In a Flash: Innovator Awards 2007

Our second-annual Innovator Award winners and their machines were chosen based on end users who decided whether they caught lightning in a bottle for their applications or just a lightning bug.

By Jim Montague, Executive Editor

Blinding light! Wait a few seconds. Boom!

You know the physics. Impossibly hot and high-voltage for the briefest instant, lightning and thunder explosively rebalance the differing electrical charges between masses of fixed land and moving atmosphere.

Innovators perform the same role. They reset the stage—and are almost as dauntless as lightning itself. Or, as 19th Century French novelist Victor Hugo stated, "Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come."

So, is that what’s the matter with all these guys? Leonardo DaVinci, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, and all the other famous and nameless innovators through history seem to share one attribute—they just can’t leave well enough alone. They must know how things work, and seek to improve them.

Kite and key in hand, Franklin proved in June, 1752, that lightning was a stream of electrified air. And, he followed up his successful experiment by inventing the lightning rod a year later, and distributing it, despite the objections of religious officials, who reportedly believed it contradicted God’s will.

However, though innovation might seem unstoppable, it too meets its immovable force in the form of unimaginative colleagues, calcified managers, and even fearful friends. For instance, even the oldest useful idea or tool was new at one time. For every early hominid hunter that sharpened a stick or stone, there had to be bunch of others saying, "We’ve always used clubs. We don’t need to change. That pointy stick will never work." And, once sticks were standard, the chorus undoubtedly was, "We’ve always used sticks. We don’t need to change. That stone will never work." No wonder evolution takes so long.

Because of this inertia, innovation by one person can cause deep suspicion and resentment in others. People dislike being told to do something differently, no matter how beneficial or crucial it might be, because it makes them feel stupid for not knowing what they should have been doing on their own. Is there anything more insufferable than some smarty-pants innovator?

Sadly, innovators usually don’t understand this resistance, but fortunately it doesn’t stop them. They just want to raise the alarm and get their colleagues our of danger, or deliver the benefits that efficiency can provide for the same or less labor, and achieve the acclaim that goes with it. Pretty egoistic.

Whatever the motivations for and against them, innovations and change remain hard for many people to accept. At least, until they become impossible to ignore. Similar to thunderclouds, innovations also need to build up a critical mass of inspiration, experimentation, and effort until they explode into the mainstream. Just another overnight success that took years to develop.

In addition, this year’s winning innovators weren’t just technicians implementing improved tools. They frequently had to be hardnosed businesspeople, and they and their end users even started a few new companies to help bring their innovations and improved machines into the real world. As Franklin’s contemporary, Thomas Paine stated, "Such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing." Flash! Boom again! Closer this time.


Study Method
To find, evaluate, and select the winners of this second-annual Innovator Awards, Control Design solicited nominations from its readers, including machine builders, system integrators, and automation suppliers. Respondents completed several essay questions, describing in detail the machines they were nominating. They related their machines’ functions, operating parameters, beta testing, end-user installations, notable use of automation and controls, uniqueness compared to its competition, impact on throughput, quality, flexibility, reliability and operator safety, and impact on the builder’s market position. Control Design’s editors then reviewed and nominations, conducted follow-up interviews with nominees and end-users, and selected the winners.


  CRG Logics

Advanced Barrier Extrusions (ABX) uses CRG Logics’ Simplicity blenders and extruders managed by its Smart Connection system to make multi-layer plastic packaging film.

2007 Innovator Awards

Unified Controls Simplify
Film Blending/Extrusion


If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself—and sometimes you have to start your own company or two.

Ironically, it’s all because manufacturing plastic barrier film is anything but clear. Sure, they may look transparent, but packaging films are made of several to many layers with differing capabilities to protect against various combinations of light, air, moisture, odor, or other environmental influences. These complex jobs usually involves coordinating up to nine or more blenders, PLC-based controls for each one, as well as several support functions. In the past, these controls typically were proprietary and often lacked coordination.

"I used to run and have profit-and-loss responsibility for a film operation, and the biggest pain in my butt was this type of un-integrated blending equipment. The chronic communication and control problems made making film very inaccurate, inefficient, and unreliable. So, me and my partner, Carl Gillig, who sold film equipment, decided to start a new company," says Mike Rasner, who established CRG Logics with Gillig in 2000 in Green Bay, Wis.

The partners started by doing control retrofits, and started building their Simplicity real-time, continuous loss-in-weight, gravimetric resin blenders and extruders in 2002 with development assistance from a Wisconsin-based filmmaker. Simplicity serves its blenders with integrated extrusion control and vacuum sequencing. CRG now has 80-100 customers, and supplies seven of the world’s 15 largest filmmakers. Gillig is president, and Rasner serves as vice president.


To integrate traditionally separate filmmaking tasks into one PLC-based brain, Rasner says CRG’s Simplicity blenders last year incorporated unified Simplicity controls designed for them. These controls use Rockwell Automation’s RS Logix 5000 and ControlLogix PLCs, and incorporate more auxiliary functions and components to better manage Simplicity’s blenders, extrusion process, layer ratio control, and vacuum sequencing.

However, while these controls are needed make the many film types that customer need, there remain two basic processes for making it. Most U.S.-made film is blown, slit, and wound. However, some producers are leaning toward a cast process predominant in Europe that makes film using a die and chilled rolls. Cast film reportedly is clearer, softer, flatter, and allows more precise gauge and thickness control. Blown film’s thickness is usually ±7% accurate, while cast film’s thickness is ±3% accurate or better.

"We felt there was an opportunity for more cast film in the U.S. because users are seeking more clarity, its flatter sheets run better on high-speed equipment, and more repeatability means better quality, consistency, and barrier control," says Steve Pawelko, operations vice president at Advanced Barrier Extrusions (ABX) LLC in Rhinelander, Wis. A year-and-a-half old, short-run maker of barrier and breathable films, ABX has been running CRG’s Simplicity blenders for five months on nine extruders, each with its own blender. These allow it to blend a maximum of 33 resins at once.

"Before we found CRG, we were thinking of building our own machine," explains Pawelko. "Blending resins requires a lot of clean up, and so Simplicity’s cone-and-vibrator style was very appealing because it’s more open and easier to clean. Most gravimetric blenders use a proprietary, board-based, screw-and-sleeve style to auger material through, but Simplicity eliminates the need to change these, which lessens the chance for operator error.

"Screw-and-sleeve cleaning usually takes fives or six minutes, if you’re fast, but cone-and-vibrator only takes 30 seconds. This might not seem like much, but we’re saving almost all of that former time on each of the two to six hoppers on every blender during each production changeover. We usually do one or two changeovers during a 12-hour shift, so the time saved can really add up." Pawelko adds that Simplicity’s software-based countdown capability helps ABX’s operators get its vacuum loaders and blenders closer to being empty at the end of a run, which means less leftover material has to be thrown out and further aids cleaning and the next start up.

Because film applications are adding progressively more layers and resins, resulting lines and connection points needed are multiplying quickly. As a result, Simplicity also is controlled and coordinated by CRG’s Smart Connection system, which was added in 2006.

"One of our main innovations was tying together blending, extrusion control, and vacuum sequencing into our Smart Connection system. No one else in the world combines these functions into one system," says Rasner. "Traditional blending and extrusion systems separate controls for these functions, which means more possible points of failure, and that an extrusion line won’t run if any component fails. We put all these functional eggs in one basket, which means the fewest possible points of failure.

For example, Smart Connection uses formulas downloaded to Simplicity’s software to help check and confirm that ABX’s operators have made the correct connections, and that those connections agree with the recipe scheduled to run. "We have 13 connection points that could be connected to any of 33 hopper hoses, and so that’s 429 total possible connections, which is a lot of potential for errors," says Pawelko. "We used to give operators sheets to do manual checks, and we’d hope that they connected the right blender to the right connector and hose. We previously experienced three or four major process mistakes per year, but Smart Connection already is reducing errors for us and probability of problems happening in the future."

Simplicity also saves space for ABX because it no longer needs a vacuum pump for each line coming from each resin receiving point. Smart Connection’s documentation and communication functions allows several resin supplies to share one line, and deliver to either pumping system as requested. "The pumps no longer compete, the process goes in sequence, and this further prevents errors, increases accuracy, improves quality, and saves time" says Pawelko.

Smart Connection also greatly shortens changeover time, according to Rasner. "We now have 50 Smart Connection stands operating on 15 of our users’ production lines, and we’ve found that we can cut the conventional one-to-four-hour changeover time in half," he says. "Each stand knows what ingredient is available at each blender and what vacuum receiver is connected to which silo, which makes it much easier for a user to match up a recipe with the right extruder, and run that recipe correctly. This means operators no longer have to trace a required ingredient line through a rat’s nest of pipes and connectors."

Finally, because Simplicity’s loss-in-weight blending occurs in real time, Rasner reports it’s as much as 10 times more accurate for additives than traditional batch-based blending systems. "Batch technology layers ingredients in a hopper, dump them in a mixer, and then feed an extruder," he adds. "We continuously feed ingredients to the extruder in metered and accurate proportions, and this provides the best overall ingredient accuracy, especially in low percentage additive ingredients."

Though the usual filmmaking limit has been nine layers or a few more for several years, Pawelko says ABX will install equipment allowing it to make 18-layer film in the next few weeks.


American Engineering and Metalworking uses Accurpress’ Accell press brake to make stainless and aluminum parts with ±0.0004-in. accuracy.

2007 Innovator Awards

Open-Control Press Brake
Stops Proprietary Problems


Financing and buying a big-ticket machine can be pretty scary, especially for small end users. So, anything that makes it easier to operate and pays it off quicker is extremely useful, and may even mean the difference between success and failure, especially for a new start-up company.

Three years ago, Kirk McCauley was an engineer at a larger metal fabrication firm, when he decided it was time to start his own job shop. After securing a $200,000 loan, he purchased an Accell press brake machine from Accurpress in Rapid City, S.D., and established American Engineering and Metalworking in Akron, Ohio, with himself as president. McCauley’s new shop specializes in bending and forming stainless-steel and aluminum fixtures and other products for aerospace, architectural, heavy-truck, and petrochemical clients.

"This is the first machine I’ve ever owned," says McCauley. "But because I’m doing such tight-tolerance fabrication, I had to have the ±0.0004-in. accuracy that my Accell machine gives me."

Accurpress uses synchronized, closed-loop, PC-controlled, servo-based hydraulics to maintain its precision, speed, and repeat-press and parallelism accuracies. Accell’s controls include Beckhoff Automaton’s C6240 control cabinet PC with a 2.4 GHz Pentium 4 processor and 256 MB of DDR-RAM and its TwinCAT NC PTP software for point-to-point axis positioning. TwinCat executes the positioning with an algorithm, in which profiles are generated with jerk limitation and with pre-control of speed and acceleration to minimize errors. TwinCAT is also compliant with IEC 6 1131-3, which gives users five different languages in which to write their code.

To develop its new controls, Accurpress’ R&D team at its Halkin Tools subsidiary in Vancouver, B.C. began in 2001 seeking a replacement for its proprietary press brake controller, which had good performance, but was costly and had limited programming flexibility. Though the team, Alex Kvyatkovski, Alex Kapulnik and Oleg Voytkov, found that no press brake manufacturers were using open, PC-based controls, Kvyatkovski believed this was the direction that seemed the most promising. "We were pioneers in uncharted territory when Accurpress decided to go PC-based," he says. "Some of our competitors in Europe ultimately followed suit, but Accurpress had no proper point of reference. We eventually found that Beckhoff’s one-CPU solution could control the entire machine’s motion and run its HMI software. This was much cleaner and more cost effective than the multi-hardware PLC route. The system was also less expensive than Accell’s original third-party controller."

As a result, McCauley reports that Accell is his industry’s first non-proprietary, PC-controlled machine with open CNC software and plug-and-play capability. He adds that most other metal fabricating controls are proprietary, so they’re harder to network and have limited storage for tool-data programs. "Proprietary controls for hydraulics can cost thousands of dollars extra to get working, but we used our open controls out of the box, and they were just as accurate and fast, and were quicker to reconfigure, and required minimal keystrokes to program. We also networked them easily because they’re Windows based, and have a good graphic interface and are easy to use" says McCauley. "Traditional set up can take as much as an hour, but we now have Accell’s software combined tooling, precision, and open control software recipes down to running in just a few minutes."

Accell also features an active angle measurement system, which this measures material spring back in the press brakes while the press is in operation. While metal is being formed, TwinCAT calculates bending positions automatically and coordinates the motion control to make on-the-fly adjustments without needing operator intervention. Accell also includes Beckhoff’s CP7037 control panels for the HMI hardware, which feature flat-screen, TFT displays, and solid aluminum-milled housings.

Though it’s been using Beckhoff’s fiber-optic, 2.5-Mbps Lightbus as its fieldbus, Accurpress recently decided to move to Beckhoff’s Ethernet-based EtherCAT fieldbus. "This decision was originally driven by a custom application that required faster response times than a conventional fieldbus could handle," adds Kvyatkovski. "Because EtherCAT uses off-the-shelf, standard Ethernet hardware and cables, this approach will be the most cost effective, and will help make our Accell machines even more repeatable by significantly reducing cycle times." EtherCAT can process 1,000 distributed I/O in 30 µs or 100 axes in 100 µs, while giving the option of standard CAT5e cable or fiber optic cabling.

McCauley adds that Accell’s easy-to-use controls also help him recruit and train new operators. "The machine is very easy to learn because it’s Windows driven, there are no G and M codes, and the software is very intuitive," he says. "There’s a lot of work behind the interface, which aids quick set up and program editing. This means we don’t need as much technical expertise to alter our programs."

Though starting a new company is never easy, McCauley reports that American Engineering and Metalworking prospered enough to buy a second Accel a year after the first, and that he’s presently considering buying a third.

"We make about 30 parts per day, but with traditional technology we’d probably only be able to make half as much," says McCauley. "Accell gives us an edge, keeps us competitive in our market, and makes us profitable."




  Kutol Products

Kutol Products uses HealthStar’s Purefill 1000 walking-beam, flowmeter filler to run 1,000 foam hand soap bags per shift.

2007 Innovator Awards

Flowmeters Aid Accurate
Line Filling and Cleaning




There’s always some little snag.

In an ideal world, automated machines flawlessly replicate human movements, saving workers from repetitive labor and injury. In this world, there’s always a small problem that automation can’t seem to handle, which causes bottlenecks and forces operators back onto the production line and away from value-added tasks.

Greg Nichols, plant manager at Kutol Products Co. in Cincinatti, Ohio, says his company recently developed a bag for dispensing foam hand soap, which solved the old problem of leaking bottles. However, when trying fill these bags on its in-line filler, Kutol’s operators found they had to be raised up—just a bit, but just enough that it had to be done manually. "The collars on the bags had to be held up slightly so the bags could be filled," explains Nichols.

To solve this frustrating problem, Nichols and his colleagues met with several machine builders at a recent PMMI tradeshow in Chicago, including HealthStar Inc. in Randolph, Mass. "We gave some bags and specs to them, and they put together a solution, and came back to do a run off with us."

Kutol subsequently implemented a six-head version of HealthStar’s Purefill 1000 walking-beam, servo-driven, 0.25% accuracy flowmeter filler, which incorporated a device for holding up the bags mounted right onto the conveyor itself. Purefill 1000 uses Endress+Hauser’s Dosimag flowmeters and servos controlled by Rockwell Automation’s Allen Bradley ControlLogix 5000 PLCs and using SERCOS and EtherNet/IP communication protocols.

"In the past three or four years, servo-driven filling has become accurate enough to insert nozzles that are only 0.0050 or 0.0060-in. narrower than the bottles they’re being dropped into, which allows 12 heads to fill 300 bottles per minute and bottom-up filling," says Andy Fariello, one of HealthStar’s design/build engineers and shop managers. "Servos give us infinite ability to design cam paths for any container profile, call up stored recipes as needed, and reset our machines at changeover much more quickly."

Though it took about seven months to redesign and develop Purefill 1000, HealthStar’s president and CEO, Bill Grabowski, says it’s an in-line filler than can replace traditional rotary machines. "Our customers wanted an in-line filler with speeds that previously were only possible with rotary fillers, which are more costly, hard to maintain, require more change parts, and have a bigger footprint" says Grabowski. "They also wanted a cleaner and more accurate filling technology." In fact, Purefull 1000 is so thoroughly pre-programmed that HealthStar reports it can run "lights off" without operators watching over production. Rejects are dealt with automatically, and fill volumes can be adjusted even while the machine is running.

Despite all this good news, there was another little snag at Kutol.

When they found that the filler’s head weren’t lining properly, the installers determined that the stainless-steel chain that Kutol’s bags were mounted on was experiencing slightly more stretching and wear, and this was throwing off the line’s timing. HealthStar helped solved this latest problem by adding a phenolic chain. Nichols adds that HealthStar was even able to remotely reprogram Purefill’s algorithm-driven servos to accommodate the new plastic-type chain.

"We still have to load tray of bags onto the line, but we now have a continuous process," says Nichols. "The bags are partially filled, labels are added automatically, and the bags are raised and finish filling. As a result, we’ve increased our filling speed four-fold from 250 bags per shift to 1,000. We previously had seven people on this line, and were able to reduce them by two."

Nichols adds that Purefill 1000’s pressure-driven, flowmeter-controlled tubes are far easier to clean than Kutol’s previous cam-and-piston filler, and can even use clean-in-place (CIP) and steam-in-place (SIP) methods. "We used to have to take apart the piston filler, and flush it for 20-30 minutes," adds Nichols. "Now, we just run water through the continuous tubes for five minutes."

Likewise, mechanical changeovers between filling runs that used to take half to a full day with a piston-based system, can now take half an hour thanks to Purefill 1000’s servo-based technology. "Servo systems allow the machine to remember how it ran before, and often the only mechanical change we need make is to change or adjust one feed screw," adds Grabowski. "So with changeover and preparation for cleaning taking 10 minutes, and cleaning taking 20 minutes, we can be back up and running in 30 minutes or less."