Machine Controls Go All In

Despite the many risks that accompany new technology deployment, the time to move forward is now. Find a new competitive advantage for your customers and you'll have the justification and confidence to bet big on new machine controls.

By Dan Hebert

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Sept. 2004, cover imageThe question is among the most basic that an industrial OEM will ask of itself. At some point it asks: "Can we justify an upgrade to our machine control system?" Eventually -- and the timing might be different for every industrial OEM -- the answer will be yes, it's time to move forward, despite the many risks that accompany new technology deployment.

That's because customers always will need more efficiency, performance, quality and safety, among other issues, sometimes before they even realize the impact those issues are having on their businesses. Such needs almost always will be satisfied by the knowledge, skills, and good business sense of the OEMs that supply the machines to those customers.

The reasons the machine builder finds to justify the move to new controls will vary just as the timing does. This article examines the way five industrial machine builders decided they could and should justify the investment and the risk.

While those reasons might vary, the end result is the same,their customers realized substantial benefits, and the machine builders strengthened their market positions.

Manual Control Kills Consistency
Extru-Tech ( in Sabetha, Kan., is a manufacturer of extrusion systems sold internationally to the pet food, aquaculture, animal feed and human food industries. Its decision tree for upgrading controls was driven by the need to meet increased expectations from its customers, first and foremost.

The conversion of grain-based formulas to food and feed requires the metering of the mash (grain blend) to the extrusion system at precise rates and the addition of steam, water, oils, colorants, chemicals, slurries and often fresh meat at specific rates. The extrusion system combines ingredients in a conditioning cylinder, mixes, hydrates, elevates temperatures and then exposes the conditioned mash to the extruder barrel. As the product exits the barrel through a die plate, the cooked formula is shaped and cut to size by a rotary knife with a variable-speed drive.

"Wide fluctuations in final moisture will have a direct impact on product quality, stability and bottom-line profits," says William Huseby, director of sales at Extru-Tech.

Extru-Tech provided manual controls with its equipment and attained acceptable results for many years. "However, in today's environment, the cost of labor, utilities and raw materials continues to climb and the use of control automation is becoming a requirement for bottom-line conscious operations," says Huseby.

Huseby's group realized that consistency of production and product quality is of utmost customer importance and moving to next-level automation would help assure this,even with changeover in operating personnel. "We saw we had to have consistent control of material feed, steam, water and other additions to the system, and make certain that gelatinization in the pre-conditioner remains constant and final product quality can be reasonably determined without excessive sampling, says Huseby. "We also saw we could eliminate some blending operations and provide the ability to combine ingredients, both dry and liquid on-line. This also indicated significant reduction in changeover time. Changeover time reduction relates to the ability to blend on-line and the possibility to run one formula to the end followed immediately by the next formula. Combine the increase in production with reduced changeover time and lack of rework and you have measurable results."

Bachelor Controls ( worked with Extru-Tech to develop the Autopilot extrusion control system and realizes the dilemmas that are there for companies considering new automation. "We often struggle with 'what the customer needs vs. what we're capable of providing' issue, so we only try to push for performance enhancements when we can justify them as the best solution for the customer," says Will Henry, senior project engineer, Bachelor Controls. "Our best performance enhancement example actually led to the development of a packaged solution, which further drove down production costs and increased ROI."

Companies now using Extru-Tech equipment with the Autopilot control system report a 10% increase in yields (See Figure 1). Huseby says customers have reported that the control enhancements have allowed them to increase production rates more than 40%, much of it from changeover time reductions of up to 66%.

Figure 1: Profit Squeeze
Companies using Extru-Tech's extruding equipment with the Autopilot control system report a 10% increase in yields, with customers reporting production rates increases of more than

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