Striking Ideas

Innovations That Industrial OEMs Bring to New Generations of Machine Automation Often Ignite Customer Expectations for Even More Performance

By Jim Montague, Executive Editor

January 2011At the end of every successful machine development process, the builder celebrates overcoming the hurdles and the often heroic struggle to bring the end user's vision and requirements into reality. The user is thrilled by all his new capabilities and the chance to manufacture products faster and more efficiently for his own customers.

But then, there's a pause. The wheels start to turn in the user's head, and he asks, "Can it also do this?" or "Could you add that?"

Rather than shouting, "For crying out loud! We just got done with this one. Give us a break," most machine builders sigh and recognize this is just the spark that sets off the next development cycle.

Rapid Response

Even the smaller machine builders are engaged. "Because a lot of simple machining jobs are going to Asia and other places, many small job shops want to get into making injection molds and other more complex projects," says Jody Michaels, national sales manager for Romi Machine Tools (www.romiusa.com) in Erlanger, Ky. "So we beefed up the castings on our D800 machining center, gave it a heavier and more stable base and linear ways, and added a more conversational programming software for five-axis CNC machines. This makes it simpler for our users to do complex work, and make custom programming changes right on the machine, such as just milling the top of a part or drilling a top bolt hole." Conversational software usually involves simpler, point-and-click, on-screen instructions for setting up and running devices, and less of the old, keyed-in, line-by-line programming code.

Siemens Industry's Sinumerik 828D software also dovetails with Romi's existing injection molding machine work, and lets it be more of a one-stop shop for its users. "In fact, some former staff at Romi's headquarters in Brazil even started their own shops, bought Romi machining centers, and now sell subcontracted parts back to Romi itself," Michaels says. "And we think this could happen in North America, too, just as it has with bigger machine builders like Cincinnati Milacron."

Truth is, it could be the setup, testing and training involved in getting a new machine up and running that ignites users' and operators' imaginations about what else it might be able to do. Even the most detailed and sophisticated CAD/E-CAD program can't completely reproduce reality—yet. And, just as final bugs are worked out during configuration and early operations, ideas for new capabilities can pop up then, too.

Of course, all of this is driven by manufacturers' unquenchable need to design and deliver more distinctive, less costly and more varied products demanded by retailers, who are themselves trying to attract consumers. To accomplish these sometimes conflicting goals, especially in hard economic times, builders must design and deliver increasingly flexible machines, and equipment that's modular and standardized enough to be built quickly for a customer's ramped-up schedule.

"To build machines faster for our customers, we use standardized, turn-layered AutoCAD drawings and designs, standardized HMI screens, and standardized database code in our PLCs," says Pete Lawton, senior applications engineer at Pearson Packaging Systems (www.pearsonpkg.com) in Spokane, Wash. "This allows us to produce a core machine design in minutes, complete with drawings and code. These designs let  staff in our mechanical assembly area pull up PLC code for machines they're building onto shop floor PCs, and enable our wiring guys to do more troubleshooting and simple debugging. This means fewer interruptions so our electrical engineering staff can focus more on releasing new machine designs to our customers, and help us all meet our just-in-time (JIT) goals." End users employ similar on-screen HMI/SCADA tools to more easily input their own codes, and monitor entire end-of-line production systems, such as Pearson's RPC-MX loader-palletizing cell (Figure 1).

Robots Unify Cells

One of the most recent and innovative efforts to deliver user-enabling flexibility is the use of robots between machining centers. Some builders and users—faced with complexities of adding multiple axes to an individual machine—instead put robots on linear tracks between two existing centers, which give users the improved capability they need without adding and programming lots of new and costly axes.

In some cases, this already has evolved to the stage that formerly separate machines are being regrouped into unified cells with several machining centers and a material-handling robot coordinating workpieces among them. For example, Ellison Technologies' automation division (www.ellisontechnologies.com) in Council Bluffs, Iowa, worked with the new DMG Mori Seiki (www.dmgmoriseikiusa.com) partnership launched in April to develop a unified cell, or automated machining system. Ellison is a system integrator and Mori Seiki distributor. The unified cell consists of DMG's 850 V vertical machining center, Mori Seiki's NL2500SY CNC lathe, Zeiss Industrial Metrology's (www.zeiss.com/imt) DuraMax coordinate measuring machine (CMM), and Fanuc's (www.fanucrobotics.com) M20 robot to move parts between operations. The M20 robot moves on a robotic transport (RT) track built by Ellison (Figure 2).

DMG 850 V is controlled by Siemens' 840D software and equipment. NL2500SY is controlled by Mitsubishi controls, while Mori Advanced Programming Production System (MAPPS) serves as the GUI on the front end of the lathe's controls. The DuraMax CMM uses Zeiss's proprietary Calypso control software, and the M20 robot uses Fanuc's R30iA control software.

"In the past decade, one-and-done machines with up to 20 axes came into favor because they can do almost any complex part and have high tolerances," says John Burg, president of Ellison's automation division. "However, they're extremely expensive and worth it only if you're doing one or a few parts that require extreme flexibility. The other school of thought needs to make 50 parts per day and up, and they need this unified, automated machining system. Machine tools didn't used to have interfaces that could communicate with outside devices. So the Association for Manufacturing Technology's (www.amtonline.org) MTConnect communication standard is a big deal for system integrators like us because we want machines that can talk as easily as mainstream PCs and printers."

Despite these gains, Burg adds, it's still hard and it takes a lot more information to get a machine to talk to a robot. "Traditionally, system integrators had to find signals in machine controls by physically going inside with a meter, looking for connections on the discrete wiring for each signal, and then hopefully finding an open, close, work-hold signal or an indication that a cycle was complete. We could even get down to the board level to find these signals," Burg explains. "This is why most machine builders and integrators began using EtherNet/IP I/O components and other Ethernet-based devices in the past 10 years. They could have an Ethernet port on their machine, write a ladder logic program inside its controller to talk with the machine's I/O points, and get signals without having to crawl inside the machine anymore."

Likewise, the vertical machining center, CNC lathe, coordinate measuring device, robot and other equipment in Ellison and DMG Mori Seiki's new automated machining system communicate and coordinate their actions via EtherNet/IP. "We're evolving to have one-and-done flexibility, but at a lot less cost," Burg says. "And, while an older one-and-done machine might do one or two parts per hour, we can do six. The two sides of flexibility and speed are coming together, and this is what U.S. manufacturers need to compete with lower wages in China and elsewhere. If we can take the labor costs out of making a part, then there's no advantage to making it somewhere else."

Tom Egan, industry services vice president for the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (www.pmmi.org), adds, "Many end users are still unfamiliar with robots and how to use them, but even some of the smallest are getting more accepting of them in production environments as more conversational and graphics-based software and interfaces make them easier to use."

To accomplish sometimes conflicting goals, especially in hard economic times, builders must design and deliver increasingly flexible machines, and equipment that's modular and standardized enough to be built quickly for a customer's ramped-up schedule.

Simplicity Helps 'Run Protein'

Another key concept for meeting user needs and expectations is keeping machine designs and components simple, especially when those users venture into applications that are new or have non-traditional requirements.

"Lately, we've been working on more sanitary designs for our X-Series intermittent-motion, vertical form-fill-seal (VFFS) bagging machines because our meat and poultry customers need equipment that can be cleaned more easily," says Detlev Ansinn, PE, engineering director at Triangle Package Machinery (www.trianglepackage.com) in Chicago. "Anytime you run products with protein, material can get stuck in traditional tie-wraps for wires, in heaters or in other areas, so we need to reduce cabling and gather the few remaining wires more loosely, so they can be easily washed down. We're using EtherNet/IP fieldbus, which also means less wire, so our panels don't look like Swiss cheese."

Assistance at a Distance

Even though machines are getting simpler to run, they still can have jams, breakdowns and various other problems. To access and help its end users more quickly, Republic Lagun Machine Tool (www.lagun.com) in Harbor City, Calif., uses Ethernet-enabled and Internet-based remote monitoring and collaboration tools such as Go to Meeting software, says David McGee, manufacturing vice president at Republic Lagun, which builds customized vertical and horizontal milling centers, turning centers and five-axis machines.

"A user can start working on a laptop and connect to his controls, and we can replicate his operations screens and troubleshoot what he's doing with Go to Meeting over the Internet," McGee says. "We can each use the operator's mouse to point out what the other needs to see. Once we find what's wrong, we can adjust settings and change machine parameters as needed. Remote monitoring isn't new, but its tools are much easier to use now, and so we're a lot more comfortable and a lot less stressed out, which is good for all of us." 

Convincing the C-Level

Apart from actual machine construction and support, perhaps a builder's most important job is getting an end user's managers and accountants to believe in the value of investing in a useful machine solution.

"We can cover both the best one-and-done flexibility side and the most economical and quickest solution side," says Ellison's Burg. "Unfortunately, management at most end user companies come from finance or marketing. They've often spent very little time on the shop floor. As a result, most capital-expenditure decisions are 100% based on the cheapest short-term price, with quality, delivery and design problems showing up later. There's still not much done to include these issues in calculating per-piece costs of parts. This is why Ellison loves to talk with the C-level people about these unaccounted-for quality, delivery and design costs, and help them find the most appropriate unified machine alternatives that can help."