Machine building has become much more complex, and according to Baldor Australia Pty Ltd it's the software aspects of projects that are almost invariably the determining factor in successful outcomes.
The assertion comes as the company's Mint motion control language reaches its 21st birthday. Created by the UK start-up Optimised Control - now part of Baldor Electric - to provide open programming for motion control hardware, the Mint language has proved the enduring factor in the company’s success.
“It’s the softer side of motion control - simplicity and ease of programming, configuration and set-up - that we see making a big difference to machinery project efficiency, timescales and cost", says Mint's inventor, Mark Crocker of Baldor UK. "Many motion control vendors still tend to focus on hardware, and there can be little insight into programming aspects. Hardware integration is usually a small element of machine commissioning. It's software that accounts for most development time and there are big gains to be made by choosing the best development environment."
When it was launched in 1988, Mint's English-like commands – which Mark Crocker borrowed from his student experience of BASIC on home computers – were a revelation for a motion control community used to programming with mnemonic codes. With high level commands such as PRINT and SPEED, and other 'advanced' features like user-defined variable names, motion control programming started to become accessible to just about any engineer or technician. Today, thousands of machinery and automation OEMs and engineers worldwide use the language, which in its 21st year has reached version 5 and incorporates well over 100 man-years of code.
Mint stands for Motion Intelligence. It uses high-level keywords to simplify the development of motion control and I/O control, networking and HMI tasks on automation equipment. These keywords often provide the kernel of application software for common motion control tasks such as registration, labelling, cutting, etc.
During its long life, Mint has gone through several major evolutions. The most recent major release - version 5 - added multi-tasking capability and other high-level modular programming features such as functions and procedures, data types and scoped variables. It is these features that have kept Mint up to date with modern programming practices - helping to reduce development time, and make code more portable and easier to debug.
A key change was the introduction of Microsoft Windows as both a development front end and machine interface. The introduction of ActiveX components - which share a common API with the Mint language itself - make it easy for engineers to interface to Baldor’s motion controllers and programmable drives from any programming tool supporting ActiveX. This even includes the likes of Microsoft Excel and VBA (Visual Basic for Applications).
Mint is now tightly integrated with the Windows based developers toolsuite, Mint WorkBench, which is provided to developers without cost. The fully integrated development environment includes powerful program debugging facilities such as breakpoints, single-step program execution, variable watch, and auto-completion of code, to help deal with the growing complexity of machine design. A virtual motion controller facility also allows users code to be executed without connection to hardware, giving engineers the means to start developing and testing software before the hardware is ready. Although Mint started life as an interpreted language, the virtual machine concept is now used to speed execution and provides software portability across different Baldor control hardware platforms.
"What gives me a lot of pleasure is that Mint is one of just two or three recognisable software brands in the motion control market", adds Crocker. "I see it mentioned on engineers' resumes. I don’t think that would have been the case if we had stuck with the first name we thought of, which was BIFMOC (BASIC Interpreter For MOtion Control)! Our industry is evolving. We're starting to see more dedicated software engineers getting involved, and these individuals want to use the kind of tools they've trained with - like Visual Basic."