Martin Walder, from Schneider Electric, charts the history of the Programmable Logic Controller, and, despite its success over the last 20 years, asks if it still has a role to play with the increased use of robots and the availability of logic motion controllers


ver the last twenty years, The Programmable Logic Controller

(PLC) has been a vital tool in the process of materials handling and packaging. The advantage of utilising a singular range of equipment has allowed end-users to benefit from reduced downtime and has increased long term efficiency. However, due to the increased demands

of speed and flexibility of packaging lines, an issue has come to light over whether traditional PLCs are still fit for purpose.

THE TRANSFORMATION OF THE PACKAGING INDUSTRY The packaging element of the food and beverage sector has now become the key focus of investment. It has been proven that this is now the area that will ultimately generate the most profit within the industry. Currently in the UK, the basic products

and processes for making food don’t often change. Seismic change in the process, such as the introduction of freeze-dry coffee in the nineties, is rare.

packaging equipment. It was in the early days that synchronisation occurred by mechanical cams with product picking done almost entirely by humans. Later in the 90s as PLC motion became more capable, synchronized servos started displacing mechanical cams. It was in 1999 that the picker robot was

introduced. It was directly controlled by a standard automotive type of robot controller, large standalone and not stainless steel and was able to pick, orient and place products from one specific location to another at speeds of

With just one PacDrive3 LMC Pro2 it is possible to control a series of Schneider Electric’s picking robots

up to 150 moves per minute, which made it a revolutionary piece of technology. In the 2000s we saw many picking and

packing lines with a combination of PLCs and robot controllers each with their own programming environments but joined by a network, they were functional but complicated to build and maintain. It is only in the last 5-10 years that we

have witnessed OEMs building or buying standalone mechanical robot arms and controlling them with PLC based motion control of the same type used to control the rest of the packaging line. Whilst the control systems are consistent, they require multiple controllers, many control cabinets for multi-robot lines and still don’t reach the highest speeds.

THE NEED FOR SPEED There is now a demand for faster lines that require multiple robots and sequenced motion axes. These need to fit into existing factories that have limited space and be fully IIoT enabled. The traditional PLC-based architecture

becomes more and more limited as the number of robots increases – since fast robots each typically require one PLC system. It is inevitable that traditional PLC-

Martin Walder, VP Industry, Schneider Electric

‘It is inevitable that traditional PLC-based control architecture will be phased out for this type of line, in favour of a new generation of high performance motion and robotic controllers, that also have PLC sequence capability’

The most important drivers in the

packaging industry comprise: shelf ready packaging, maximising product shelf density, utilising safer and more sustainable materials, customisation of products and the use of lighter packaging for refills. In food and beverage production, the

largest proportion of factory labour resides in the packaging areas. This again means greater saving, if automation and robotics can take over the repetitive tasks integrated on the factory floor. There is an ever-compelling case for the use of automation and robotics as access to low cost labour gets more difficult, the minimum wage increases and there is more focus on health and safety, whilst at the same time the cost of the technology is reducing.

BACK TO THE ‘90S Back in the 90s, the PLC became the predominant controller for automated


based control architecture will be phased out for this type of line in favour of a new generation of high-performance motion and robotic controllers, that also have PLC sequence capability. These controllers can sequence 130 high speed axes of motion across multiple robots and multiple machines.

IIOT CONNECTIVITY Fundamentally, these controllers not only outstrip the PLC for this control, but they also have the ability to offer full IIoT connectivity. They can benefit a magnitude of digital tools for remote tracking, monitoring, optimisation and remote services including the latest augmented reality support tools. Certain technologies, including

Schneider Electric’s compact PacDrive3, can drive success. With just one controller, it is possible to control a series of Schneider Electric’s picking robots, maybe 5 or 6 – as well as a wrapping machine. Additionally, the integrated motor/drive combination used to drive the robots can remove 100s of metres of cable and multiple control cabinets. The benefits truly are second to none.

Schneider Electric


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