By Jim Montague, Executive Editor
Many games require players to accomplish twin goals. All racers—from marathoners to hot air balloonists—must travel faster and farther than their rivals. Manufacturers must make better quality products and do it with less cost. Machine builders must balance the functional and creative goals of their end users, while still keeping them focused and realistic enough to achieve useful, efficient solutions that operate as promised and as needed.
This journey from idea to reality is always rough for pretty much everybody—genius being 99% perspiration, you know. However, the added challenge for today’s machine builder is that end-user demands are multiplying and becoming increasingly varied, which makes it harder for many builders to keep some overly inflated expectations from flying away. Besides the usual economic pressures that push manufacturers to seek ever-better performance, this environment is driven by the continued evolution of programmable controllers and software, growth of Internet and Ethernet, emergence of wireless or combinations of all these fast-changing technologies. However, these accelerating demands force some builders to rein in sometimes overzealous users.
Tame the Wild Idea
“We get our share of unusual ideas from end users, and we try to strike a balance between what they want and what’s in our skill set and be as flexible as possible when we the attack the problem,” says Shaun Keperling, senior electrical engineer at Omega Design in Exton, Pa., which makes bottle unscramblers and other packaging equipment.
“Customers make special requests all the time because their applications have unique needs or are in unique situations, and so we examine each request individually. If we can do it without too much difficulty, then we’ll do it, though we still prefer to do what we’ve done before,” says Keperling.
To properly evaluate a special machine request, several factors must be weighed, explains Keperling. These include the time a custom alteration will take compared to the other jobs in Omega’s backlog, whether making the change will be financially worthwhile for user and builder, if there will be longer-term benefits and whether the innovation will be a one-off event or something that other users might want as well.
Omega Design just developed and launched a Schneider Electric/Elau Packaging Systems-based servo version of its bottle unscrambler, replacing the machine’s DC motor and gear train. The new machine also uses Cognex’s vision system in its printing and overall inspection stages.
“The new servo-driven version of our unscrambler cuts our assembly time for the main drive in half, which means much less maintenance time later,” explains Keperling. “Servo positioning gives us better positioning and inspection. We’re also using CANopen for more speed on our I/O sensors and valve manifold. This all means less cost for our users, whether it’s due to better performance or because of more timely delivery from us.”
Keperling adds, “Because we’re engineers, too, we machine builders like bells and whistles as much as our users. However, we also have to stay true to what we know best. And we have to recognize the efficiencies in what we know best. Our advice to users and machine builders is to identify their core focus, learn it well and be an expert in it. Also, be flexible in response to special requests, but don’t spread yourself over too many different areas.”
The Big Bosses
“Wal-Mart and the big club stores drive the types of machines that we have to build,” says Bruce Larson, sales and marketing vice president for Goodman Packaging Equipment in Waukegan, Ill. “End users don’t just want equipment flexibility. They want entire platform flexibility for quicker changeovers, modular systems with one control network and faster delivery. Our customers want one-stop shopping for an end-of-the-line solution.”
In addition, while machine builders try to guide users away from wild guesses about capabilities and toward realistic solutions, many of these same builders also want to deploy off-the-shelf hardware and software, so they too can save by not having to customize, as was the case in the past.
Elie Belbel, senior vice president for OEM solutions at Schneider Electric, says the recent international credit and financial crisis also inspires users to seek out improvement in their existing and new machines. “The finance crunch is really getting many manufacturers, including many that hadn’t done it before, to review their existing machines and seek efficiencies,” says Belbel.