Delivering Plant Intelligence with Smart Motor Starters

The automated motor starter is quite possibly the most integral single piece of any automated manufacturing set up. Nothing moves without being turned on. This ubiquity makes it an ideal intelligence platform for factory control, performance management, safety, maintenance and all those other systems that promise more uptime, better efficiency and more profitability.

“Everyone in the plant is screaming for more information these days,” says Matthew Thornton, a marketing manager with Siemens Industry Inc. “Almost every machine, every device does something that you want to monitor, measure or control for one reason or another so you really want the ability to pull that data off all the critical devices and using smart motor starters is an excellent way to do that.”

So what makes a motor starter “smart?”

“Smart, at the minimum, starts with some kind of communications capability,” says John Burns who is responsible for product marketing for Siemens’ line of smart motor starters. “What we are doing now not only provides the ability to start and stop the device, but to commission it in the first place and then monitor the key data off that motor as well. In the past all the starters had to be wired up to some kind of PLC or control system and even then all you could do was start and stop the thing, and maybe measure power consumption. But now we are taking the Fieldbus all the way to the actuator itself and it’s much more powerful.”

Siemens devices come equipped with high-speed RS 485 communications and even TCP/IP communications to meet this requirement.

In addition to communications capabilities, Burns identifies three key elements that make a motor starter “smart.”

Parameterization: Does the motor starter have the ability to be parameterized instead of requiring that someone codes the control system for all the functionality. Intelligent starters use software utilities with graphical user interfaces (GUI) that allow simple parameterization of the device.

“This has a number of advantages,” says Burns. “To start with this allows for easy manipulation of the starter’s settings, and how it should react if communications go down.

Diagnostics: “The motor starter should give you more than just the auxiliary contact feed back that the contactor is on or off,” says Burns. “Ideally, you really want extended diagnostics with tripping status information like the number of times the starter tripped, the highest amperage during all of the tripping events, how many hours the motor has run, the asymmetry between the three phases and even the number of hours the starter has run. All of this information gives insight into the mean time before failure (MTBF) for every motor load.”

Having even some of this information on hand dramatically affects the speed with which the maintenance crew can react to a downtime event, or better yet, avoid one by proactively scheduling maintenance at a time when it will have the least disruption to production.

Integration: “I think it’s very important that whatever device you use, whether it’s ours or another vendor’s, it integrates easily and seamlessly into your automation control architecture. Integration is such a big deal in general and you really want things to be as close to plug and play as possible, especially for something like motor starters which are so numerous in the plant.”

In Siemens’ case the parameterization software can be launched from within the automation hardware configuration so once the CPU’s, I/O’s, HMI’s, Drives & Starters are configured, you can then launch and parameterize the starters. This can then be saved to the project file, and then the project can be downloaded to the CPU; which in turn downloads the parameterization to the starters.

“To me it’s a lot like NASCAR” says Burns referring to the auto racing circuit. “Those cars are full of all kinds of sensors and the pit crew remotely monitors many key performance metrics throughout a race. Downtime to a race car is an unplanned pit stop which impacts performance and costs precious seconds or, even worse, a fault that leads to a failure to finish the race. They watch everything that’s happening and use that intelligence to make minor adjustments to tweak performance and do preventative maintenance to head off major problems when the car comes into the pit.

“The factory floor is exactly the same. If you are paying attention to what’s happening you can gain more control and make sure you are getting the best performance possible out of your equipment.”

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