OEMs Are Retaining Automation Knowledge by Documenting, Sharing and Reusing It

Reuse That Automation Know-How: Machine Builders Make the Most of Standards and Modular Design to Overcome Resource Constraints

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February 2010By Dan Hebert, PS, Senior Technical Editor

The customers of machine and robot builders demand more nowadays, from lower cost to higher performance and greater flexibility. Machine builders must meet those demands while dealing with inevitable internal constraints.

The most important of these constraints is finding the right people to design and build their machines. "The availability of design engineering resources is a constraint to growth," says Craig Souser, president of JLS Automation (www.jlsautomation.com) in York, Pa. JLS provides robotic-based automation systems for primary packaging applications, with a major focus on the food-processing segment.

The push toward greater integration between IT and automation exacerbates the problem. "Our automation engineers need both IT and networking knowledge," notes Ryan Thompson, automation and electrical supervisor at Wolf-tec (www.wolf-tec.com) in Kingston, N.Y. Wolf-tec is an OEM in the meat and poultry and fish-processing industries. "We've discovered that more and more automation decisions are made by our customers' IT departments," adds Thompson. "Having people with an IT or computer programming background also helps us with newer technologies such as class and control development that have been a standard in computer programming and are starting to be used in machine programming.

So machine builders need excellent automation engineers with IT experience, but that's not enough. "Automation professionals need an understanding of the impact that their designs have in the manufacturing world," says Robert McConnell, controls engineering manager at Kuka Systems (www.kuka-systems.com) in Sterling Heights, Mich. Kuka is a manufacturer and integrator of tooling and robotic applications. "It's relatively easy for a controls engineer to design a new tool and hand it off to manufacturing, but to take an existing tool and provide a design that simplifies installation takes a bit more foresight," adds McConnell. "One needs to consider the entire scope of work."

So an automation professional needs to know automation, be strong in IT and understand the customer's entire manufacturing process. It goes without saying that the best automation pros must also know their own machines and robots inside out.

The brute-force way to deal with the resource constraint is to find a large number of superstars and hire them. This is, of course, extremely expensive to the point of not being entirely realistic.

A more intelligent approach is to create machines that can be developed and maintained by fewer highly skilled automation pros using a team approach. These products are easier to build and simpler to maintain. This approach requires an entirely different method of designing machines, one that relies on standards and modules instead of custom designs.

Heroes Are Hard to Find

Haumiller Engineering (www.haumiller.com), Elgin, Ill., carved out a niche in high-speed, automated assembly machines, often in the form of continuous motion (Figure 1). Haumiller's top goal is reliable, accurate machines that exceed performance expectations. "But consistency is also important," says Pat Phillips, Haumiller's engineering manager. "No matter who works on a project from engineering or production, the results should be the same. So standards and modular design become even more important."

Phillips says it can be very difficult to design or construct machine modules or segments in advance. "What we can do, however, is document and use standard methods to execute specific controls and design tasks, to debug our processes in-house and to handle customer changes."

Besides the standard methods it follows, Phillips says Haumiller is lucky to have a very robust experience repository. "This isn't just people," he states. "It's drawings and solutions logged over 45 years in the high-speed, continuous motion business. If we get a project, often we have ideas for solutions in the first five minutes. While custom solutions are most of what we do, prior methods and solutions are often applicable, lowering the risk of an automated assembly project."

Designing a custom machine for each project is the most straightforward and often lowest-cost method of producing a product. The product does only what it's supposed to do and no more. "Unfortunately, single-purpose custom machines that can't be retrofitted easily for different applications are not saleable," says Pavel Bouška, area sales manager for Velteko CZ (www.velteko.cz) in the Czech Republic. Velteko makes vertical form fill and seal packaging machines and accessories.

Standards Require Investment

Bradbury (www.bradburygroup.com) in Moundridge, Kan., builds machines for metal forming and coil processing, with its largest customers in the metal building and garage door industries (Figure 2). It calls its approach "total system control." It consists of a control solution framework, a control system architecture and control solution standards.

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