Offering Both Promise and Pitfalls, Machine Builders and End Users Are Slow to Embrace the Technology
You often hear "faster, cheaper, better," as the performance mantra driving the design of today's new machinery. But this approach is much too simplistic and masks the business drivers behind the specification and purchasing process.
As automation specialists and machine builders, we tend to assume the same old criteria for speed, cost and performance. We also tend to think of solutions in terms of incremental advances in technology.
What we should be doing is studying the real business issues facing our customers, as well as those we confront at our own companies, and use the conclusions we draw from this research to drive our design decisions. In other words, let our customers help us choose the technologies we apply to our new designs.
For example, what does "faster" mean? Obviously, an improvement in cycles per minute is one measure. But, in the tissue-packaging machinery universe, changeover time has become an even more important measure of speed and operational efficiency. Why is that?
One reason is the dynamic occurring downstream in our customers' supply chain. Our research revealed that supply chain managers aren't thinking about faster packaging machines in their plants, they're thinking about finding software that responds faster to their customers' shorter order cycles.
That's because their customers--the retailers--are thinking about how they can reduce inventory carrying costs. Supermarket chains also are thinking three-packs of paper towels sell well, while club stores want 20-roll packs. For our customers, that meant turning packaging format processes on a dime.
Our job is to solve those far-removed problems through the innovative use of automation at the machine level. Here is how we sorted it out. First, we found that a 30-min. format changeover no longer was fast enough for our customers to efficiently go from one case format to the next. We needed to discover how to do a format change in under five minutes.
Such challenges, revealed through customer research, forced us to design machines in a different way. Instead of requiring operators to use hand tools to switch out format-change parts, we automated the routine and reduced manual intervention to a minimum. Now all the operator has to do is select a new recipe from a menu on the operator touchscreen.
Simple to say, but it called for a new machine design with simplified mechanisms and increased software and controls content. It meant we had to motorize the changeover process with servos and specifically design the mechanical components to accomplish the format change adjustments automatically.
But, the design's control functions go much deeper than that. Maintaining consistent quality across the format change demands that we develop systems to confirm the correct dimensions and the product and material-feed characteristics in an automated manner.
Further, scrap reduction pressures from our customers demanded that the machine not require hundreds of cycles to come up to tolerance levels. Because their market requires shorter and more numerous the runs, a higher percentage of scrap is generated during all those startups. Therefore, the automation system must be capable of anticipating and adjusting its automated routines without having to sense out-of-spec conditions first. And if we are to prompt the machines to accelerate faster, we must do so without damaging fragile tissue rolls or breaking the web of packaging film.
We discovered that to achieve the gain in control precision needed during startup was a software-based issue solved by incorporating fifth-degree polynomials and other equally sophisticated algorithms into the control routines.
We then turned our focus inward and began to more closely examine internal processes and procedures for new ways to drive improvement. For example, we questioned the business value of fabricating our own metal parts. After all, our local economy is rich with highly proficient job shops. In the end, we chose to outsource a function that traditionally would be considered a core competence for a machine builder.
This introspection led us to instead, focus more on innovation and best practices in software. Our journey took us to academia where we collaborated with the University of Bologna, which happens to be a world center for wrapping-machine kinematic studies. We also partnered with ELAU, an automation supplier which had both the packaging application expertise and the software functionality we needed to leapfrog the state-of-the-art in wrapping-machine control systems.
Freed by software from the constraints of mechanical designs, we began to solve new problems for our customers. For instance, installing a new machine at an existing paper mill can be a practical challenge. Our new servo-based design gave us the flexibility to create a compact, L-shaped footprint that suited the real-estate requirements of that particular client perfectly.
Automating safety functions generated additional benefits as well. In developing an automated guarding system, we were able to completely enclose the new machine. This resulted in two highly competitive benefits: paper dust could now be confined within the machine and ambient noise levels were reduced to just 80 dbA.
It all goes to show you that automation holds it greatest potential when you examine and understand the drivers behind your customers' business and investigate and question the status quo within your own organization.
Catello DiCarlo is director of project management for Tissue Machinery Co., headquartered in Bologna, Italy. Learn more about the company at http://www.tissue.it.