Last month's Converting Machinery/Materials (CMM) Conference and Exposition in Chicago was a nifty show to walk. I talked to a wide variety of machine builders who all work the same industry space, but some of whom have historically had little to do with one another--beyond sharing an exhibit hall from time to time.
Your basic converting plant buys equipment ranging from coaters, laminators, foil stampers, blown-film extruders, printing presses, winding and slitting machines, dryers, and more. Many of the machines are installed in an end-to-end system that may take raw webs of paper product in one end and spit out everything from newspapers to point-of-purchase packaging to magazines.
The machine OEM builds a machine and ships it off, where it's installed as a separate element that the customer has to integrate with all the others into an effective system.
It's not exactly what you'd call efficient, because much of the integration was mechanical linkage of the individual machine ins and outs. Control was restricted to the individual machines' proprietary systems--often semi-automatic at best, frequently manual--given the constant adjustments needed to control speed, alignment, registration, and a host of other variables.
Well, things have gotten a little better. That's what I heard from some of the industrial OEMs at the show.
The change agents are the same as we've seen in most machine industries: Open-standards architectures and industrial communications protocols to move data across networks have forced out a lot of proprietary legacy controls.
What appears to be different is the pace of that change. Where there's been a clear trend to integration collaboration among machine builder, customer, and system integrator in many machine segments, there's something of a power vacuum in the converting industry, leaving great variations in how, and to what extent, the many machines are integrated at the controls and automation level.
In a few cases, I found integration involvement of some or all the parties mentioned above, but the predominant solution is the result of an end user, working with one preferred automation vendor, figuring out how to pull everything together.
So far, many machine builders are waiting for signs of economic upturn and customer interest in collaboration before they're willing put on pioneer hats and proactively offer both new-generation controls and the integration and support skills to help make them happen.
Another state of the industry in evidence at the show is the amount of machine retrofit being done. There's a lot more of this is going on compared to purchase of next-generation equipment with up-to-date controls.
Even though there has been a clear movement toward using servo drives and motors instead of mechanical take-offs and line shafts for a while now, a number of machine builders are actively touting servos as a brand-new, big-deal, competitive advantage against competitors. I listened to conversations at several booths where prospective buyers were playing knowledge catch-up with the technology advantages.
When I asked why they hadn't been interested in servos before this, the answer was universally the same: Things have been so bad for the past several years that all they've been concentrating on, and all they have money for, is keeping the old stuff running.
The optimism is evident, though. This industry has a large, pent-up demand bubbling just below the surface. There are projects on the drawing board and at the "approved-but-wait-just-a-while longer" stage. Many believe economic dawn is near.
You've heard that before, I know. This time, I think they're right.
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