There isn't a machine builder company in business today that doesn’t feel an uncompromising pressure from its customers, new and old, to provide machines that are more productive, more reliable, and more easily configurable and re-configurable than previous machine generations.
If they’re not careful, this pressure to be all things to all customers can push builders into costly custom solutions. These can force them to spend too much time and money simply building, and have too little time remaining to improve machine designs and performance, and help customers achieve their long-range plans.
Automatic Feed Co. (AFCO), Napoleon, Ohio, a privately owned designer and manufacturer of coil-handling and press-feeding automation equipment for automakers and their Tier One suppliers, saw these events converging many years ago. The company strove to take a standardized approach to its machine building, but saw the realization of those plans resisted by market conditions of the time.
By 2003, AFCO had extensively researched its customers’ needs, and saw a tremendous opportunity to improve both its customers’ and its own bottom lines with a standardization program that made its machines lean, flexible, and productive. The company called this process its Standardization and Modularization Action Resource Team (SMART) initiative. Consequently, late in 2005, AFCO launched machines that embody what it calls its “device-neutral, distributed-device architecture” (DDA) approach.
|FIGURE 1: PROGRESSIVE THINKING|
The first system Automatic Feed Co. tackes with its SMART process was a progressive die-stamping line for an automotive OEM. It consisted of nine electrical modules/machines requiring approximately 3,000 sq. ft. of floor space and hundreds of automotive components.
What It Takes
The first system Automatic Feed tackled with its new SMART process was a progressive, die-stamping line for an automotive OEM (See Figure 1). It consisted of nine electrical modules/machines requiring approximately 3,000 sq. ft. of floor space. A system this size easily can involve hundreds of components that each OEM might specify from its own favored brands. For an industrial OEM, this can be like re-inventing the wheel for each system it builds.
“Prior to this undertaking, we were driven simultaneously toward cost reductions, ease of use, flexibility, and quality improvement without the comfort of solid, standard machine configurations,” says Kim Beck, AFCO’s president. “Each automaker traditionally has its own set of machine standards, as well as a list of approved component suppliers. We had to study all the various system requirements, and come up with one component-neutral standard that would satisfy each of them.”
Once this was accomplished, says Beck, the company set the design parameters, and called on each component supplier to fit into these requirements. “We wanted a standard plug-and-play concept,” he adds. “It wouldn’t matter whose motors, drives, or valves we used. They all had to fit the system as we designed it.”
Plan Comes Together
Every aspect of AFCO’s equipment design is segmented into standardized subsystems. For the initial progressive die project, this included coil cart, uncoiler, peeler and hold-down unit, pinch roll and crop shear unit, leveler, feeder, exit feeder and scrap chopper, main operator console and main enclosure. These SMART systems are designed with self-contained modular mechanics, control devices, and logic.
|FIGURE 2: STAND BY ME|
Controls and hardware devices are located on the DDA Stand alongside the machine, reducing the number of enclosures. Since all units are standardized control-neutral subsystems, the stands function as modular plug-and play-devices.
“We locate the industrial controls and hardware devices on our DDA Stand alongside the machine (See Figure 2), reducing the number of enclosures,” says Brad West, AFCO’s senior electrical project engineer. “Since all the units are standardized, control-neutral subsystems, the DDA stands function as modular plug-and play-devices.” This simplification reduces material and labor cost, as well as improving reliability by reducing potential failure points, and easing troubleshooting by concentrating the controls’ location.
“Previously, we’d produce an entire line control that was incapable of being separated. It was an all-or-nothing approach to running the line,” says West. “Now we use multiple programs to run various areas of the line, allowing for independent testing.”
Likewise, using modular I/O blocks, safety blocks, and corresponding cord-and-connector sets helped make modularity the key to simplicity and reliability in installation, commissioning, and reliable operation.