showed that substantial costs were incurred by the transfer of data between engineering tools and that frequent data transfer is caused by the existing heterogonous tool landscape. This became the driver for a broad industry consortium, now including Daimler, ABB, KUKA, Rockwell Automation, Siemens, Airbus, the Fraunhofer Institute and Festo, to initiate the development of an open, standardised, manufacturer-independent data format, AutomationML (Automation Markup Language), based on XML (Extensible Markup Language). Its goal is to interconnect the heterogeneous tool landscape of modern engineering tools from different disciplines including mechanical plant engineering, electrical design, HMI development, PLC, and robot control, enabling the storage and exchange of plant engineering information within intelligent or smart devices, components and systems.

Figure 1: Cost structure analysis of robotics and controls, AIDA 2005

AutomationML describes real-world plant components as objects encapsulating different information aspects. An object could be made up of other sub-objects, and can itself be part of a larger production system. In this way, AuomationML can describe a screw or valve, a motor or gripping claw, a six-axis robotic arm or a complete manufacturing cell in varying levels of detail. Typical objects in plant automation will comprise information about topology, geometry, kinematics and logic, where logic includes sequencing, behaviour and control. The data format language enables uniform exchange of data between different engineering tools and throughout the whole engineering process, without system discontinuities.

In this way, design engineers can concentrate on the desired automation process and do not have to deal with abstract commands when it comes to programming control systems. Typical scenarios might include data exchange between CAD systems or from CAD system to documentation, transition from mechanical design to functional engineering, or moving from robotic simulation system to robot specific programming system. AutomationML supports bidirectional data exchange and simple import, export or revision of engineering data. This integration of engineering activities, and associated tools along the engineering chain, will help reduce engineering time and costs by preventing unnecessary replication of engineering activities, increased continuity along the tool chain and improved cooperation between engineers.

OPAK project

In October 2016, Festo hosted around 100 participants at the 4th international AutomationML User Conference at its corporate headquarters in Esslingen, near Stuttgart, Germany. Under the theme "Road to Industry 4.0: AutomationML as Digital Enabler", Festo, together with its project partners, presented its AutomationML activities in the field of virtual commissioning, the OPAK (open engineering platform for autonomous, mechatronic automation components) research project. When it comes to virtual commissioning, engineering processes can be standardised and simplified in future thanks to AutomationML. When planning a facility, for example, design engineers can integrate the digital illustrations of the components directly into their design software. When it comes to describing components, information about the components can be linked with the corresponding CAD data (including kinematics data) or control programs.

With Industry 4.0, production facilities are becoming ever more complex and the effort required for planning and start-up is increasing. In the OPAK research project, funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, Festo and its project partners are working on making this complexity manageable by developing an AutomationML interface for vendor-neutral engineering. This means that intelligent Festo components can be loaded into the engineering software with their standardised AutomationML description and already contain all the information and functions necessary for their application.

The aim of the project is to simplify engineering processes, enabling them to be implemented faster, more intuitively and more efficiently in future. To accomplish this, OPAK creates a virtual depiction of the production facility. In this way, all the procedures and functions can be simulated and tested at the planning stage with the aid of the engineering software, before the facility even takes a physical form. Developers can concern themselves with only the desired automation processes, not having to deal with abstract commands used for programming control systems. The engineering system performs a plausibility check during the planning stage so that from the start, only those components and combinations that are technically possible and make sense can be selected. This means that the focus for the developer is on the actual automation task and its solution, and the detailed steps for technical implementation recede into the background.

Project demonstration

An initial result of the work in the OPAK project is the prototype of an integrated stopper module. In one system, it comprises all the necessary actuators, as well as sensors and controls, to stop workpiece carriers on a conveyor belt at the right place and time. A standardised interface has been used to make the function of the stopper module available for other systems. To demonstrate how intelligent components might function, what a production facility of the future could look like and how the results from OPAK are channelled into it, Festo and its project partners have set up a model industrial cell. In this way, it is possible to see how a flexible AutomationML-powered system in the factory of the future can work – from the engineering to start-up and ongoing production.

What is still being researched and implemented on a small scale is expected to be transferred to the whole factory in future. The vision behind the OPAK project is an Industry 4.0-ready production facility that exists as a complete virtual depiction. Individual intelligent components or systems of the facility can therefore be modified or replaced very easily, in plug & play fashion, as all procedures can be simulated and tested virtually before being physically implemented. Downtimes and standstills are thus reduced to a minimum and the production environment can be flexibly adapted to changing requirements and conditions.