The Machine-Building Circle of Life

Food-company engineer understands the value of knowledge capture and modular design.

By Rick Rice, Crest Foods

I am an ex-OEM who is now the technical support for an end user who, as it happens, also builds new machines and rebuilds existing ones.

As an OEM, I recognized early in my career that the end user can make or break a machine. While the OEM works with the machine for a few months, the end user works it for the life of the machine. If you don’t make them something they like, they won’t buy another one from you. I am now in a position where I work daily with the end user. When I have an idea that might benefit the operator, I can go directly to the production line and try it out. I get immediate feedback on the concept from the end user. It is the ultimate situation for a machine builder.

Where machine intelligence has impacted us most is in the area of maintenance troubleshooting tools. With a Modbus-RTU connection, I can communicate directly with the VFD on a cartoner and get much more information than just go/no-go. I can display the entire command/status structure, as well as very pertinent information like current and torque feedback that allow me to create an electronic shock relay to tell me when there is additional load acting on my main drive. This will signal the maintenance crew that product is building up in the chains or cams that operate the equipment.

I’ve also seen OEMs who lost their business lives due to nonperformance contracts.

Another area that has benefitted us is the ability to hang a camera-based barcode reader right on the machine’s internal network so that we can build in quality-check technology that would have normally come in a stand-alone unit at a much higher cost of implementation.

Learn More: Filling a Design Need

Yet another advantage has been the advent of Windows-CE based HMIs. Here is where controls engineering and IT meet in perfect harmony. Now we can juice up the HMI by attaching links to controls schematics and operator and maintenance manuals. These can either be stored on the HMI itself or, if the machine is on a plant network, on a network file server. The latest information is readily available to the operator and the maintenance person, right on the machine. No more searching for drawings that inevitably disappear from the electrical panel. No more digging through the parts-room library searching for the manual for that particular machine.

The end results of these enhancements are machines with greater uptime. Incursions into the electrical controls cabinet are greatly reduced, prolonging the lifetime of the electrical components. The machines that we have implemented these enhancements on become islands of education. The operators gain greater abilities to diagnose their machines prior to calling in maintenance, and maintenance crews gain greater knowledge of the equipment they take care of by having a user-friendly interface that provides good, accurate information about the problem at hand and potential resolutions.

Lean and modular

There is a limit to the positive impact of supply-chain management. A lean system doesn’t allow for the bumps along the road of life. We often find ourselves waiting for supplies to reach us. However, from a modularity point of view, we embrace the philosophy and the practical application of it.

As a contract packager, we are called upon daily, or even hourly, to change the functional capabilities of our lines and machines. In our new machine constructions and our vintage machine rebuilds, we focus a great deal of time and effort into producing elements of a modular nature. We may not put all the bells and whistles on a machine when we build it, but we plan it as if it will eventually have them all. The result is a machine that has a common look and feel. Horizontal packagers have the same control platform as a cartoner. The HMIs use the same menu structures with the same troubleshooting tools in a familiar place with a familiar look. The programs are as modular as the controls and operator interface. Need a barcode scanner? We pop in the hardware and add the code and screens to interface with it. Why reinvent the wheel? Our technicians are looking at the same code if they need to go online. We re-use the same approach of machine intelligence to keep our people in front of the screen and out of the panel.

A final word about modular machinery: Many OEMs are going to great lengths to make all-in-one machines that can wrap, carton, case-pack and palletize, all in one package. The trouble with this trend isn’t when the machine runs, but when it stops running. A problem with the case packer prevents the whole operation from producing. The traditional production line, properly engineered with appropriate room for product accumulation between the various elements allows a line to run continuously, even though a particular machine might stop periodically for planned or unplanned downtime. The natural ebb and flow of life is never more evident than in a well-designed production line. Little catches and imperfections don’t impact the overall efficiency of the line.

Productivity for sale

In my unique situation, my client is my employer. I operate as a machine builder, but I serve my own master. As an OEM, I saw a great deal of time and effort poured into selling the productivity. I’ve also seen OEMs who lost their business lives due to nonperformance contracts. I feel that performance guarantees put a level of stress on the OEM that is not reasonable. I understand the desire to get what you pay for, but I would sooner see builders and users form firm relationships that promote co-ownership of machines and processes from a performance point of view. Loyalty and customer support should be the keys to the relationship, not legal teams and contracts.

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