Let's face it, many industrial machine builders perform a never-ending high-wire act. They use emerging technologies to give themselves a competitive advantage, while they, in turn, provide a similar, usable advantage to customers.
It's a delicate balance--usually a just-enough-to-be-different-and-better-so-as-to-increase-my-market-share" advantage, but one that doesn't bankrupt the technology capability of that customer, because "we've been laying off people for years now and just don't have the in-house technology expertise we had 10 years ago."
That's a mouthful, I know, but it's not far off the mark. The decision to embrace new technology is a tough one. Our industry has seen lot of false starts for every legitimate and usable technology advancement. Guess wrong and your market standing can suffer for years to come.
So, when I met Joe Cowman, vice president of operations, and Peter Vandegeijn, senior project engineer, from National Instrument of Baltimore, I was impressed by their decision to take a bold step forward with their filling machines. That's National Instrument Co., the filling machine builder, not National Instruments, the virtual instrumentation pioneer. National sells to food and beverage, pharmaceutical and biotech, specialty chemicals, and consumer products manufacturers. Like many filling machine companies, National for years used a traditional piston pump metering system for its filling machines.
But as industry demands changed to smaller lots and frequent changeovers, National found itself needing to provide machines with more flexibility, fill-verification capability, and the versatility to handle a wide range of products and fill sizes. Piston pumps just weren't up to the task.
National decided to try straight-tube Coriolis meter technology for flow control. Coriolis adoption is growing in process plants, but its use as part of a filling machine measuring mass flow is not at all a mainstream approach.
"Coriolis is not yet a widely known alternative as a [filling machine] metering device," said Vandegeijn. "And it's a new technology that we still have a great deal to learn about."
High marks for honesty, but they saw mass flow technology as the best means to fulfill the design objectives, and they were prepared to put their reputation on the line for it.
So far, so good. "Our first three production machines are recently delivered to a photographic chemical plant," said Cowan. "The simple flow path was beneficial due to the corrosive nature of the products, and it meant minimal exposure for the employees."
By the way, the shocker was to discover that, of all the chemical plants in all the towns of the world, they sold that first production model of their Coriolis-based machine to the Fuji Photographic Chemicals plant in Rolling Meadows, Ill. When I worked there, all those years ago, it was the Hunt Chemical photographic chemicals plant. Hmm, maybe I can take some credit for planting the seeds of risk-taking and an open attitude toward new technology at the facility. No, probably not, but talk about a small world.
One last thought. Many of you will soon receive an e-mail from us with the 2003 Readers' Choice ballot attached. It's again time for you--not editors, not industry pundits--to tell us which companies make the best products and provide the best service to North American machine builders. It's designed to take about five minutes to complete. We'll present the winners in the November issue.
I can't stress enough how important it is to have a strong response to the ballot. Use the opportunity to recognize good suppliers, and maybe to shake up all the others a little. Thanks in advance.
E-mail your stories to Joe at firstname.lastname@example.org