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

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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.

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