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Solutions spotlight: The evolution of ACOPOS

Editor in Chief Mike Bacidore and Dave Emory, director of end user sales at B&R Industrial Automation discuss adaptive machines, the future of machine control automation and B&R's ACOPOS 6D. 


Mike Bacidore: Hello, welcome to Control Intelligence, a Control Design podcast that goes deep inside the automation and technology that machine builders, system integrators and end users rely on to keep production coming efficiently. I'm Mike Bacidore, editor in chief of Control Design, and in this episode, I'm joined by Dave Emory, director of end user sales at B&R Industrial Automation. This is Dave's second role within the organization. Prior to B&R, Dave was working at Yaskawa Electric America and held several positions in sales and senior management. He was responsible for the motion and drive sales in North America and for several vertical markets.

The adaptive machine concept certainly isn't new, but it's expanding to encompass even more technology. The entire idea is moving forward toward adaptive manufacturing. The ACOPOS 6D is an important part of that expansion. Practical interest is growing in the need for the technology and verticals such as medical, food and beverage, consumer products, and cosmetics. Pretty much anywhere you find the need for a compact, flexible layout for the manufacturing process. Compared to a standard servo drive and motor, think of an ACOPOS 6D segment like the drive and motor center all built into one package.

If you're familiar with ACOPOStrak, this is essentially the same as the track segment, which measures 240 mm by 240 mm by mm, and it can be air cooled, but it's also already set up to be liquid cooled if necessary. Each segment is supplied with 48 to 60 Vdc and the segments can be combined in any configuration. The only real restriction is that one of the full edges of a segment must be adjacent to a pole edge of another segment.

Dave, thanks for joining us to talk about ACOPOS and its evolution, as well as the future of machine control automation in general.

Dave Emory: Mike, thanks for having me, pleasure to be here.

Mike: Dave, as the country is reemerging now from the pandemic shutdown, which technologies will be important for manufacturers looking to ramp up quickly?

Dave: Well, first, let me say how exciting and intrigued I am to be traveling again to customers. In the last couple three months I've been able to start to see folks again and visit facilities. And so far, those visits have confirmed one thing, that customers are anxious to improve the level of automation that they currently have, there's no question. This is, of course, great news for the solution providers like ourselves at B&R, but you're right, the ramping up quickly is going to be the key. We're already seeing shortages of common items and components, as you probably hear across the states and in general around the world. Now producers are going to want to capture that need, and they're going to want to expand even into new markets and get into new things. So, several technologies that B&R has and is working on come to mind when we're in this discussion. Certainly, there's going to be more general automation and robotics implemented in the short term. I don't see how that's not possible considering pre-COVID that was already trending.

Mike: Right. Absolutely.

Dave: So, I think that's going to continue, but I think what's most exciting is producers are asking for more agility, they want more flexibility. The adaptive machine and adaptive manufacturing concepts that we've been speaking about for going on two years now brings this much needed agility, I guess, and, say, flexibility to the production floor. So, allowing what we're saying is near-zero downtime changeover and cost-effective small batch production, which is part of the requirements that they're all seeing. I'm also seeing a tighter need for process simulation and digital twin usage. These help prove our concepts early and kind of allow for that fail fast approach because we want to get to the market quickly, so that's helping. And then, of course, there's more discussion over cybersecurity. That is definitely a reoccurring topic.

Mike: Absolutely. Cybersecurity and the Internet of Things in general has become pretty much ubiquitous in the manufacturing area. So building on that, how can machine builders...well and down to end users for that matter, take advantage, say, in the Industrial Internet of Things and the robotics in order to improve their competitive advantage?

Dave: Right. There's been lots of discussions for plenty of time now over Industrial Internet of Things, IIoT, of course, but Mike, like most processes and decisions, more data, specifically more accurate data, I guess, is the key. Overall, machine health and OEE, the overall equipment effectiveness, are super important to producers and therefore the OEM kind of knows this. So builders know this.

The ability to correct faster or even predict a negative occurrence before a failure was pretty much paramount to what we've considered to be first class OEE numbers. Inputs to the decision process will be, I don't know, much more detailed and insightful as all these sensors, devices, etc., all get connected. The less unknowns and no guesswork in regarding the status of the machine components, etc., allows for a much more productive production line. IIoT allows for that true predictive maintenance [and] real-time monitoring. We are even seeing some potential new business models centered around the service of that machine or those machines or the systems, lead management, etc. So basically, like we're doing with the ABB Ability product, actually.

Mike: And then those technologies, certainly they'll alter the way that companies are staffing their own manufacturing operations in the future. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Dave: Yeah, that's a touchy one. We've been talking about, you know, human staffing versus automation, or staffing in general versus automation, since I entered this space in 1990. But I think companies, Mike, are going to really ultimately make their own decisions with staffing. I will say this though, many are struggling right now currently to hire and retain talent of all types. Skilled, experienced operators are not as plentiful as they once were. So, we're looking to the machines that need to use these advances in the technology to make the interfaces more intuitive, of course, to operate. But also, we've made some great progress with software packages in the last couple of years like Matthew, we're embedding video, of course, embedding documents into the machine controls. So, I think those things are going a long way to offset the lack of talent, but it will be ultimately up to the, you know, to those producers to staff.

Mike: Right. Staff is certainly a smorgasbord of how different companies are handling the shortage of skilled workers and how they're going forward. 

Dave: Definitely an issue. It's really not a day on the news where you don't hear about it, right?

Mike: Mm-hmm. Exactly. Yeah, pros and cons for both sides. Sure. What about the evolution of software and the way that it's impacted requirements for machine hardware? Can you talk a little bit about that?

Dave: Sure. I mean, we're all seeing more and more IP, if you will, intellectual properties, and differentiation coming from software, there's no question. At the automation vendors like ourselves at B&R, the machine builders, the systems guys, and the OEMs, there's a big push around simplification of software, but yet, differentiation. I think hardware in time will become less the area of differentiation until we see that next chip or IC breakthrough where hardware just takes a stairstep leap. But the demands in terms of performance, they're continuing to go up, they're destined to  continue upwards. So, I think software is already, but will become even more, an area of differentiation in the long term versus the hardware.

Mike: Absolutely. So that being said, as that IT and OT, the engineering and the the IT departments continue their convergence, do you have a prediction or a hunch on which one of those will be leading that direction in the future?

Dave: I do. I think I'm going to take the middle ground for you, though, because I feel that it's a...so much is going to be who's leading it. I think both are independently super important to success of the organization or of the organizations. But I think it's more that the increasing connectivity and the cybersecurity, of course, that we just talked about means that the OT folks, they're going to have to work a lot closer with the IT groups than they do currently to ensure any success and really limit the exposure and risk for that builder. This kind of more of a collaborative approach, I guess, is where I'm going with it, is that this is gonna be a big change, as these two groups are traditionally, I'll just say, pretty disconnected. It really won't be so much lead, follow as much as I think it will be success based on collaboration. We're seeing it already amongst the product development folks on our side, where we have an OT outward face an IT side, they'll already becoming closer as groups anyway.

Mike: Right. Right. You can't aggregate data without IT and you can't interpret it without the OT people.

Dave: That's absolutely right.

Mike: They kind of go hand-in-hand. So, looking into the future then, how will the technology change, well, both machine builders' and the end users' business models over say the next five years? You talked a little bit about how that's already started to happen, but what sort of new business models are you seeing or do you think we'll be seeing in the future?

Dave: Yeah, I think that's great...it's a great question, and I think five years is a stretch. We're going to see it tighter than that, the ramp is pretty significant because it started, you know, we lost that year, year and a half, but we were already seeing it pre-COVID. But the future's bringing requirements for flexibility, agility and profitable small-batch production, that we already see. Producers and, of course, therefore, the production equipment, they have to be able to keep up with the direct-to-consumer stuff, the DTC requirements, the Amazon effect is already in play in almost every production environment that we're serving. Everything from snack foods to, well, I would say cosmetics and home care, personal care to medicine, frankly, all the way through the medicine itself, where a consumer is getting pretty used to getting, myself included, getting exactly what and how many of what I want basically when I want it. And not to mention that marketing, the marketing departments are focused on differentiation because of the competitive nature of the world, those departments are constantly changing the formats for packages, they're adding varieties, they're creating combinations that best serve their user or their consumer. This isn't easy to do. The logistics of all that has been very complicated and expensive. Largely, it's done with volume production, meaning they just crank out whatever it is, they inventory it, and then they co-pack it. So they dismantle, repackage, and get product out. And that's true of foods all the way to even medicine. It's expensive, very expensive.

Every time a producer touches it, the product, whether it's a beer or a face cream or a drug, there's cost, and not to mention the possibility of damage or contamination. So, we're looking at the adaptive manufacturing to allow for  many less steps in that process to be able to build those desired varieties at the time of producing so that we're not touching it again. Basically, a build-to-order concept, if you will, but more or less a merging of the product. So I think machine builders will inherently need to incorporate that flexibility and agility, and frankly, the convenience for producers into their products. So, zero changeover is driving much of this, but I think the interface or the HMI or NMI, and the data exchange will be just as important.

Mike: Absolutely. And a great segue into the next question that I wanted to ask you, actually, about that adaptive machine concept. And like you said, it's really has evolved into adaptive manufacturing. So, let's talk a little bit about the ACOPOS, the ACOPOS 6D, how does that fit into this concept and this evolution?

Dave: Mike, it fits like a glove. That's the best part about it, is that this is exactly the right time for the 6D to become truly this industrialized product. It fits into the whole adaptive manufacturing like a glove, it really does. The next generation of these manufacturing platforms like 6D, they make use of, sort of these, I use a little bit of a cliche, but the enabling technologies, so these like magnetic levitation, these are magnetic transport systems, such as the 6D, ACOPOStrak, which we'll talk a little bit about, and of course, SuperTrak. Even robots, vision and the smart sensors, all these in close coordination are really maximizing the flexibility and even longevity of the system. Fixed automation used to be tossed, right now, these technologies are kind of baking in the capacities for quicker changeover, batch size one and less retooling of anything even on new product development. So the the adaptive machine is retooled, repurposed just as fast as the products change. That's the whole gist behind the adaptive machine and the 6D really starting to capture imagination of some of these design engineers that we're working with. So really, very interesting developments are happening now at the machine builder level, in the OEM level, they're getting very different verticals and in very different spaces. So, it's a very broadly enabling technology. I'm sure it's going to change what we consider to be the standard processes, I really am. And so I think the 6D fits tremendous into our depth of manufacturing concept.

Mike: Absolutely. And, you know, when you were saying it fits like a glove, it kind of made me think, yes, it fits like a glove, not only the right size, but also in the exact color you want and made out of the exact material that you want.

Dave: I love that, that's very...yes. Nice, thank you, Mike.

Mike: So what about the modularization that the ACOPOS 6D offers breaking new segments? Can you talk a little bit about that and the advantages?

Dave: Yeah, I can. So the ACOPOS line, if you will, between ACOPOStrak and ACOPOS 6D [and] even to some degree SuperTrak has been modularly designed from the get go. So, the modular design of the 6D segments gives us the design flexibility to match the needs of the system, that's the best way to put it. What that really means is if we've got to go around the corner, we can go around the corner. If we're constrained by the space on a production floor, which we invariably are, the manufacturing space is always brownfield anyway, is always an issue. So, this gives us the opportunity to reconfigure, so a production line can be built with these segments, shuttles, etc., tooling and then dismantled and then reassembled. So it doesn't have to be thrown away, much like some of the fixed automation in the past with conveyance, etc. had to be. I can't tell you how many times I would see old "conveyor lines" out the backsides of these facilities that are just not available for use. So, the reconfiguration is a big piece of it, especially when we already see format changes, production changes through marketing, etc. So, we can later fit that same equipment to the next process and optimize that product flow. So that's pretty key to the adaptive machine piece.

Mike: Sure, yeah. The flexibility. Absolutely. And the $64,000 question, what about the application? What do you envision the ACOPOS 6D being used in, which verticals or what type of applications use this key part?

Dave: Mike, I haven't said this in a while, but I mean, it's really boundless. I mean, we've got applications in play that span the nature of our business. It's just, it's incredible. And they're all valid, there's validity to all of them. So you know, the 6D is basically the backbone for almost any of the adaptive machine or manufacturing adaptive manufacturing processes. The six degrees of freedom, the 6D of course, the six degree that each of the shuttle can move through opens up such a wide range of use cases. The fact that we have pitch, yaw, and rotation, and vertical, XYZ, of course, it's just, it's great. And so, I would say to name kind of a few that we would say are already in play in terms of interest, the 6D is well served in pick and place, liquid and powder dispensing, process-to-process transport, kind of what it was actually built for. I've seen batching, I mean, collating or bringing things together. Of course, it's used right now in filling, labeling, and camping. But also, electronic assembly is super interesting because there was always a level of accuracy in that assembly process that most had to be pinned. I mean, there were some, you know, certain subtleties around that. But assembly is also super high on our list for opportunity. But this list is by no means exhaustive. Our customers are just, I think, just scratching the surface of the flexibility. And we as engineers are just super excited to see what's next.

Mike: Right. Yeah, absolutely. The flexibility certainly makes the sky the limit.

Dave: Right. Sure it does.

Mike: All right. Well, thanks again, David, really appreciate you taking the time to talk this afternoon. Enjoyed it immensely. You've certainly shed some new light on the future of machine automation., and you've definitely given us some food for thought regarding motion. Thanks for joining us.

Dave: Yes, no, thanks for having me. I love these kinds of topics because they're fun, progressive and new, and really B&R is very well positioned around these things. I was happy to be here and I look forward to doing it again.

Mike: Thanks so much, and thanks to our listeners for joining us on this episode of Control Intelligence.

For more, tune into the Control Intelligence podcast.

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Control Intelligence: A Podcast from Control Design

Welcome to Control Intelligence, a podcast that goes deep inside the automation and technology that machine builders, system integrators and end users rely on to keep production humming efficiently.

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