As the worldwide economy continues to improve, long-term trends in machine automation begin to come into focus. Short-term panic is being replaced by more optimistic visions of the future—a future that will depend on safe, low-cost and efficient manufacturing.
A key component of improved manufacturing will be better machines and robots, but the definition of "better" is changing before our eyes as production requirements and needs evolve. Performance indicators of the past such as high throughput and low upfront costs are being replaced by new primary objectives such as flexibility and low lifecycle costs.
Features such as connectivity to higher-level computing systems that were once an afterthought are now a key part of requirements. Emerging technologies such as wireless are entering the mainstream, and computing advances from the commercial world continue to spill into the industrial arena.
Bend, but Don't Break
Perhaps the most important machine automation trend is flexible production. Machines need to be reconfigured on the fly to produce different products, and this flexibility must be supplied with ease-of-use.
"We see full or partially automated changeovers as a key trend for our machines and their automation systems," says Dave Zurlinden, president of Pro Pack Systems in Salinas, Calif. Pro Pack makes fully automatic packaging machines and systems including case printer/erector/bottom sealers, case packers and case sealers (Figure 1). Its emphasis is in secondary packaging where corrugated shipping cases are used for cartoned, bottled and bagged products in the food and beverage markets.
We implement changeovers via recipe storage and retrieval from the HMI," relates Zurlinden. "An operator simply selects the desired recipe at changeover, which commands servos to automatically resize the machine to the next case recipe. The obvious benefit is dramatically reduced changeover time," says Zurlinden. "But the not-so-obvious benefit is repeatability in the changeover process via the elimination of human-induced setup errors."
Once a recipe is tuned in and programmed into the system, subsequent production runs won't need manual setup or production tuning time. "Recipe-based production improves repeatability, and recipe-driven human interfaces enable less-skilled operators to run machines," notes Michael Gurney, principal at Concept Systems in Albany, Ore.
"One important factor to consider when integrating a recipe management system, says Gurney, is the equipment upgrades required to support the automated changeovers. "Equipment not initially equipped with a recipe management system likely doesn't have the level of required automation and typically will require additional mechanical and control system modifications," he cautions.
Flexible production requirements also affect robot builders. "Shifting consumer demands are driving more flexible automation processes," observes Ted Wodoslawsky, vice president of marketing at ABB Robotics. ABB manufactures four and six-axis articulated robots (Figure 2) and a high-speed, four-axis delta robot.
"Take for example a cookie manufacturer making product for both branded and generic markets," explains Wodoslawsky. "The branded cookies come six or 12 in a package, regardless of the raw material cost. The count of the number of cookies in the generic package varies with the raw material costs. The cookie manufacturer needs the ability to change his pack count quickly to serve both market segments, and robotic automation provides the answer."
Automation provides flexibility, especially when it is delivered in software rather than hardware. "More flexible software and hardware automation platforms allow machines to be reconfigured or upgraded," observes Lee Hilpert, president of system integrator HilTech Engineering in Tomball, Texas. "Newer automation products become much more flexible, especially on the communication side. On one of our projects, the end user continues to find new ways to apply the control system in ways never anticipated during initial development. Flexible automation has allowed us to reconfigure communications and functionality without new hardware even though the application is completely different."