How to Create a Flexible Control System


While flexible manufacturing systems have been around for quite some time, industry changes have made it one of the most important paradigms for production in today’s landscape. Inherently, it improves efficiency and production costs through adaptability, but also empowers a made-to-order network with a high degree of personalization for customers. At its heart is a flexible control system, also sometimes referred to as a program logic control (PLC) system or flexible automation module (FAM). The latter devices are software-driven logic control systems offering an open and modular core for digital manufacturing and more advanced automation opportunities.

Where the machines and production hardware are designed to physically interface with stages of operation, flexible control systems essentially power the digital aspects, backed by intelligent software solutions. This definition is vague and makes it difficult to parse what’s happening behind the scenes for the layman, especially because flexible manufacturing is meant to be modular, scalable, and a far cry from more traditional production solutions. It’s not always powered by software either, as it’s entirely possible to define and create a practical flexible control system.

It boils down to, how do you design and create a flexible control system that truly complements a flexible manufacturing operation?

What Is a Flexible Control System?

You can’t build a better product without a core understanding of what it is and how it works. For that reason, it’s important to explore — however briefly — what a flexible control system does. They are often software-defined and driven devices that allow the core functionality of a machine or system to be assigned, refined, augmented, or updated to match the task at hand, and generally, they’re controlled via industrial automation solutions.

In short, they allow the main controller — a software automation solution — to adjust and reprogram the operation as necessary. The key to a flexible manufacturing system is a truly modular facility that can retool, as quickly as possible, to develop new products, parts, and beyond. So, while having software at the helm isn’t necessarily a requirement, it is extremely beneficial.

In smart factories, and with digital manufacturing operations, the controller is also a central data processing unit, empowering the facility through intelligent, information-specific action(s). The data it collects and processes is also passed through a remote control system, often in the cloud, to achieve seamless connectivity throughout the manufacturing plant — each machine is connected and networked with direct control afforded to the main system. It is a necessary component of Industry 4.0, where smart, data-driven facilities benefit from unprecedented levels of efficiency, output, and cost reductions.

At its simplest, a flexible control system allows manufacturers to adjust and adapt their operations to meet new production cycles.

Do They Work with Legacy Hardware?

The short answer is that yes, software-based flexible control systems can be interoperable with legacy production-line and manufacturing hardware solutions. During deployment, it’s critical to use a slow rollout process with proper testing for all machines and systems, and also to leverage the expertise of engineers with a strong background in manufacturing applications.

An excellent example is when integrating flexible controls into a push-pull or conduit assembly system. On a basic level, they exist to maneuver various mechanisms, whether it’s to lift heavy items or equipment or move packages greater distances. Typically, a push-pull consists of two separate cables designed to utilize a throttle-based system. They’re used for acceleration, braking, controls, rotation, and much more. Connecting a motion control system such as this to a more automated solution is not just possible, it’s super effective under the right conditions.

How to Create a Flexible Control System?

Before making any changes, you must consider the needs of the central system, including any past, present, and future applications. How long will the current system be in operation? How often will you need to adjust and update? Will you need access to both traditional and process manufacturing solutions, in the same system?

These aren’t the only questions you should be asking, of course, but they are some of the most important and will help decide how you move forward. You’ll definitely want someone with direct experience on the team, who has either recently, or in the past, worked with flexible control systems. They can help answer a lot of these questions and concerns, but they will also aid your team in carving a path forward.

Next, implementation is the goal. You can achieve success through the following guideline:

  1. Define and Understand – Take time to define the control philosophy and understand the process, as well as how the control system applies to the operation. Most strategies call for the creation and organization of a document called the Functional Design Specification, where all of this information is outlined. Additional documentation includes the Process Flow Diagram (PFD), Standard Operating Procedures (SOP), Control System Narratives, and so on.
  2. Develop the Control Model – To discern and define the interactions between the models — physical and procedural — the next logical step is to develop the control model with a flexible design in mind.
  3. Explore Segmentation – Unit boundary definitions, segmentation, and partitioning are all important aspects of a flexible environment. The control system is built to support and improve these things collectively. So, you’ll need to explore how the system will be deployed, related constraints, and also what kind of unit boundaries are in place.
  4. Create an Exception Handling Plan – Even with incredibly accurate definitions of a system, there will be instances where events happen outside of the standard or defined behaviors. You’ll need to be ready for these, but also you’ll need to have solutions in place to handle them appropriately, and promptly.
  5. Build the Prototype – Before you can test, you need a working prototype of the system in place. This also affords you ample time to revamp designs and planning if you notice complications, bottlenecks, and other potential concerns. After the prototype is available, begin testing and create a perpetual system of growth, stopping only when you’re happy with the results.
  6. Roll Out the System – Finally, it’s time to implement the live system which should be done as a slow rollout across the operation. By upgrading all at once you’re making it more challenging to identify obstacles, and more importantly which areas of the facility need the extra attention.

Computer-aided modeling can be extremely beneficial during many of these stages and is something to consider even with a strong team of experts and professionals at your behest.

Achieving the Ultimate Modularity

Flexible manufacturing cannot exist without the appropriate controls system in place, which is nothing short of a flexible control system. They are designed to be as modular as the rest of the equipment, allowing for quick retooling to match the current operation(s). The goal is to serve both a physical and procedural model, whether you’re talking about more traditional manufacturing techniques or something more advanced and automated implemented as part of Industry 4.0.

Flexible controls introduce a smarter, more contextual building-block approach to manufacturing and design. That leads to improvements in efficiency, output, customization, and so much more — including cost savings

Article by Emily Newton

Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized. She has over four years experience covering the industrial sector.