Seize the Advantage

Faster Time to Market Pays Off. Some Machine Builders Swoop in on New Business With Smart Component Choices and Clever Engineering

By Dan Hebert

June 2010"Delivery time is always important," says Tom Kleeman, CEO at Spartanics in Rolling Meadows, Illinois. "On occasions, it seems that it's the only consideration."

A machine OEM's customers need fast delivery for a variety of reasons. "Our customers may have contractual obligations that put a lot of pressure to get equipment in place and in production in a timely basis," notes Kleeman. "In other cases, the customer has calculated a payback for the investment and is anxious to start the clock as soon as possible." Spartanics builds machines for the printing and converting industry ranging from standard counting equipment and press-feeding equipment to full-custom, laser-cutting systems. They are faced with a common OEM machine and robot builder problem—orders are off, and when they do come in, customers want the machine right now.

Likewise, Owens Design in Fremont, California, builds automated manufacturing equipment for the semiconductor, hard disk drive and solar industries. The company designs 12-15 systems a year, most of which require short delivery times. Bob Fung, director of engineering at Owens doesn't quibble when it comes to fast deliveries. "We're not willing to commit to schedules we don't believe are achievable, and we've lost programs because of this," points out Fung. "In a number of cases, the customer selected a supplier because of lead time and came back to us much later since the machine that was delivered on time didn't work months later."

So, faster deliver can provide a competitive edge, but only if it's accompanied by high-quality and reliable machines. Here's how some OEMs meet those demands.

Fast Delivery Is Competitive Edge

NC Electronics, a builder of Omniturn CNC machines in Port Orford, Oregon, achieves quicker build times by modifying its basic machine to meet custom requirements. "We build our machines to a certain point and leave flexibility for quick customization," says George Welch, Omniturn's CEO. "This keeps the cost down. We also try to use off-the-shelf automation from prior projects."

AEMK Systems in Waterloo, Canada, does the same. AEMK specializes in high-speed, vision-based robotics systems for applications in the automation, assembly and packaging sectors. "Our DeltaBot technology was designed specifically with short lead times in mind," notes Rick de Jong, AEMK's general manager. "Our ability to minimize mechanical components, maximize resources due to inherent design features, and provide the correct talent in the indirect labor segment greatly accelerates build time."

However, if you don't have the luxury of modifying existing machines or aren't lucky enough to have no competition in your market, then you have to build custom machines on deadline and compete against other machine OEMs. "In today's business climate, quick delivery is important, not necessarily to get higher payment for the product, but simply to land the order," adds Welch.

Bob Sullivan, vice president at Saber Engineering in Auburn, California, agrees: "In 30% of the cases, delivery time is given the highest priority in awarding the project." Saber builds material-handling work cells in the electronics, solar and general manufacturing industries, including wafer robotic transport stations.

"Delivery lead time is often a significant factor in selecting a company to deliver a material-handling system," says Jeff Hanna, director of control and software development for Intelligrated in Mason, Ohio. "It's not always clear that we'll receive a premium for fast delivery, but it's often a critical element in deciding who will get the order. In systems that do not offer unique material handling features or software differentiation, lead time will be an especially important factor."

AEMK Systems has a slightly different take. "It is possible that customers will pay more when market demand outweighs supply in a specific robotic category," observes de Jong. "But if you can't meet delivery times, then customers will desert you. In our current economic climate, available supplies are still greater than demand, and buying decisions are less likely to be made on delivery times and more on price and technical performance."

Kleeman of Spartanics sums it up: "If you can beat the competition on delivery you can command a higher price. While not a common occurrence, we have lost orders based solely on lead time. We have also received orders based only on our ability to deliver."

Short Lead Times Increase Risk

When building a custom machine for fast delivery, something usually has to give such as features, testing or quality. And it usually costs more to build fast. "Often we have to write software with incomplete or not fully tested hardware," notes Fung. "Material is selected to minimize design, build, integration and test time—sometimes at a much higher cost."

De Jong adds, "In general it costs more to cut time to market because you need to increase resources to meet shorter deliveries. Additional costs can be quantified in increased labor rates due to overtime pay, additional outsourcing due to inadequate labor resources, and potential increases in supply-chain cost to accelerate deliveries of raw components."

Also, even if you can charge your customer a premium, it might not be worth it. "The larger factor could be risk," explains Hanna. "Despite the product strategy and type of sophisticated tools we use, risk increases because the time to test the systems often is reduced to meet schedules. The added costs can be quantified, but the risk is much harder to quantify."

And, these is another problem is servicing the machine afterward. "If the machine is a one-off custom solution, quick project turnaround could mean that we're in a weaker position when field support is required," explains Kleeman. "Some of this is unavoidable. If we have limited time to build and test a system, then 12 or 18 months later, it's more difficult to diagnose a problem. It might seem obvious, but reusing components and assemblies has great benefit. The particular pile of blocks might be unique, but if you've seen and used each individual block before, then you and your customer are in a much better position."

Automation to the Rescue

Using modern, off-the-shelf automation instead of custom controls is one way to deal with fast delivery times. For example, Owens Design built a photovoltaic (PV) process tool that separates fragile PV cells, and sorts and places them into custom carriers for the next operation. The machine included 30 servo motors, 15 DC motors, 22 pneumatic actuators, five smart cameras and more than 200 I/O points. A start-up solar manufacturing company ordered the machine and wanted it fast. The manufacturer successfully demonstrated its process manually, and now needed an automation system to quickly ramp up.

Fung says Owens Design went with off-the-shelf automation—a Mitsubishi Q series PLC, a PC running Windows XP, Ethernet communications, smart cameras, and 30 servo amplifiers daisy chained on fiberoptic cable to eliminate complex wiring harnesses. The mechanical system was designed using Autodesk inventor 3D modeling software, and the electrical design was created with AutoCAD Electrical, which provided automated reports, such as bill of materials and from/to wire lists to save time and errors. Owens completed the prototype in 18 weeks, and the fully automated tool now produces more than 5,000 parts per hour.

Jerry Wierciszewski, owner of system integrator Wierciszewski Controls in Annandale, New Jersey, also used off-the-shelf controls for a custom job. Wierciszewski updated a medical packaging machine, and had to modify over 50% of the previous vision inspection system. Wierciszewski selected a Beckhoff Automation Panel PC to handle all automation, motion control, SQL database and HMI functions (Figure 1). He networked the system's I/O via Ethernet TCP/IP using bus couplers. Additional I/O was used for relay outputs, motor starters on the conveyor and solenoids. "In the past, we were using separate analog outputs, thermocouple inputs and heating control units from various vendors," he notes. "The 250+ count assortment of Beckhoff's I/O terminals covered these functions in one compact I/O system."

From concept to finished machine, the tray erector took about four months. The accumulation table was even faster, taking just two months to design and build. Both new machines were programmed fully in just four days.

Table 1: How Cutting Time to Market Increases Cost and Risk
  1. Necessitates overtime
  2. Forces outsourcing
  3. Requires expedited component delivery
  4. Increases project management man hours
  5. Limits testing
  6. Increases debugging time
Table 2: How Automation Speeds Time to Market
  1. Open systems limit learning curve
  2. Modular and scalable controllers simplify control system
  3. Integrated development environments speed software development
  4. CAD automates and quickens electrical design process
  5. Simulation tools allow parallel engineering
  6. Digital networks cut wiring time
  7. Auto tuning cuts start up time
  8. Auto recognition of components cuts configuration time
Supplier Solutions

Many vendors understand the problems machine builders face with fast delivery requirements, and offer various methods to help. "Reducing time to market isn't just important, it's essential in today's economy," says Seth Hindman, industry solution manager at Autodesk. "Machine OEMs need to successfully incorporate innovation as part of their growth strategy and get their products to market faster."

Autodesk advocates coordinating all of the elements of the automation system in one digital model called a Digital Prototype, says Hindman. "This approach enables information about automation system components to be communicated to all teams involved in the design automatically, removing traditional communication barriers," he maintains. "Changes introduced by one team are apparent to another, lists and bill-of-materials are maintained automatically, and teams can achieve true collaborative design with predictable project results."

Machine builders know that redesigning their control system takes time, so they tend to use it as long as possible. "Normally, changing automation systems increases lead times and technical risks," explains Marcus Schick, industry business development manager for Siemens Industry. "When an end user forces OEMs to reduce build times, this further increases the technical risks, as there is less time to engineer and troubleshoot all the hardware and software changes."

Once designed, a machine still has to be built. "The delivery time for the electrical components on a machine or robot is becoming a more important part of overall build time as the degree of automation on such equipment increases," says Robert Muehlfellner, director of automation technology at B&R Industrial Automation. "Over the past few years, several technologies have come to market that speed delivery time, including plug-and-play motors and drives, IP67 remote I/O, I/O systems with separate quick-connect terminal blocks, and auto-tuning for drives and temperature controllers."

Rather than building a machine sequentially, meaning building it mechanically, then wiring it, and then testing the control system, this can be more of a parallel process, adds Muehlfellner. "Testing the automation system in a virtual simulation environment is one way to cut build time, as the majority of the bugs in the code can be corrected before machine is built," he says.

Chris Radley, senior product line manager at Kollmorgen, adds that a machine builder needs a solution that provides for reduced development time and ease of integration. "Software that takes advantage of industry standards such as IEC61131-3 and PLCopen means machine builders can learn concepts one time for application across different platforms. Integrated development environments that combine machine programming, motion programming and setup of key hardware elements such as drives, I/O and HMI functions into a single environment, save time by eliminating the need to open multiple different programs and transfer information between them."

PLCs play their part in speeding time to market, and so, to make life easier, you might want to choose a wide-ranging product family. "Scalable control platforms give customers options to match processing performance to machine requirements," explains Jeremy Valentine, product marketing lead specialist for interface cabling at Phoenix Contact. "These scalable control systems range from our small programmable relays to high-end PC-based control systems."

You also can decide to switch to industrial PCs. "For machine OEMs, managing fewer parts can be a powerful way to reduce lead-times," observes Graham Harris, president of Beckhoff. "This is one of the reasons why PC-based control is becoming more popular as systems with a multi-tasking, centralized PC need far fewer hardware components to automate the machine."

Not using a standard PLC or industrial PC can delay a project, ads Charlie Norz, product manager at Wago. "Downsides stem from using closed or otherwise inflexible automation systems. As far as getting to market, these systems often prove difficult to engineer." Open platforms are better, he says. "An open platform, being fieldbus independent, means you can use just one control system to meet myriad end-user protocol requirements," explains Norz. "For example, you simply can swap out a control component to change the machine's communication standard without time-intensive reprogramming or design changes."

Standard Controls Speed Delivery

Saber Engineering in Auburn, California, builds material-handling workcells that use a variety of robotics, servos, PLCs, SCADA/HMI and vision systems to perform automated tasks. Its wafer robotic transport station loads, inspects and tracks glass wafers into pallets for amorphous silicon deposition. The transport station uses industry-standard PLC and SCADA packages to speed time to market.

Saber needs to build high-quality machines fast to maintain a competitive edge. "Cutting time to market means overtime on the design, modified component selection and expedited fees for equipment," says Bob Sullivan, vice president at Saber. "It generally costs 15-25% more to expedite a schedule by 10%-15%. Most customers will pay for an expedited schedule. Using standardized equipment, components and software that are off-the-shelf helps reduce expediting costs, and that means more profit." Sullivan adds that it's imperative to have standard equipment and standard designs in place with known delivery schedules.

"With a reduced build time, selecting a common platform that is well understood is the best choice," notes Sullivan. "This reduces the spin-up time needed to become familiar with a new product. Equipment delivery time is also a key factor to automation system component selection. Many times you need the equipment yesterday."

Saber has developed coding and graphical standards using Schneider Electric's SCADA/HMI and PLC products. This allows reuse of existing proven code and graphics, cutting development, testing and deployment time.

"We try to use more all-inclusive automation packages that have many of the functions and features required by our customers. This cuts development time and ultimately time to market," says Sullivan. "Systems that have built-in and ready-to-go features and capabilities that can be quickly configured and deployed are the best approach to quicker build times."

Updating Controls Saves Time and Money

Hycorr Machine, a Kalamazoo, Michigan-based builder of corrugated box-making machinery, decided to improve its overall control system on the company's line of rotary die-cutters. A typical rotary die-cutter has four print stations, a dwell section and a die-cut section.

"The servo system and the total controls package needed upgrading with newer technology," says Fred Harrison, president of Hycorr Machine. "We've been building servo driven rotary die-cutters for more than 10 years. We wanted to look at a new system for a series of machines that were being built for new customers."

Hycorr wanted a totally new system that not only would reduce servo drive system and related energy costs, but also integrate the PLC and HMI functions. By using Siemens servo drives and a motion controller with PLC functionality, Hycorr reduced its costs in both hardware and engineering time. They also cut the operating energy costs associated with these typically power-hungry machines.

Each technology (motion, PLC and HMI) had built-in connectivity to the others, making assembly time another area for major savings. Overall, the assembly time savings for Hycorr was calculated to be approximately 50%.

Perhaps more important was the reduction in build time. Working under a tight deadline, the first rotary die-cutter was built and commissioned on-site at the end user's plant. Shortly thereafter, the second machine for another Hycorr customer was built on a production schedule that Harrison calls a first for the company based on its speed.

The improvement in engineering, production and assembly time largely resulted from the Simotion Shaftless Standard, a free software solution from Siemens, which outlines a programming structure and provides a library of function including a Motion Task for each axis specific to the tasks of line-shaft replacement.

This tool enabled Hycorr engineers to do a much more modular implementation of components, and it saved time interfacing the overall motion system to the controls architecture. By this process, Hycorr saved approximately 80% of its engineering time on the first machine build. The entire engineering file for the first machine was loaded from a single compact flash drive and, with minimal debugging, the engineering on the second machine was quickly completed.