“A lot of people don’t realize the technology used in
amusement industry is the same automation tech used
in the factory,” says Linda Freeman, Rockwell Automation’s business development manager for the entertainment industry. “Automotive plants want people to
work collaboratively and not put guards up. Those are
engineering concepts from the theme park business.”
There are safety gates, of course, which only open
when the train car is stopped, because theme parks do
have the tendency to bring out the dumb in people. The
point is, though, that people interact with this powerful
machinery, and only strap in because they trust that
they won’t fall out during a barrel roll. And that the
brakes will activate when they need to.
To safely ensure that happens, the ride relies on a
safety programmable logic controller, just like a robot
or virtually any automated piece of machinery.
“Where the PLCs really do a lot of work is when you’re
coming into a brake run,” says Brian Ondrey, of Steel
Vengeance’s motion control integrator Irvine-Ondrey.
“It does speed calculations, and through that calcu-
lating is how to slow the ride down, and how long to
activate the braking. You have to plan for unknowns in
the system, like different speeds. You’re never going
to come into the break at the same speed.”
Irvine-Ondrey picked Rockwell’s GuardLogix 5570
Controller, which not only opens and closes the braking
system, but monitors proximity switches on the track
and e-stops. They work by constantly hailing a signal to
ensure each input has an open line of communication.
When interrupted, the system goes directly to safe
mode, which would mean locking the train in place.
The alternative could be that the brakes don’t activate
and one train car smashes into another.
Two Steel Vengeance cars were involved in minor
bumping incident on opening day in May, but Ondrey
asserts that it had nothing to do with the PLC, though
couldn’t comment further.
What has everything to do with GuardLogix controller
is ease of integration.
“Back in the day, we had to run wires for everything
from the main cabinet,” Ondrey says. “Now all we have
is Ethernet and main power going to each section of
Remote I/O switches act a waystation for the various
inputs, such as proximity switches.
What separates safety PLCs from normal ones is
the redundancy. The command codes are stored in
protective memory and cannot change.
Since being launched in 2005, the GuardLogix line
has become the premier safety PLC for the amuse-
ment industry, says Brad Prosak, a Rockwell product
manager for safety controllers.
The greatest advantage of having a safety PLC like
the GuardLogix is the internal redundant architec-
ture perpetually checking that the hardware will run
as expected all on one product.
“Before GuardLogix, they were building safe rides,
but what they were doing to achieve that is to build two
of everything, so there was no single point of failure,”
Prosak says. “Two control systems checking the same
sensors, and controlling the same output to deenergize
if the situation ever arose.”
This would make the initial validation test extremely
time intensive, as two engineers would have to inde-
pendently code the various programming, then cross-
check, or peer review, each other’s work to make sure
they match up.
The automotive industry uses the GuardLogix to
control the skids that carry chassis around the factory
floor. If they had to cross-check, Prosak says it could
Newly released versions of the 5000-series have
faster processing power and allow for the choice of
lower levels of scaling, a compact footprint and simpler
architecture, Prosak says. Sometimes the automation
is simple and you may have to run a light curtain for
a fenced-in industrial robot application, or it can be a
crowded work cell with cobots and humans working
And Freeman says that getting these safety controls
right on a roller coaster, one rife with death-defying
turns and hordes of hyper children, proves that they
will work in manufacturing. In fact, Rockwell sees their
products engineered for amusement become actual
muses for future plant innovations.
“We look toward the entertainment industry as a
technology indicator for where manufacturing will be
going in the future,” says Freeman, pointing directly to
the advances in dark rides, ones with carts inside a
building that rely on audio and video to stimulate the
senses. “You need very accurate position and time
control. If you don’t have that, the guest will get sick
because the body can tell something is out of sorts.”
Leaving the park that night, with my body perfectly
in sorts, I thought about all the extremes I experienced
throughout the day. Like when I was shot up a 420-ft.
hill at 120 mph in 4 seconds on Top Thrill Dragster.
This strata-coaster launches the 15,000-lb car via a
hydraulic system that generates 10,000 HP. It repeats
that every few minutes for most of the day, though high
winds and other factors can induce temporary stoppages. It’s amazing that it does this at such a height,
speed and acceleration so smoothly and safely.
It’s a heart-pounding, but fleeting, ride. A good-while-it-lasts kind of thing. Weeks later, Steel Vengeance
is still with me, mostly due to the shame I carry from
giggling so much as grown man. I will also still always
remember Mean Streak, but mostly because it was
Cedar Point’s equivalent to a prostate exam: tolerated
out of utilitarian necessity.
I’ve found that manufacturing operates the same way.
If you go all-new and flashy, you’ll have unsustainable
success. If you stick with the old, you’ll get the job done
but it will be full of pain points. If you merge the best of
both worlds, whether it’s with your workforce or equipment, you may get more something exponentially better
than either part.
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Rockwell Automation’s GuardLogix controllers have become the preeminent safety PLCs of the amusement
world, and work just as well on the automotive production line.