• By Kevin Kakascik
  • Operations & Management

OEMs and hobbyists benefit from technology’s trickle-down effect.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Many industrial applications and small machines with a motor and limited I/O requirements can benefit from using AC VFDs with an integrated PLC.
We have witnessed the trickle-down effect of technology. From expensive luxury brand cars to the newest mobile phone each year, the top model almost always has exclusive features. However, frugal and patient consumers—as opposed to early adopters—will eventually see these same technologies become available on lower-cost products.

This fairly universal model spans many industries, among them industrial automation. AC variable frequency drive (VFD) users continue to benefit from new features formerly available only on flagship products.

VFD progress

Electric motor speed often needs to be controlled for applications involving machinery, pumps, and other equipment (figure 1). At one time, the only way to vary the speed of an electric motor—while maintaining full torque below base speed—was to use a DC motor and a DC drive. This was because the first AC VFDs only operated in V/Hz mode and lost torque proportionally with any decrease below their base speed. However, once the flux-vector AC VFD became available, 100 percent of the motor’s torque could be produced across the entire speed range from zero to base speed.

Early flux-vector AC VFDs experienced several problems. Limited horsepower ranges were available; the units were large and kept in a room away from other equipment; and long cable lengths caused electrical issues. These were also expensive, custom-engineered drive systems.

Eventually, the trickle-down effect began to occur, and flux-vector VFDs were sold as packaged products that could work for many applications. Lower-cost VFDs remained available for basic applications needing only simple V/Hz control.

By the early 2000s, fewer custom-engineered systems drives were sold, and most were prepackaged but had impressive features in addition to supporting flux-vector control. Other popular features included advanced networking capabilities, safety features such as safe torque off, proportional-integral-derivative (PID) control, and even a built-in programmable logic controller (PLC) with expansive I/O options to allow for process or machine control in addition to motor control.

The least with the most

Just a few years ago, the lowest-cost VFDs on the market still only supported V/Hz control and were basic, with lower quality to remain affordable for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and hobbyists. Again, the trickle-down effect has taken place, and many higher-end features and improved build quality are found on lower-cost VFDs.

Today’s entry-level VFDs, within the price range of OEMs and hobbyists, make project design and implementation much easier with features like:

  • single-phase input to three-phase output
  • sensorless vector control for increased torque at lower speeds
  • advanced support for networks such as EtherNet/IP and Modbus TCP
  • PID control for process closed-loop control
  • an integrated PLC to perform logic, which in some applications eliminates the need for a separate PLC.

These newly available features can benefit users in many ways.

Singe phase to three phase. A VFD with a single-phase input and a three-phase output is a “no-brainer” when comparing features for an OEM or hobbyist. Most hobbyists do not have three-phase power available in their shops or garages, but they may need to control a three-phase motor. For an OEM, this feature gives the option to design for a single-phase power connection and is likely to appeal to more customers, and not just those with three-phase power available. 

Although a VFD is not a phase converter, it can convert 120 VAC or 230 VAC single-phase to a three-phase output for motor control. The benefits of choosing a three-phase motor over a single-phase motor are too lengthy to list, but improved speed control is usually enough to convince users that a three-phase motor is the best choice. 

Torque. Sensorless vector control allows users to reduce motor speed to very low speeds without losing torque. On a typical lower-cost VFD with only V/Hz control (also known as scalar control), the motor loses output torque proportionally to the reduction in speed. For example, a 0.5 hp motor with a base speed of 1,725 rpm and a full load torque rating of 1.5 lb-ft at 100 percent speed will only provide 1.0 lb-ft at 66 percent speed. With sensorless vector control technology, it is possible to produce 100 percent of the motor’s torque output at very low speeds.

Before sensorless vector technology was available, designers could use a lower rpm motor of the same horsepower to achieve the lower fixed speed, or they could use a DC motor and drive. The former is not adjustable and often involves a larger frame size, which may require higher-cost mechanical changes. The latter is robust but calls for higher maintenance, such as changing brushes, and many smaller DC drives are analog and lower tech. They do not typically offer communications or fancier control options, at least at the same price point.

Networking. Advanced networking is a bonus for many reasons. Many VFDs—even going back to the very first ones available—supported some sort of serial communications but may have required specialized cables. Today, many VFDs commonly support Ethernet communications, so configuring the VFD is more convenient, and if more than one VFD is installed and controlled by a separate PLC, they are easily networked together. The ability for human-machine interface and supervisory control and data acquisition systems to monitor and control many VFDs connected on a manufacturing plant network is attractive to end users and OEMs alike, providing advanced operation and supporting proactive maintenance to avoid breakdowns.

Figure 2
Figure 2. Many AC VFDs have built-in PLC logic operation with simple programming interfaces that will be familiar to those with PLC programming experience. They also include other features such as PID control and Ethernet communications.
PID control. For applications involving analog process control—such as the flow of a pump or fan—it is usually necessary to implement closed-loop PID control. This can be accomplished in a PLC. However, for many applications, the VFD can more effectively handle this function locally, while offering an easy interface to tune the loop, saving substantial time during the machine startup. 

Most machines require some sort of control even if they are not operating an analog process. Originally, this required hardwired relay logic, which was eventually superseded by PLCs to a great extent. For many smaller applications—especially in the OEM or hobbyist realm—a PLC integrated into the VFD has adequate I/O to control everything needed and represents a win-win on cost, design/programming labor, and panel space (figure 2).

Micro VFD considerations

Figure 3
Figure 3. Micro VFDs can fit into about the same space as a traditional contactor/overload combo, yet provide many benefits and can even reduce costs in many areas.
There are few technical downsides to using a micro VFD in simple, lower-cost applications. A good rule to follow is if you are certain that you will never need to adjust the speed of a motor, then do not purchase a VFD. But if there is even a slight chance that the motor speed may need adjustment, then a newer, low-cost, high-feature VFD should be a top consideration.

Concerns might be the added size of a VFD compared to a contactor or starter, but some current models are palm size and consume about the same space as a motor contactor and overload combo (figure 3). These micro VFDs have a built-in PLC, PID control, sensorless vector control, advanced network support, and I/O expansion—at a cost comparable to that of a motor contactor and overload combo—but with added benefits and reduced costs in other areas. They are available consolidated into a NEMA 4X package suitable for washdown areas (figure 4).

Figure 4
Figure 4. A modern micro VFD with advanced features and a NEMA 4X rating can provide all the necessary logic, process, and motor control for a compact application, and often an entire control enclosure can be eliminated.

OEM machines often use a small PLC controlling an across-the-line motor starter assembly. Traditional designs typically require three-phase power, but many end users want this machine to work in single-phase facilities. Instead of creating two separate designs, the OEM could replace the PLC and motor starter assembly with one newer VFD that can accept a single-phase power input. With this solution, the OEM solves the problem; costs are reduced; and there are fewer components and more potential customers.

Even today’s hobbyists have a need for micro VFDs. For example, many individuals buy a second-hand industrial lathe or grinder, which most likely requires three-phase power for one or more motors. Even if the motor(s) is replaced, the user should replace it with another three-phase motor, so the speed may be varied. If the final use of the machine is a residential garage or personal workshop, it is unlikely the user will have three-phase power available. Although the output of the VFD cannot be used to power the entire machine, some minor wiring changes can be incorporated, allowing the VFD to control the three-phase motor with a single-phase input.

Although basic small VFDs still exist, there are several compelling reasons for OEMs, hobbyists, and other end users to use newer and extremely capable micro VFDs. In many cases, these micro VFDs have benefited from the trickle-down effect.

All figures courtesy of AutomationDirect


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About The Authors

Kevin Kakascik is a technical marketing engineer at AutomationDirect. Over his 20-year career he has held controls engineering positions for machine OEMs, entertainment industry systems integrators, and material handling systems integrators. He holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science and engineering technology and an associate’s degree in electrical engineering technology.