A New Era in Machine Automation

Higher Resource Prices Will Change Machine Automation Design

By Dan Hebert, PE, Senior Technical Editor

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Despite recent dips, it’s apparent that energy and raw material prices have risen to new and permanently higher plateaus. It’s also apparent that these higher prices will have a profound effect on machine design over the next few years in ways that are sometimes obvious but often obscure.

Let’s start with energy prices, an item that is foremost in the minds of many machine builders. “Energy cost has always been in the equation, but now it’s percentage of the total cost has risen at an alarming rate,” says Paul Brancaleone, manager software/controls at Gloucester Engineering in Gloucester, Mass.

Gloucester Engineering makes plastics processing equipment, specifically film and sheet extrusion systems. “A growing number of our customers are now interested in reducing the energy that our machines consume. Amongst the normal questions on throughput and quality, we now are asked to estimate lbs/kWh. I expect to see more use of power measurements to optimize processes and of advanced control techniques to reduce energy use,” adds Brancaleone.

T-Tek Material Handling in Montgomery, Ala., builds high-speed palletizers, primarily for the beverage packaging industry (Figure 1). It also makes full and empty pallet conveyor, pallet dispensing and stacking systems for the pallet sortation and repair industry.

High-Speed Beverage Palletizing Machine
Figure 1: This high-speed beverage palletizing machine from T-TEK Material Handling not only performs faster than earlier models, it uses less energy with help from a Bosch Rexroth servo system. The three-axis palletizer is designed to handle a wide variety of packaging configurations of cans or bottles in layers containing as many as 32 packages each.
Source: T-TEK

“As machine builders develop new equipment, extra attention will have to be paid to all aspects of energy including minimizing horsepower, using higher efficiency motors and using compressed air instead of other more conventional energy sources,” observes Brian Traff, vice president of T-Tek.

“Regenerative energy drives, such as the Bosch Rexroth solution used by T-Tek in hoist applications, will become more and more common. We expect to use more remote access and Web viewing systems to reduce travel expenses,” comments Traff.

Another machine builder reinforces the points made by Brancaleone and Traff. “We are spending more time and effort to optimize energy consumption through increased efficiency of vacuum generation, increased use of robotics and decreased use of pneumatic equipment,” notes Pete Squires, vice president of Schneider Packaging Equipment in Brewerton, N.Y. Schneider makes automatic case/tray packing and palletizing equipment (Figure 2).

RRR Development in North Canton, Ohio, builds equipment for the tire and rubber industry. “Power source regeneration on motor/drive systems will be increasingly important as a means to recoup energy costs,” notes Bob Irwin, an electrical engineer with RRR.

“Our customers need an increase in the capability to diagnose and react quickly to energy and other inefficiencies on our equipment. This will require additional diagnostic sensors and designs to make the information available,” adds Irwin.

University researchers are also seeing changes in machine design brought on by higher energy prices. “Cost of energy is now becoming an issue with the design, manufacture and operation of machinery used in production,” says Professor David Dornfeld from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of California-Berkeley.

“Energy use can be minimized by recovering energy from machine operation, as well as by novel design concepts such as maintaining stiffness while reducing mass of moving components,” adds Dornfeld.

Optimizing the System

Reducing energy use on a machine-by-machine basis is important, but bigger gains can often be had by optimizing the total number of machines in a production line. “Some of our customers have been looking at new machines and production lines that can outproduce the combined efforts of several of their existing machines; and part of their justification is based on the energy savings of one machine vs. multiple machines,” reports Larry Asher, controls engineering manager at Bradbury in Moundridge, Kan.

“Other customers are developing high-efficiency products, such as insulated building panels, and need machinery with specific capabilities. Looking into the future, we already have engineers exploring low-watt devices, regenerative drives and renewable energy,” adds Asher.

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