Customer-Driven Machine Design

Automation Holds its Greatest Potential When You Examine and Understand the Drivers Behind Your Customers Business

By Catello DiCarlo

To help celebrate the contributions that machine builders and system integrators have made throughout our 15-year history, we present one of our favorite OEM Insight columns, originally published in March 2004.

You often hear "faster, cheaper, better" as the performance mantra driving the design of today's new machinery. But this approach is much too simplistic, and masks the business drivers behind the specification and purchasing process.

As machine builders, we tend to assume the same old criteria for speed, cost and performance. We also tend to think of solutions in terms of incremental advances in technology. What we should be doing is studying the real business issues facing our customers, as well as those we confront at our own companies, and use the conclusions we draw to drive our design decisions. In other words, let our customers help us choose the technologies we apply to our new designs.

What does "faster" mean? Obviously, an improvement in cycles per minute is one measure. But in tissue-packaging machinery, changeover time has become an even more important measure of speed and operational efficiency.

One reason is the dynamic occurring downstream in our customers' supply chain. Our research revealed that supply chain managers aren't thinking about faster packaging machines in their plants; they're thinking about finding software that responds faster to their customers' shorter order cycles.

That's because their customers — the retailers — are thinking about how they can reduce inventory carrying costs. Supermarket chains also are thinking three-packs of paper towels sell well, while club stores want 20-roll packs. That meant turning packaging format processes on a dime.

Our job is to solve those far-removed problems through the innovative use of automation at the machine level. We found that a 30-min. format change­over no longer was fast enough to efficiently go from one case format to the next. We needed to discover how to do a format change in under five minutes.

Such challenges, revealed through customer research, forced us to design machines in a different way. Instead of requiring operators to use hand tools to switch out format-change parts, we automated the routine and reduced manual intervention to a minimum. Now all the operator has to do is select a new recipe from a menu on the operator touchscreen.

Simple to say, but it called for a new machine design with simplified mechanisms and increased software and controls content. It meant we had to motorize the changeover process with servos and specifically design the mechanical components to accomplish the format-change adjustments automatically.

But the control functions go much deeper. Maintaining consistent quality across the format change demanded we develop systems to confirm the correct dimensions and the product and material-feed characteristics in an automated way.

Further, scrap reduction pressures from our customers demanded that the machine not require hundreds of cycles to come up to tolerance levels. We discovered that the gain in control precision needed during startup was a software-based issue solved by incorporating fifth-degree polynomials and other equally sophisticated algorithms into the control routines.

We then turned our focus inward and began to more closely examine internal processes and procedures for new ways to drive improvement. For example, we questioned the business value of fabricating our own metal parts. After all, our local economy is rich with highly proficient job shops.

This introspection led us to instead focus more on innovation and best practices in software. Our journey took us to academia, where we collaborated with the University of Bologna, which happens to be a world center for wrapping-machine kinematic studies. We also partnered with Elau, an automation supplier that had both the packaging application expertise and the software functionality we needed to leapfrog the state-of-the-art in wrapping-machine control systems.

Freed from the constraints of mechanical designs, we began to solve new problems for our customers. For instance, installing a new machine at an existing paper mill can be a practical challenge. Our new servo-based design gave us the flexibility to create a compact, L-shaped footprint that suited the real-estate requirements of that particular client perfectly.

It all goes to show you that automation holds its greatest potential when you examine and understand the drivers behind your customers' business and investigate and question the status quo within your own organization.