How Machine Builders Speed Up Design, Operations

Get There Sooner by Replacing the Many Paths of Automation and Control Functions With a Unified Platform

By Jim Montague

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July 2013There are many paths that can take you from point A to point B, but the shortest distance between those two points, relativistic possibilities aside, is a straight line.

That's what more machine builders discover they can do by combining many formerly separate design, programming, configuration, interface, control, operations, maintenance, motion, robotics and other functions into a few or even one unified platform.

Thanks to the flexibility bestowed by more-capable software and faster microprocessors, control and automation platform can be integrated by preferred functions and applications, and not by the constraints of old technologies. This shortens the trip between A and B when designing, building and running machines and production lines, and it can aid competitiveness by saving considerable time, labor and revenue.

SEE ALSO: Productivity Through Integrated Engineering

Keep Up With the Customers
Located in one of California's biggest fruit- and vegetable-growing valleys, 19-year-old Pro Pack Systems in Salinas uses a combined platform to help build its case erectors, packers and sealers for the region's fresh-cut and prepared vegetable producers, who always need new designs and capabilities for packing new sizes, configurations and types of products.

"My dad, David Zurlinden, previously worked with hot-melt-glue applications, but branched out as an independent OEM when customers wanted erectors, packers and sealers to be built around their hot-melt and/or ink-jet printing systems," says Paul Zurlinden, Pro Pack's automation and controls engineer. "Shortly after the company was started, it was offered a hot-melt distributorship, and then a printing distributorship from Markem-Amaje. Probably the biggest innovation back then was integrating high-resolution inkjet printers into case erectors, so users could print four sides before erecting, which meant smaller footprints on their plant floors because they no longer had to covey to a printer after erecting."  

Because its users still require continually updated designs to streamline their machines, user fewer parts, run faster and cost less, Pro Pack previously had to apply and readjust separate automation and control software packages for its HMI, I/O modules, motors, robots and other functions. These varied and shifting platforms made it harder for ProPack to build, program and configure its machines, and made them harder for users to adjust and perform changeovers.

"We used to have PLCs, host controllers, motor and servos from different suppliers. There were many manual steps to integrate them all, and when one firm's device wouldn't talk to another's, we were stuck in the middle, and had to fight some battles," Zurlinden explains. "So, about two and a half years ago, we switched to B&R Automation's controllers, HMIs, servos and I/O because they all run in the same Automation Studio programming platform on the same screen, and are networked with Ethernet Powerlink, so we no longer need a widget to communicate from one platform to another. Now, if we need to change PLCs or move up to a bigger drive, we just map a couple of variables in Automation Studio, and install it without having to make major software, programming or hardware changes."

Zurlinden adds that Automation Studio allows integration with third-party controllers and components, so Pro Pack can mix and match motors, drives and servos to suit the ever-changing needs of its users. "We sell a lot of our EBS case erectors and bottom sealers, but as products get more varied, many users run a multitude of case sizes, and so they must be able to switch sizes in minutes," says Zurlinden. "In the past five years, some users began running a dozen different case sizes on the same line, and switching several times per shift."

To help speed up changeovers, Pro Pack also worked to ease the transition from manual to automatic recipe selection and adjustments, using servos and stepper motors to move components precisely. "If a customer wants to adopt automatic changeover, then we'll have to add three or four servo axes. Again, because these devices are configured in Automation Studio, all we have to do is add more names to our single HMI display."

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