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Motion control is pretty complicated.

There’s been something really bothering me about the “integrated” motion control you find in PLCs these days (notably Allen-Bradley ControlLogix and Beckhoff TwinCAT). Don’t get me wrong, they’re certainly integrated far better than stand-alone motion controllers. Still, it just doesn’t “feel” right when you’re programming motion control from ladder logic.

When I’m programming a cylinder motion in ladder logic, I would typically use a five-rung logic block for each motion (extend/retract). One of the 5 bits is a “command” bit. This is a bit that means “do such-and-such motion now”. Importantly, if I turn that bit off, it means “stop now!” This works well for a cylinder with a valve controlling it because when I turn off power to that valve, the cylinder will stop trying to move. It would be nice if integrated motion was this simple.

It’s interesting to note that manual moves (a.k.a. “jogging”) are usually this simple. You drop a function block on a rung, give it a speed and direction, and when you execute it based on a push-button, the axis jogs in that direction, and when the push-button turns off, it stops jogging. Unfortunately none of the other features are that simple.

All other moves start motion with one function block and require you to stop it with another. The reason it works like this is because motion controllers also support blended moves. That is, I can first start a move to position (5,3) and after it’s moving there I can queue a second move to position (10,1) and it will guide the axes through a curved geometry that takes it arbitrarily close to my first point (based on parameters I give it) and then continue on to the second point without stopping. In fact you can program arbitrarily complex paths and the motion controller will perform them flawlessly. Unfortunately this means that 90% of the motion control logic out there is much more complex than it needs to be.

Aside: in object-oriented programming, such as in Java or .NET, it’s pretty normal to have to interface with a relational database such as MySQL or Microsoft SQL Server. However, when you try to mesh the two worlds of object-oriented programming and relational databases, you typically run into insidious little problems. Programmers call this the Object-relational impedance mismatch. I’m sure that if you added it up, literally billions of dollars have been spent trying to overcome these issues.

My point is that there is a similar Ladder logic-motion control impedance mismatch. The vast majority of PLC-based motion control is simple point-to-point motion. In that case, the ideal interface from ladder would be a single instance of a “go-to” function block with the following parameters:

  • Target Position (X, Y…)
  • Max Velocity
  • Acceleration
  • Deceleration
  • Acceleration Jerk
  • Deceleration Jerk

When the rung-in-condition goes true on this block, the motion control system moves to the target position with the given parameters, and when the rung-in-condition goes false, it stops. Furthermore, we should be able to change any of those parameters in real-time, and the motion controller should do its best to adjust the trajectory and dynamics to keep up. That would be all you need for most applications.

The remaining applications are cases where you need more complex geometries. Typically this is with multi-axis systems where you want to move through a series of intermediate points without stopping, or you want to follow a curved path through 2D or 3D-space. In my opinion, the ideal solution would be a combination of a path editor (where you use an editing tool to define a path, and it’s stored in an array of structures in the PLC) and a “follow path” function block with the following parameters:

  • Path
  • Path Tolerance

When the rung-in-condition is true, it moves forward along that path, and when it turns off, it stops. You could even add a BOOL parameter called Reverse which makes it go backwards along the path. The second parameter, “Path Tolerance” would limit how far off the path it can be before you get a motion error. I think this parameter is a good idea because it (a) allows you to initiate the instruction as long as your position is anywhere along that path, and (b) makes sure you’re not going to initiate some wild move as it tries to get to the first point.

A neat additional function block would be a way to calculate the nearest point on a path from a given position, so you could recover by jogging onto a path and continue on the path after a fault.

Obviously there needs to be a way for the PLC to generate or edit paths dynamically, but that’s hardly a big deal.

Anyway, these are my ideas. For now we’re stuck with this clunky way of writing motion control logic. Hopefully someone’s listening to us poor saps in the trenches! 🙂

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Let’s assume you already know everything there is to know about motion control… you can jog a servo axis, home it, make it move to a position using trapezoidal or s-curve motion. Now what?

Sooner or later you’re going to find yourself with 2 or more axes and you’re going to want to do something fancy with them. Maybe you have an X/Y table and you want it to move on a perfect 45 degree angle, or you need it to follow a curved, but precise, path in the X/Y plane. Now you need coordinated motion.

Coordinated motion controllers are actually quite common. Every 3, 4, or 5 axis mill uses coordinated motion, every robot controller, and even those little RepRap 3D printers. What you may not know is that most integrated motion solutions you might encounter in the PLC world also offer coordinated motion (a.k.a. interpolated motion) control. If you’re from the Allen-Bradley world, the ControlLogix/CompactLogix line of PLCs allows you to use the Motion Coordinated Linear Move (MCLM) and Motion Coordinated Circular Move (MCCM) instructions along with a few others. If you’re from the Beckhoff world, you can purchase a license for their NC I product which offers a full G-code interpreter, which is the language milling machines and 3D printers speak.

Under the hood, a coordinated motion control solution offers several features necessary for a workable multi-axis solution. The first is a path planner, the second is synchronization.

The job of the path planner is fairly complex. If you say that you need to move your X/Y table from point 5,2 to point 8,3 then it needs to take the maximum motion parameters of both axes into account to make sure that neither axis exceeds it’s torque, velocity or acceleration/deceleration limits, and typically it will limit the “velocity vector” as well, meaning the actual speed of the point you’re moving in the X/Y plane. Furthermore, it must create a motion profile for each axis that, when combined, cause the tooling to move in a straight line between those points. After all, you may be trying to move a cutting tool along a precise path and you need to cut a straight line. To make matters far more complicated, after the motion is already in progress, if the controller receives another command (for instance to move to point 10,5 after the initial move to 8/3) then it will “blend” the first move into the second, depending on rules you give it.

For instance, let’s say you start at 0,0, then issue a move to 10,0 but then immediately issue a second move to 10,10. You have to option of specifying how that motion will move through the 10,0 point. If you issue a “fine” move then the X axis has to decelerate to a stop completely before the Y axis starts its motion. However, you can also tell it that you only care that you get within 1 unit of the point, in which case the Y axis will start moving as soon as you get to point 9,0 and will do a curved move through point 10,1 on its way to 10,10 without ever moving though point 10,0. This is actually useful if you’re more concerned with speed than accuracy. Another option you have is to issue a linear move to 9,0 followed by a circular move to 10,1 (with center at 9,1) followed by a linear move to 10,10. That will cause the tooling to follow a similar path, but in this case you’re in precise control of the curved path that it takes. In neither case will either axis stop until it gets to the final point.

The other important feature of coordinated motion is synchronization of the axes. Typically the controller delegates lower level control of the axes to traditional axis controllers, and the coordinated motion controller just feeds the motion profiles to each axis. However, it’s imperative that each axis starts its motion at precisely the same time, or the path won’t be correct in the multi-dimensional space. That requires some kind of clock synchronization, and that’s the reason why you see options for things like Coordinated System Time Masters on ControlLogix and CompactLogix processors.

That was very brief, but I hope it was informative. If you do have to tackle coordinated motion on your next project, definitely allocate some time for reading your manufacturer’s literature on the subject because it’s a fairly steep learning curve, but clearly necessary if your project demands it.


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