OEMs Focus on Building Smarter Machines

How OEMs Are Leveraging the Wealth of Information That's Available on Machines Today to Build Competitive Advantage or Reduce Costs

By Aaron Hand

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There was a time when industrial manufacturers had large engineering departments that made all the decisions on how their machines would look and operate. But more and more, that breadth and depth of expertise is leaving the building and manufacturers are instead handing their specs to the machine builders and leaving it to them to figure out how to get the job done.

The OEMs, meanwhile, look to their automation suppliers to get the tools they need to ease machine design and development. Much of that is geared toward building smarter machines — more integrated, more sustainable, safer machines that provide the information and diagnostics machine builders and users need. And it needs to be done easier and cheaper in the long run.

At Rockwell Automation's Global Machine & Equipment Builders Forum in November, panel members focused in large part on the information and diagnostics capabilities of smart machines — how OEMs are leveraging the wealth of information that's available on machines today to build competitive advantage or reduce costs.

"Cost is a big deal," said Matt Wicks, vice president of systems engineering for Intelligrated, which provides automated material handling systems. "We're leveraging the technology and integrated architecture to reduce not only the hardware cost, but the engineering cost, and also the cost of servicing the equipment."

Intelligrated not only accesses the data on its machines, but is able to take action to keep those systems running more smoothly. The company gets data out of its high-speed sorters, for example, to recognize problems early. "We monitor the amount of chain sag that we have over time, and determine what maintenance needs to happen," Wicks said. "We use this as a competitive advantage."

Focke uses machine data to get a better view of the bigger picture, said Heino Fecht, automation and design development manager for Focke. The German packaging machine supplier uses PackML, which defines a common language for automated machines. "We have the latest 500 stop codes, so we can see why a machine has stopped," Fecht said, noting that the open standard makes it easier to access codes and correct issues. "We usually can track and sort which are the highest fault codes, and get better performance."

Like other panel members, Focke uses EtherNet/IP for machine communications. "We started seven years ago to eliminate other networks, and now we use only EtherNet/IP," Fecht reported. Although it was a bit of a struggle to get employees used to the switch, the move has been good, he added. "Now we're looking to eliminate Sercos."

Spoolex, a French company that makes converting equipment for web-formed products, has replaced DeviceNet and ControlNet with EtherNet/IP, and is gradually replacing Sercos with CIP Motion, according to Sebastien LeGris, automation and engineering manager for Spoolex.

Michael Sweet, director of MES at First Solar, agreed that it was difficult to get everybody on board at first, but the move to EtherNet/IP has been a good one. "We've seen a lot of advantages," said Sweet, who brought a user's perspective to the discussion. First Solar makes photovoltaic modules for the solar energy industry, and has been able to make use of the integrated logic, Sweet said. In the past, First Solar had to interlock machines to pass the product from one to another. "Now we've created an electronic interlock through EtherNet/IP. All of it is pre-packaged now; very plug and play."

Speaking to the plug and play aspects, Lorenzo Razo, engineering manager for Hybernya Industrial in Irapuato, Mexico, noted that the commonality of cables and connectors makes repairs or replacements easy.

"We see big data coming," Wicks noted. "Being able to take that data, being able to parse it out, and serve it up to customers…is going to be very, very critical."

Having data is one thing. Making good use of that data is something more. "It's just data until you turn it into useful information," Sweet said, noting the need to make sure the data is being collected in the right format, and put it through analytical systems. "When the user base is able to use the multivariate analytics, then you'll see the real value."

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