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Blockbuster effects, automated for any theatrical production
4th Quarter 2018, This Week's Editor's Pick, Electrical switching & drive systems & components

In William Shakespeare’s celebrated play, ‘As You Like It’, the legendary playwright famously wrote that “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women players”. Making the storytelling and action seem effortless and enabling the viewer to step into the lives of the characters on stage takes a herculean effort behind the scenes. This is where New York-based Hudson Scenic Studio comes into play, providing scene fabrication and automation services to the entertainment industry.

Hudson serves some of the largest and most successful Broadway shows to ever hit the stage and provides the means for creative directors and their crews to bring their boldest ideas to life. The company builds intricate scenery and stage props, and then makes that scenery dynamically move, shift and change to enhance the visual direction of the show. Every individual action, or effect, such as opening a trap door in the stage floor, lifting a section of scenery or helping an actor fly across the stage, requires complex control technology. There are virtually no limits to the imagination but the prerequisite for staging such blockbuster effects is that the mechanical systems, the software and the automation work smoothly.

Controlling all the complex moving parts in a large-scale theatrical production requires a robust control system in the background, and Hudson uses Beckhoff’s PC-based control technology, comprising CX2030 Embedded PCs with 1,5 GHz Intel Core i7 dual-core CPU, as well as CX5100 Embedded PCs with Intel Atom processors. Director, Chuck Adomanis explains the need for a variety of controllers: “Each of these devices acts as a primary system controller, running PLC, NC and HMI software as the main control devices in our automation system. The highly scalable range of controllers allows us to choose the right performance level for the job, and helps mitigate costs for the shows.”

TwinCAT 3 automation software provides the core underlying architecture for the control systems. Adomanis continues: “We use a variety of TwinCAT 3 packages for PLC and motion control, given the varied nature of our projects, and we utilise the full range of available TwinCAT modules: TwinCAT PLC and NC for axis control, TwinCAT ADS, TwinCAT TCP/IP Server or TwinCAT OPC UA for horizontal and vertical communication.” Remote access enables Hudson to diagnose equipment issues anywhere in the world without engineering teams having to physically travel to the venues, providing significant cost-savings which can be passed on to the customer.

Safety is paramount for stage and show applications. Hudson relies heavily on the TwinSAFE system from Beckhoff to integrate the wide range of necessary safety functions into the automation system, such as guard doors and e-stops. Communication of the real-time relevant signals in the field takes place via EtherCAT. EtherCAT Terminals and EtherCAT Box Modules offer best-in-class speed, as well as a minimal footprint – essential in the space-constrained applications Hudson takes on.

For motion tasks, Hudson relies on AX5000 series EtherCAT servo drives and AM8000 series synchronous servomotors from Beckhoff, a change from the three-phase induction motor systems used in the past. Beckhoff servo drive technology is now the standard motion system. “As the technical demands of our projects continue to grow and change, One Cable Technology for the motors and drives, when coupled with absolute encoder technology, provides excellent value in our projects and will be our standard on new equipment,” Adomanis says.

Beyond added flexibility in system design and maintenance, Hudson achieved impressive performance increases. Adomanis explains: “With our previous PLC and motion system, we were living in a world with scan times higher than 20 milliseconds for PLC commands and motion control. Now, our scan times are around 1 or 2 milliseconds.” In addition, engineering costs have been greatly decreased while efficiency has increased. Code written for one project is easily scaled from one effect to another. Adomanis also notes that margins have dramatically improved on projects and Hudson can go after applications large and small and maintain high profitability.

As these projects grow in scope and technological complexity, the Hudson team is ready to meet any entertainment engineering challenge that comes their way. With Beckhoff providing the controls foundation, these talented engineers have the necessary tools to keep bringing the artistic visions and dreams of stage and show professionals into reality.

For more information contact Michelle Murphy, Beckhoff Automation, +27 11 795 2898,

Supplied By: Beckhoff Automation
Tel: +27 11 795 2898
Fax: 086 603 6868
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