The thought ran through Frank Haran's mind more than once–"We're breaking a whole lot of rules."
It's survival of the fittest for manufacturers these days. Those who remain lean and implement leading-edge technologies and flexible processes to produce high-quality products cheaper and faster than their competitors will be successful. To help you achieve success, we've asked industry experts to name the top five technologies or trends they think will make a difference in 2007 and beyond. Thank you to Jim Pinto, Peter Luh, Peter Orban, Sal Spada and Sath Rao for contributing to our second annual Top 5 feature. Last year, wireless technologies and robotics were a common theme among contributors. This year, wireless and robotics still made the list, along with a bevy of other emerging technologies. Read on to see what the experts had to say.
When Bill Valedis teaches safety courses, he often tells the story of when he took flying lessons. During one flight, he had the procedures manual between his legs but clearly hadn't properly studied it. After that session, the instructor told Valedis she would never fly with him again. She had put her life in his hands, and he hadn't followed proper procedures. Flying a plane unprepared is a bit like running a company with a safety program that just sits in a binder and collects dust, or being only vaguely aware of machine guarding requirements.Valedis is the president of Imperial Automation Technologies Inc., based in Fergus, Ont. He conducts training in pre-start health and safety reviews (PSRs) and has learned, by the questions people ask him, that many manufacturers are unaware of their legal requirements for machine safeguarding. Valedis urges them to learn and to understand that codes, standards and regulations are designed to minimize risk."When guys grumble about procedures, saying it's a bunch of bull and pieces of paper, I say, 'No, it's not. It may not be perfect, but we must understand that they exist, what they do, and we must follow them.' "In other words, legislation can only take us so far. Taking the time to understand and apply it is everyone's responsibility. Just like himself when he was eager to fly but impatient about taking the proper steps, Valedis says companies that neglect their requirements may be putting people's lives at risk."We all get buried in having to make production, keeping the bottom line rolling and the product going out the door, but we could all be sitting in a room one day and say, 'Why did this person die?' " says Valedis. "Having sat through department of labour hearings and testified as an expert witness before, I've left all these sessions with a gut-wrenching feeling in my stomach: Why aren't we doing enough?"Safeguarding requirementsBill C45 imposes a legal duty on all employers to take measures to protect employee and public safety. There are also regulations for industrial establishments in every jurisdiction's Occupational Health and Safety Act, and manufacturers must comply with any applicable standards that are referenced in the legislation. These may include the Canadian Standards Association's Code for Punch Press, Z142-02, Guarding of Robots, Z434-03, and Guarding of Machinery, Z432-04, depending on the type of machinery in your plant. When any new piece of equipment is commissioned or started up, the law may require a pre-start health and safety review, depending on the legal jurisdiction and whether or not exemptions apply. In Ontario, this requirement came into effect in 2000 but continues to baffle some employers. Franco Tomei, guarding specialist with the Industrial Accident Prevention Association (IAPA), gives clients ideas and options to help them comply with safety law. He says that many manufacturers struggle to understand the requirements for safeguarding, especially when the regulations are performance based as opposed to outcome based."The question manufacturers often ask is how to comply," says Tomei. He says that employers voice frustrations with the requirements, and that they are often not sure how far to go in compliance, and where to draw the line. While the primary objective of machine guarding is to prevent access to the point of operation or exposed moving part, "the reality is that no matter how far you go, there's always somebody who will find a way to gain access," says Tomei. "Often, when I do point out an access point that is to be safeguarded, there is the stunned expression: 'Nobody in their right mind would go in there.' I have to explain that they are absolutely correct, but that the Act and regulations were not intended for those in their right mind."Nonetheless, even wise, safety-minded employees sometimes get hurt if they don't have adequate safety training. Another objection Tomei hears from employers is that they have responsible, experienced employees who have never had an accident. Experience, however, isn't the same as knowing the hazards and regulatory requirements of a job. In the same vein, a perfect safety record to date "does not in itself constitute safe conditions and is a flawed conclusion," says Tomei.Mike Voll, controls manager, Manufacturing and Industrial, with Stantec Consulting Ltd., sits on a number of CSA committees. He says the committees continually go over the grey areas that companies have trouble understanding. In creating the standards, he says, "They try to have as little impact on the manufacturers as possible, but there has been a huge impact on manufacturing. When the standards first came out, I think the general view in industry was 'We'll only do it if we have to,' because it's costly."But it is improving your safety level, and potentially reducing your compensation claims, which ultimately could be improving your bottom line. And if you're fined by the government," he adds, "that will impact your productivity as well."As employers get to know the regulations and codes that apply to their workplace, they should never forget one simple and essential requirement of occupational health and safety law: due diligence. At the most basic level, the law wants proof that employers, supervisors and workers are doing whatever they must to ensure everyone's safety on the plant floor. Keeping that in mind, hereís what the law expects of employers:1. The risk assessment Conducting a risk assessment is the first thing Voll recommends for anyone considering a safeguarding upgrade. The purpose of this step is to analyse all hazards in the regular operation of the machine, and in setup or changeover functions. Guidelines recommend that the risk assessment be conducted or orchestrated by the professional engineer who's doing the pre-start health and safety review (if applicable), but Voll says this step should involve all stakeholders, including the equipment manufacturer, operations people, maintenance staff, operators, and health and safety groups within the organization. "What you're essentially doing is agreeing on the level of risk of each of the devices on the system," he says.The risk assessment explores these and other questions: How does the operator interact with the machine? What are the potential hazards? What's the frequency of the operator's exposure to those hazards? What's the likelihood that something could happen? If something could happen, how severe would it be? Could the operator lose a finger? Could he lose an arm? Is it just a scrape? Is it something that can be treated with first-aid? Is it something that's reversible?One process and one hazard at a time, conducting a risk assessment gives employers a better understanding of their safety requirements. It might also confirm the need to conduct a pre-start health and safety review.2. The pre-start health and safety review This process analyses the safety of each machine or process before it is installed or modified. According to safety regulations, only a registered engineer may conduct the review. Voll, who performs PSRs for various clients, recommends engaging the expert sooner than later, ideally at the machine design stage. "If the reviewer is not involved early in the process, it can be extremely costly," he says. "We'll end up doing the review on a set of electrical drawings, let's say, for a machine that's already being built, and we'll find a whole series of non-compliances that will effectively flag a redesign. If it had been done earlier it would have saved a lot of money and re-work."Tomei agrees, saying employers are often shocked to find out that the brand new machine they just bought is not in compliance with safeguarding codes."If an unsafe machine is allowed to enter the workplace, it will become an albatross to all those who come into contact with it over its life," he says. "Safeguarding is best integrated at the design stage and not with retrofits."Too often, Tomei has seen employers take corrective action rather than more prudent preventive action. He says that's like paying for a deficient product, paying somebody else (an engineer) to identify those deficiencies, and then paying yet again to have someone else correct the identified deficiencies."I am often shown the approval sticker on machines placed by an authority that has assessed compliance with the electrical code," says Tomei. "And I must point out that this is only for [the] electrical aspect of the machine. It does not indicate compliance with safeguarding requirements."When buying new equipment, Valedis recommends that employers spell out their guarding requirements, in writing, to equipment suppliers."As an employer you'd better have, in your purchasing agreement, requirements for compliance. If an accident occurs, the Ministry of Labour will step in and say, 'Okay, it involves this machine. Who is the manufacturer? Is the machine manufactured to some international standards? What are these standards?'"They'll do an investigation on you, and as soon as they find out by looking at your purchase order that you don't even specify what regulation XYZ means and how the manufacturer of this machine must comply with your requirement, well you've shown the Ministry or any investigator that you really don't have a safety plan." 3. Equipment installation or upgrade Once the risk assessment and PSR have been conducted by qualified experts, it is safe to proceed with the new or upgraded equipment and processes. That doesn't mean forgetting all about safeguarding, however. See the sidebar, Safeguarding compliance, for after-implementation compliance tips. 4. Proof of due diligence - safety records and reports The law requires that companies have all safety documentation on hand. During a safety audit, or in the event that an employer, supervisor or worker must defend himself or herself in a libel suit, safety records and reports will demonstrate that they have practised due diligence and understand their responsibilities.5. Communication and training Employees, too, are responsible for safety. They must adhere to safeguarding requirements by always using the safeguards that are in place and following established procedures. That means employers must communicate those procedures to employees and provide the necessary training. And rather than just relying on the generic training by some equipment providers, Valedis says it's important to find a trainer who takes the time to truly understand the company's particular tasks, processes and hazards.Safety is worth the timeWhen Valedis goes into a plant where technical staff are well trained in safeguarding and other safety requirements, he senses a certain level of satisfaction, elevated knowledge and less anxiety. "Sometimes these are very intangible things to put a dollar value on," he says. "Safety is expensive, but it produces results because it informs the people in how to conduct their duties and responsibilities with a lot of confidence. And if you have confidence in what you're doing, you'll do it safer and be more productive because you'll do it in less time."For additional information on machine safeguarding, which standards you may need to comply with, and a list of circumstances that trigger a pre-start health and safety review, visit www.labour.gov.on.ca, www.csa.ca and www.iapa.ca.Michelle Morra is a Toronto-based freelance journalist. Safeguarding compliance: After implementationSo you've assessed safeguarding risks in your plant, conducted a pre-start health and safety review, and gone ahead with the necessary equipment changes and upgrades. If you've done your homework, your new and improved processes will be not only safer, but they will also be flexible. Expect to make updates or corrections because situations on the plant floor will change.Manufacturers' responsibilities do not end after implementation. Your Ministry of Labour or safe workplace association are available to help, but remember these tips for starters:• Control access to the machine or equipment. Even after a safeguarding measure is in place, you must provide further protection in the event that someone might not use those machine guards. "This is an elaborate procedure that states if you are going to bypass a safety device, which is undesirable by every stretch of the imagination but necessary in the world we live in today with the complexity of machines and processes, you must follow this energy control procedure," says Bill Valedis of Imperial Automation Technologies. "There are stipulations. There is flagging of the particular equipment. There is extra perimeter guarding that goes onÖ Procedures as to exactly how to prepare the space or the machine before you enter, and a whole host of steps that the employee must follow."• When a machine breaks down, be thorough in your corrections. Franco Tomei, guarding specialist with the Industrial Accident Prevention Association, says when machines are placed back into production after a breakdown, problems sometimes arise. In some cases, he says, the safeguarding will be replaced later as a result of production requirements. "Too often the safeguards are never really replaced, eventually misplaced and never to be seen again," he says. "Maintenance personnel must, for their own protection, ensure that the repair of the machine is not finished until all aspects (including safeguarding) have been replaced and [are] functioning within specifications."• Encourage employee feedback. As impressive as your safeguarding processes might be, only the employees who use those processes can truly determine how well they work. So talk to them. Give them a means to exchange ideas, and ask them questions such as, "Is there anything about this procedure that we need to modify? Have we run into any difficulty with changing a tool, for example?"Valedis says, "We need to have a system that updates the information. It must be easy, and it must not be bureaucratic or take 16,000 pages of paper to fill out."• Conduct periodic safety audits. Your engineering staff, and perhaps a member of your safety team, should periodically target each area and investigate how things are really working. They should find out how a process works, whether staff are following safeguarding procedures, note any deficiencies and correct them. Valedis says these audits are a logical part of a companyís quality assurance program.Complying with safeguarding requirements, communicating them to employees, and doing the necessary followup and maintenance will make a world of difference in your organization. Investing the time and money for safety will likely make your company prosper more in the long run, both financially and in terms of protecting your workersí limbs and lives.
When robots first came on the manufacturing scene in the late 1950s and early 1960s, skeptics accused them of stealing jobs and dehumanizing the workplace. Others thought robots could solve the industrial world's woes. Today's truth: We've only just begun to realize the robot's true potential.
Over the last few years, the development of electric linear actuators has led to their increasing use in linear motion systems that would have previously used hydraulics. As a result, it is now good practice before designing a new linear motion system to decide which type of linear actuator is best for the system–electro-mechanical actuators or hydraulic.
Taking the guesswork out of assembly accuracy can have benefits well beyond cutting costs. When Ford Motor Company implemented a 3D vision system at its engine plant in Windsor, Ont., the automaker increased assembly accuracy in nut-running, reduced rework time, reduced downtime and increased efficiencies. But arguably the biggest benefit the auto giant has seen since implementing the vision system is zero incidences of engine failure associated with loose bolts. Ford manufacturers 3,600 engines at its 1.2-million-sq.-ft. engine plant each day. For a company that measures success by quality, just one faulty engine could result in the loss of business."Quality means so much in this competitive industry," says Sara Stojcevski, a fastener engineer with Ford.Previously, the company relied on PLC alerts to detect misapplied bolts on the engine mounting line. When a problem was detected, engines were diverted to a repair bay where technicians would manually unfasten and re-fasten all 16 bolts on the V-8 engine, even if only one bolt was loose. The system had to acknowledge 16 hits before releasing the engine. But this process was unreliable, ineffective and time consuming. "The problem with that is you can hit the same bolt 16 times and get an okay torque and [release the engine], but there could be 15 other bolts that are loose," says Stojcevski. "That resulted in our customers receiving engines with loose connecting rod boltsÖSometimes they caught it at our vehicle operations plant, but we've also had many get right to our customer."The plant needed a solution that would pinpoint which bolt needed to be fastened and confirm that it was, in fact, fastened, eliminating any unnecessary unfastening and refastening of bolts that were already tight. Stojcevski contacted Ross Rawlings, president of Oldcastle, Ont.-based Radix Controls, and Nikola Dimitrov, the companyís vice-president of engineering, to come up with a solution. The team tested various types of systems, including an ultrasound system and an ultrasound system in combination with an inertial navigation system, but neither was reliable enough for Ford's application because of the excessive noise associated with manufacturing environments. Finally, it was decided that a vision system was the appropriate solution because the technician needed to see that the proper bolt was being torqued down. Enter Tool Tracker, a 3D vision system developed by Radix Controls. The system had been in development for two years before being implemented at Ford.How it worksThe Tool Tracker is an integrated system for visually tracking and identifying the location and orientation of an object within a given space. It uses a target, one or more cameras and subsequent analysis within the mathematical model in the system software. The system also includes industrial computers to analyse the images, and a graphical user interface that provides operator feedback that the operation was completed. Using a strategically placed camera, Tool Tracker validates that the operator with the torque gun is doing the correction at the right place, and that it has been executed as required. The tool uses high-speed visual tracking technology to track a target permanently mounted on the hand tool (in Fordís case, a torque gun). It tracks the target and reports the toolís socket position. That information can be used to determine if the correct nut has been fastened. The system links with process data, validates the position and corresponding torque event for quality programs, determines the number and position of bolts that have been tightened, and verifies results to the operator, who then releases the engine. Implementation and benefits The installation took two weeks, and included mounting the Atlas Copco PowerMacs controller stand and the fastening tools bracket; making modifications to the existing engine rotate so the team could locate the engine; programming the PowerMacs controllers; electrical wiring and piping; calibrating the camera; teaching the bolt locations; interfacing the Tool Tracker HMI with the repair bay PLC (a Modicon 984); and error-proofing the repair bay PLC logic. Once everything was in place, the team needed a couple of days to configure the application.The Tool Tracker is currently implemented in one repair bay at Ford's engine plant, but Stojcevski says that there are other areas of opportunity that the company is looking into. She says the system could be implemented anywhere on the floor where error-proofing is required. "We have shared this technology with our technological department within Ford, and they are extremely impressed," she says. "They are thinking of buying the product and using it in other areas of Ford."It's been almost a year since implementation, and the team is happy with the results. The system has reduced rework time by as much as 80 per cent and, because the technicians are doing fewer steps, it has allowed them to work faster, churning more engines out of the repair bay than ever before. "We'd get instances where they were so busy in that bay, because our repair bay only holds so many engines. Once it fills up, the line will stop," explains Stojcevski. "Because they'd have to do 16 hits before they can release anything, if there was any sort of quality issue with engines that were coming in, we would stop the line because [the technician] couldnít do it fast enough. So now with this, itís more efficient. Very rarely do we get backed up to the point of stopping the line. Actually, I donít even think we've had that issue." The Tool Tracker also automated the error-proofing aspect of the repair bay. Previously, the error-proofing technique was to have the lead supervisor verify that the engine had 16 hits. But the lead supervisor was responsible for the entire line, and was not always available, so they would have to wait. The Tool Tracker has automated that part of the job, and frees up the lead supervisor to do other things. The system also provides traceability, since it collects historical data. If there is a recall, production records could be scrutinized rather than the vehicles, resulting in a reduction of the number of vehicles brought back for examination, which will save money. There are additional impacts on the bottom line. Stojcevski says that the automaker quantifies its engine exchange due to loose bolt failures at about $5,000 an engine if they have to exchange the engine. She estimates that the company has saved $150,000 by implementing a system that ensures that engines with loose bolts do not leave the repair bay, and thus never have to be exchanged. "But the biggest savings," she says, "is our customer satisfaction. We can't put dollars to it, but it's a big deal to us. "When this system is in use, and used properly, 100 per cent of engines have now been good engines. I havenít seen any loose rod bolts come back like we did in the past," she says. "So as you can see, our quality depends on this system."TOOL TRACKER AT A GLANCEWhat it does: The Tool Tracker links with process data; validates position and corresponding torque for quality control programs; determines the number and position of bolts that have been tightened; and verifies results to the operator. Features: The Tool Tracker can track with one or more cameras; it can track multiple targets simultaneously; it has static repeatability of one millimetre - how close several measurements are if the target is not moved; dimensional accuracy of one millimetre - the quality of the measurement obtained; it supports multiple resolutions; and it uses standard protocols.Applications: Industrial (tracking exact placement of large machinery); automotive (accuracy and verification of assembly operation); packaging (automating pickup and placement of shipping boxes); and aerospace (docking applications).
Sensors in automatic, robotic or semi-automatic welding cells are used to indicate that parts are in the appropriate position, that particular features are present, and that components are aligned and nested properly before any welding occurs. When all mechanisms in the cell perform as designed, parts are welded and inspected in post-weld check stations or on the fly with amazing speed, accuracy and quality. When problems occur with any of the system components, miss-welds, machine down time, maintenance headaches and the potential for re-work and sorting can occur. Sensors are integrated into a welding system for specific reasons, but if aspects like proper mounting, "bunkering," protection from process hostilities such as weld spatter (a.k.a. slag), parts loading impact damage or proper sensor gapping/alignment in the fixture aren't seriously considered, the life of these non-contact devices will be considerably shortened. The mean time before failure for an inductive proximity sensor is generally in excess of 100,000 hours when used under a manufacturer's stated specifications. However, rarely do we witness anywhere near that kind of life expectancy with sensors in weld cells because of their exposure to robust manufacturing conditions. Consumption rates for misapplied or unprotected sensors can also be significant. It's common to see large end-users spend anywhere from $5,000 US to $60,000 US per month on material replacement costs. Much of this cost is preventable.Sensors are often damaged because of their exposure to robust manufacturing conditions.There are generally five categories of sensors most commonly integrated into welding cells:1. Inductive proximity sensors. These non-contact devices are designed to sense metal with the ideal target being mild steel. It's important to note that these devices are almost always application-specific. In a welding environment and in the presence of strong electromagnetic fields emitted by a weld gun, it's imperative to use electronically weld field immune (WFI) inductive sensors to prevent false triggering or "chatter." The sensor's circuitry is designed to ignore electromagnetic fields. Moreover, if the sensor is located in the presence of hot weld debris, it's imperative to avoid flimsy plastic mounting brackets. Instead, the user should encapsulate sensors in metal mounting hardware and only use materials that repel weld spatter. Coated sensors (face and enclosure) as well as coated mounts lengthen maintenance intervals while allowing for mechanical removal of accumulated slag during scheduled maintenance periods. 2. Photoelectric sensors. Diffuse-reflective (with and without background suppression), retro-reflective (used with a dependable target, a reflector) and through-beam types (contains a matching energized emitter/receiver pair) are all found in many welding applications. Regardless of the category, the same mounting/bunkering methodology should be incorporated as with inductive proximity types, but with a twist. Just like a pair of glasses, if the optical lens becomes damaged or occluded, it becomes increasingly difficult to dependably sense a target. It's important to note that photoelectric sensors are application-specific as well. Putting the right photocell in the right place for the right application requires special attention if we're to dependably and repeatedly detect part features in a weld cell. Fibre optics can also be found in weld cells, but their dependable function is dependent on constant cleaning, routine maintenance and alignment. One speck of debris, and the fibre opticís function is generally rendered useless. 3. High-pressure cylinder clamping sensors. In high-pressure hydraulic or pneumatic clamping cylinders, embedded inductive proximity sensors sense the cushion or "spud" of a cylinder piston to indicate clamped or unclamped position (end of stroke). The sensing face of these high-pressure inductive types (generally rated to 3,000 psi, with European types rated to 7,250 psi) are buried deep in the cylinder and are generally protected from process hostilities. Sensor electronics are contained in a metal head that sits on either end of the cylinder. This category of sensor has WFI built into its electronic circuitry. 4. Power clamp sensors. Newer generations of power clamps from a wide range of manufacturers grasp metal pieces to be joined. Although sensors in these devices are used to detect "clamp" or "unclamped" position, they are not high-pressure rated and are not embedded inside a pneumatic or hydraulic cylinder. These inductive proximity types (generally a pair that are joined into a common connector) sense mechanically actuated components inside the power clamp to indicate extended or retracted position of the cylinder powering the clamp jaws. These are generally protected from welding hostilities, as theyíre hidden well inside the clamp body. 5. Pneumatic cylinder clamping sensors. Through-the-wall Reed and Hall Effect sensors are commonly found mounted to rod-style, profile, dovetail, slot or cylindrical styles of pneumatic clamping cylinders in the weld cell. These are also used to indicate "clamp" or "unclamped" position. Generally, failure rates in this environment with these two technologies are significant. Damage to lightweight mechanical mounting systems occurs regularly. Reed switches are generally inexpensive to replace, but these mechanical devices are failure-prone. Hall Effect sensors are solid-state devices, but generally possess their own set of issues regarding drift (movement away from normal, dependable electronic function due to temperature, board-level degradation, etc., over time). Hall Effect sensors are generally not short circuit-protected or reverse polarity-protected, something to consider in weld cells. There are alternative technologies available, such as magnetoresistive magnetic field sensors. This category of cylinder sensor eliminates many of the undesirable characteristics found in Reed and Hall sensors. Cable and connector protectionIt's also important to note that all of these sensor types are generally hard-wired to M12 DC Micro or M8 Nano-style connectors. One of the largest problems with sensors in weld cells revolves around the issue of cable/connector burn through. PVC jacket material on connectors should never be used in a weld environment. PVC burns through quickly or can become extremely brittle in a short period of time. PUR-styles (polyurethane) offer a better degree of knick resistance, flex characteristics and resistance to welding debris, but a new generation of thermoplastic elastomer (TPE) takes the positive aspects of PUR to a higher degree of positive performance. Most weld cell users have learned to further encapsulate their connectors with opaque, medical-grade silicone that resists weld slag and "weld berries," and significantly prevents cable burn through. Newer materials such as woven ceramic fibres are also being investigated. Improving the weld cell sensor systemMetal mounting brackets for tubular types and adjustable flat-mount brackets with a positive stop protect inductive sensors and photoelectric sensors from hostility, act as a heat sink, resist weld debris and provide a method of rapid change out.In areas where parts-loading in the cell cause impact damage to sensors, heavy solid aluminum bunkers with rapid change-out capability eliminate damage to tubular style sensors. With cube-style sensors, heavy bunkering resists loading impact.The tiny ceramic particles suspended in heat-resistant industrial epoxies used in weld sensor coatings provide a thermal barrier, protect sensor faces, and allow for slag removal. PTFE coatings on enclosures resist weld spatter accumulation.Bunkering photoelectric sensors increases performance, ensures alignment and protects sensor bodies. New high excess gain photoelectric sensors can sense through dense weld smoke and their metal bodies resist impact.Robust magnetoresistive cylinder position sensors with heavy mounting hardware can be installed on essentially any pneumatic cylinder style regardless of magnet orientation or gauss strength. TPE jacketed connectors with medical-grade silicone protective sleeves resist the hostilities found in weld cells and lengthen connector life.If youíre experiencing the heavy consumption of sensors used in your day-to-day welding process, or you believe maintenance time is out of the ordinary, an audit of each individual sensor in every weld cell location may be warranted. In almost every instance, itís possible - even highly probable - that youíll dramatically increase production, reduce machine down time, reduce material and maintenance costs, and increase profitability by integration of even a few of these recommended weld cell improvement methods.Dave Bird is the automotive business development manager at Balluff Inc.
Sensors are part of an exploding market, and developments are occurring at a phenomenal rate. The technology is indispensable to a broad range of industries, providing critical information about such parameters as pressure, temperature, flow, gas and position, which can have a profound impact on a number of processes or systems.The proliferation of advanced electronic control systems has provided sensor users ongoing advances in sensor accuracy, reliability, response time, robustness, miniaturization, communications capability and efficiencies. This has fueled research and development in the sensors industry, which in turn creates opportunities for technology advancements that open up new applications for sensors. Application support holds the key to the development of new technologies. For instance, a liquid level sensor may be applied in industrial sectors ranging from chemical, paper and pulp, petroleum to food and beverage. Specific applications in these industries may include the use of sensors in cooling towers, fermentation vessels, fuel storage containers, blending and solvent level monitoring vessels, to name a few. What drives the adoption of the core technology in the industrial sector is the availability of a solution that can provide seamless integration into existing automation systems. There exists a need for technology and product development to be focused on industrial applications through appropriate additional integration and value-added test. This must, in turn, be supported by a long-term strategy and roadmap for the industrial market. Technology trendsThe mantra adopted by the sensors industry in general is smaller, faster and cheaper solutions. Sensors that are important in the current industrial scenario include temperature, pressure, force and load, level, micro-electro-mechanical systems and nanotechnology. For example, new research from Rice University's Laboratory for Nanophotonics suggests that nanosized gold particles called nanostars could become powerful chemical sensors.Sensor manufacturers have significantly improved measurement technology, although the different types of industrial measurements have not changed much. Today, sensors offer a number of capabilities, such as increased sensitivity, faster response, decreased hysteresis, and longer-term stability and durability. Further, there are now sensors that can offer multiple types of measurements such as U.K.-based Sensornet's DTSS, which measures dynamic distributed strain, and independent temperature and strain in the same fibre.The ability to introduce the "smart" factor into sensors will continue to drive their application in industrial and process control applications. The industrial sector stands to gain from the design of low-power microsensors, embedded processors and radios that monitor a broad range of parameters on a factory floor to maintain production. Also, the introduction of smart sensing and calibration solutions that enable a variety of sensors to have plug-and-play capabilities across many applications helps to streamline the manufacturing and assembly of smart sensors and sensor-based products and systems. Further, the analytical capabilities of smart sensors can be installed on-board by using miniature microprocessors; attached close by using wires; or remotely through wireless networks. Industrial automation presents numerous opportunities for wireless sensor networks. This may be in areas where the sensors are expected to be flexible, have high expendability rates, and where cabling is very expensive. High-capacity wireless sensor networking is still an emerging technology, and the current view on wireless technology for the industrial automation and process control market is that this technology can provide a means to augment legacy sensing systems that would provide a next level of information for intelligent control and automation. However, the early implementations of wireless will be around sensing applications versus control. The biggest opportunity for wireless sensor networks in the industrial sector lies in sensing devices in remote or inaccessible areas, including nuclear plants, oil and gas fields, and high temperature furnaces. Wireless protocols facilitate installation of the sensors in inherently hostile industrial environments.The implementation of wireless sensing devices may commence with the development of an entirely new class of sensor that requires firmware processes for both the network stack and the sensor application to operate in a single monolithic environment, operating on a single processor. This poses numerous challenges, including complexity of design and difficulties in bringing the products to market. Addressing this is Sensicast Systems Inc. The Needham, Mass.-based company's MIND platform is designed to allow third parties to rapidly develop wireless devices based on wireless sensor networks that system integrators and independent software vendors can deploy in end-to-end solutions at customer sites. It offers a way to develop wireless sensors for mesh networks.Wireless sensor networking is a reality today, and innovation in this area will further increase its potential. Improvements down the pipeline include smaller components, faster data-exchange rates, longer ranges and better battery life. Also, batteryless sensor nodes that run with energy from vibrating machine parts, temperature differential, electromagnetic waves such as light, radio waves and infrared waves compete with battery-powered radio solutions.Previously, the main concern that existed with wireless sensors was whether there was sufficient smart energy to power it. Rapid progress of smart energy technologies has resulted in the concern shifting from whether the smart energy solutions are possible to the cost involved in adopting these solutions. Energy autonomous solutions for high-volume industrial sensors compete with battery-powered radio solutions. When energy conversion costs become comparable to battery costs - at similar performances of the system - the advantages of maintenance-free energy autonomous solutions will definitely ensure broader acceptance. Energy sources such as moving objects, vibrating machine parts, temperature differential and electromagnetic waves could be harnessed to power small, wireless and maintenance-free radio switches and sensors. ConclusionMarket factors that influence sensor technology and product-related developments include cost, competitive differentiation, resistance to change, standards evolution, and government regulations. Over the past year, a number of developments both in the academic and corporate sector have facilitated low-cost sensor solutions. For instance, last year Waterloo, Ont.-based Dalsa introduced the FT50M image sensor that offers sensor-based control of industrial processes at decreased production costs. This sensor has been designed to meet the demanding needs of the industrial market specifically in industrial inspection. Reduced operating costs, enhanced performance, and a high return on investment drive technology development - especially in industries such as oil and gas. Austin, Texas-based SensorTran Inc. launched the SensorTran 1500 DTS to make use of the benefits offered by distributed temperature sensing to track actual infrastructure conditions through temperature monitoring. Based on recent technology developments, technological and price barriers will disappear over the next few years, creating new applications for sensors in a wide range of industrial sectors.Archana Jayarajah is a technical insights analyst for Frost & Sullivan.
In the manufacturing business, maintaining strict control over operations is critical. For Nemak, it has made them a global leader.Created as a joint venture between Alfa and the Ford Motor Co., Nemak specializes in the production of aluminum cylinder heads and aluminum engine blocks for internal combustion engines. As part of its manufacturing process, the Windsor, Ont.-based company relies on three thermal sand reclamation (TSR) ovens to remove and reclaim expensive Zircon sand from the core castings it manufactures for customers. But every time the ovens are turned off, so are Nemak's profits.Two years ago, during a proactive operational and safety plant audit designed to ensure compliance with CSA standards, the Technical Safety Standard Authority (TSSA) identified a deficiency in Nemak's TSR oven burner control configuration.TSSA's safety concerns centred around the Burner Management System (BMS) Nemak was using to maintain an oven temperature of 500 C. The system did not allow for individual control of the 80 burners inside each TSR oven. If the flame on a burner went out, gas would continue to spew uncontrolled until an operator noticed the problem and maintenance personnel re-ignited the burner.Nemak worked with TSSA to investigate ways to upgrade the existing BMS setup on its ovens. Each oven is configured with 22 zones broken down into seven gas trains. Each gas train supplies two to four zones. For each gas train, there is one control panel.The hard-wired maze of wires and multiple control panels made TSR oven maintenance an efficiency nightmare. A single burner going out meant an entire zone had to be shut down until the burner could be identified and relit. Not only was the system difficult to manage, it was not cost efficient.Transitioning from the old system to the new system would require a plant shutdown. That meant the window of opportunity was three weeks. For Nemak, it was a daunting challenge."We knew we could not keep our existing PLC I/O architecture and meet the deadline," recalls Rod Bustamante, Nemak's project lead. "We looked at the amount of I/O our current processor had available and realized that to pull the number of wires that we'd need would be very costly. And we didn't have the real estate or I/O capacity in our Siemens S5 PLC to do it."We were in a dilemma," Bustamante admits.Finding a solutionNemak called on long-time automation business partner Siemens Canada for an answer."We have been integrating safety into our main SIMATIC S7 line of PLCs for 25 years," says Ondrej Benjik, Siemens Canada's safety program manager. "We developed our first safety PLC in 1980 and for the past four years, Siemens programmable safety systems have been applied by end-users in Canada."That's all Nemak needed to hear. To Bustamante, the idea of controlling process and safety together made a lot of sense."In order to turn on the gas train, I need certain safety requirement conditions. And then once I have it on, I need to maintain my process variables. So having one PLC handle my safety and my process was very appealing," Bustamante says.A panel displaying the Siemens S7-400F Safety PLC It also meant he could eliminate thousands of feet of wiring, streamline his BMS system, conform to the codes and have all kinds of I/O real estate at his fingertips for future expansion. But first, Nemak had to get TSSA to buy in. After all, the standards were written for hard-wired safety systems, which were the norm for a number of years. Safety PLCs were relatively new and had never been considered for a BMS application in the automotive industry.After two intense testing sessions, the TSSA was convinced, and the Siemens Safety PLC received TSSA approval.Rod Bustamante, Nemakís project lead, with a safety PLC panel Increased efficiency and productivityAt first, implementation presented a few challenges as the company tried to overcome the learning curve of the new technology, but it wasn't long before the BMS switchover to the first TSR oven was complete."Now we only have one main panel that houses the PLC. All the I/Os are located in that one box. The wiring from the main panel to the seven remote panels spaced evenly along the length of each TSR oven only involves power and a Profibus connection," Bustamante says."In the old scheme, we had hundreds of wires going to each. Now that we're in the process ofdecommissioning the old panels, we are removing over a thousand wires in the field from our cable trays. Now we can isolate faults to a gas train, which makes troubleshooting much easier."The simplified infrastructure is also setting a smooth transition for the second and third ovens. Nemak engineers can do much of the pre-wiring for the additional two furnaces in parallel to the old system, which means the impact of productivity when they change over to the Siemens Safety PLC solution will beminimal.Since installing the solution, Nemak's safety record reflects the effectiveness of the new system: zero incidents. As for some of the additional benefits the new BMS configuration offers, the true impact won't be known until all three TSRs are outfitted with the safety PLC - a process that is still in progress.The Siemens PC-based HMI displays the graphical overview of the Thermal Sand Reclamation ovensHowever, Nemak is excited about some of the early indicators: The simplicity factor - having safety and process controlled by one unit - has made maintenance much easier; unscheduled downtime and unexpected outages have been minimized because the new BMS system allows operators to be more proactive in managing the system; and it's also made troubleshooting easier by eliminating the need for operators to conduct regular checks of the panels on each TSR oven to see if any indicator lights are flashing.Today, from a centralized control room, the TSR operator can simply look on a single screen using a PC-based HMI running WinCC to display a graphical overview of the burner system where individual burner status, zone temperature and status of each gas train and safety components are displayed.The result is a much quicker response to identify burners that have gone out, which means maintenance can respond quicker and have the system operating at 100 per cent efficiency faster, maximizing productivity and quality.In addition to making Nemak's manufacturing operation safer and more cost effective, the safety PLC has allowed Nemak to build an infrastructure that can be easily modified to meet future needs.Gerry Black is a Toronto-based freelance writer.
Canada's productivity problemManufacturing AUTOMATION recently put together an editorial advisory board consisting of six experts representing different segments of the industrial automation industry in Canada. This summer, we hosted the first editorial advisory board meeting at our office in Aurora, Ont., to discuss trends and challenges in the industrial automation industry. The result was a lively discussion on Canadian productivity, with a laundry list of challenges facing Canadian manufacturers. But there is hope, according to our board members. Before we delve into this deeper, introductions are in order.
If you bought a cell phone in 1996, chances are it was big, bulky and approximately the size of a shoe. It didn't do much–just let you make and receive phone calls. It probably cost a pretty penny, too, with rates running upwards of a dollar a minute.Now imagine you still had that phone today. For the past 10 years, you used the perfectly functional, if slightly outdated, phone, and it served you well. But let's say you decided to upgrade your phone. Today's cell phones are razor-thin and incorporate full-colour graphics, text messaging capabilities, video games, MP3 players, and can even provide access to television and the Internet.That's a lot of new technology that you missed out on in 10 years. And it can be an intimidating task to update to a newer technology when you've grown accustomed to using the older one. Hastech Manufacturing faced a similar challenge. The Guelph, Ont.-based subsidiary of auto parts giant Linamar builds transmissions for some of the world's biggest automakers. But automakers don't often redesign transmissions, so Hastech had not changed its manufacturing process in years."The design [of a transmission] will stay unchanged for 10, 12 or 15 years," says Jason Balzer, program manager for Hastech. "Some transmissions run for 20 or 30 years without changing. Many of the products we have here have been around for more than 10 years."Recently, one of the company's clients designed a new transmission, which meant Hastech had to design a new line to make it. Since Hastech had not launched a new product in a number of years, it had not needed to make use of the latest automation technology available. Like the fictional cell phone user, the company needed to adjust to some big changes in technology.Small space = big challengeHastech was faced with some very tight constraints, the biggest of which was also the smallest: The company had to find a way to get 110 machines and 32 gauges spanning four separate product numbers to fit in an area totalling slightly more than 14,000 sq. ft. Hastech also needed to control all four lines independently and deal with the large amounts of inputs and outputs needed to communicate with the machines, gauges and robots–all while still maintaining acceptable uptime numbers for its customer.So the company turned to Andor Robotic Solutions, an automation solutions provider, also based in Guelph. Together with Andor, Hastech created a new, technologically advanced manufacturing line that met all of its requirements and more.Meeting of the mindsHastech was originally looking for a quote on automating a number of smaller, individual cells. "When we realized the scope of the job, we asked them if we should look at the whole line overall and a total automation solution," says Steve Spanjers, Andorís vice-president. "That's where it started."Andor's team realized the job would not be easy. With so much to cram into such a tight space, they had to find a solution that was different from anything they'd ever done before."When they told us the floor space requirements, we almost laughed at them," says Mike Kazmaier, a sales manager at Andor. "That really drove the direction."Hastech and Andor then sat down to start working on a layout. "We probably had 40 iterations of this layout on our server," says Kazmaier. "There were a couple of places where they were actually combining the two lines to share a machine and then breaking them off again later on. Putting that layout together was, I think, one of the toughest parts of the job."It's like pieces of a puzzle," he adds. "The problem is that when the puzzle has to combine in certain places, you can only assemble it in a certain way. We had to come up with something that was going to work and was also going to fit in the space they wanted it to."So how did Andor and Hastech finally solve this puzzle? The team developed and implemented a full wireless control system. "We started looking at placing individual panels out on the line and we kept coming up with really big numbers, like we would need 100 HMI (human-machine interface) panels," Spanjers says. "Then we started talking about different wires and pendants that we could plug in around the line, but even just the cost of running drops all over the place would have been quite high. That's when we came on this wireless solution that we developed with some help from Rockwell. As far as we know, this is the first time a system like this has been used in production."The line was carefully engineered to use 32 ceiling-mounted gantry robots, four floor-mounted robots and several custom-designed pick-and-place units. All of the control is done from one AB Controllogix CPU connected to an Ethernet network. Andor's team installed an RSView SE server and programmed it to meet Hastech's specifications. They connected the server to a floor-mounted switch via a fibre optic cable and connected wireless access points to this switch, along with the PLC. The control devices are simply rugged tablet PCs, with standard 802.11b wireless Ethernet cards.Not only did the wireless solution allow Hastech to fit everything into the small space, it also saved money. "The big savings is not running wire," says Spanjers. "We don't have to run wire. We don't have to make panels all over the place. To pull all that extra wire at the front-end of the project would have cost more time. In this case, we ran one Ethernet cord from the access point."And because it is so customized, the new solution also gives Hastech the flexibility it needs. "The lines were installed to run completely automated, but we wanted the flexibility to be able to turn them manually," Balzer says. "It does complicate the whole integration, because certain things you want to do when running a machine or a section manually, you don't want to do when you run it with automation. But with these HMIs, they can provide us the functionality to turn off certain pieces of automation."Up and runningThe fact that the solution was wireless posed a challenge at first, Spanjers explains. "When we called Rockwell for technical support, when we told them what we were doing, the tech support guys were always a little nervous because they'd never heard of it being done before. "It was a bit stressful at the start to get it set up," he adds, "not knowing for sure because it hadn't been done before."Hastech is ramping up production on the line before its client launches the new transmission into wide release, and it's looking good. While the team has yet to calculate hard numbers in terms of savings or return on investment, they all agree the savings are there. "We did run some preliminary numbers," says Spanjers. "For us, it looked like at least a cost wash and a time saver. When you look at it that way, it makes a lot of sense.""There is some direct cost-savings, too," adds Balzer. The gauges Hastech is using on the floor "didn't come with a cycle start button on them," he says. "Rather than having electricians install a physical button, we could actually, on the tablet PC, add a virtual start button."The wireless aspect also makes Hastech's IT requirements easier. "It's just a tablet PC," Spanjers says. "All Linamar's IT staff know how to handle it. The access point is just a regular 802.11. IT knows how to support it already."Finally, the solution allows Hastech to tweak the line before the product goes into wide release. The robots are easily reprogrammed and re-tasked, Spanjers says. "We make a quick programming change and we're back up and running."The futureFor Hastech, though, the real key is how well the line can change and evolve to meet future requirements. "I don't even think at this point we've even really used it up to its full advantage," Balzer says. "We will start to realize over time how much more useful it really is."Spanjers agrees. "From the control architecture point of view, Hastech is actually looking at more of an advanced data collection system they want to build on top of it. Because the architecture is so scalable, it's not going to be a huge leap for them to jump in and throw in another server to do some data collection so they can calculate everything automatically and gauge and control the line better."The strict quality control process in the automotive manufacturing industry is always a challenge for companies like Hastech, and the new solution could help improve that as well. It can allow the engineers to communicate with the shop floor instantly when production requirements change. "When you start talking about just-in-time and tight deadlines, being able to communicate with the guys on the floor, and communicate changes down through e-mail and update the process specs, quality assurance and production requirements–it brings the shop floor guys closer to these guys up here so they can communicate better," Spanjers says.And how does Hastech appreciate the new line? "We've never worked on another program that's been nearly as big," Balzer says. "We had to use the old-fashioned HMIs to know how good we've got it right now."Alison Dunn is a Burlington, Ont.-based freelance writer, and former editor of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.
The last decade has witnessed remarkable transformations in variable frequency drive technology, including AC vector drive performance; expanded communications capabilities; smaller, more compact designs; and integrated control capability driven by more powerful and faster microprocessors. Users can now optimize drive performance to meet a wide range of application requirements without the added cost of customization or complex programming. Vector controlPerhaps the biggest breakthrough over the past 10 years was the addition of vector control to AC drives. At the centre of this technology is the use of a field-oriented control scheme that replaces the volts-per-hertz regulator core–found in most AC drives–with a high-bandwidth current regulator that allows independent speed and torque control, while adapting to motor and load changes. The ability to identify flux and torque separately allows the drive to continuously regulate those same quantities in the motor, resulting in more precise and improved overall motor performance.Drive manufacturers continue to improve the performance capabilities of vector control AC drives, taking advantage of advances in microprocessor technology. Improved field-oriented control algorithms help optimize drive performance to meet the speed or torque requirements of the application. This enables high-powered AC drives to outperform DC drives, including delivering torque independent of motor speed, with a quick reaction to shock loads. As a result, field-oriented control of AC drives combines the advantages of DC drives–constant torque down to zero speed ó with the benefits of AC drives–simplified installation, tuning and maintenance. In hoist and crane applications, tight demands on torque response require the drive to deliver high torque levels without losing control of the load and the ability to stop the load accurately and precisely. Likewise, applications such as mixers, centrifuges and extruders require a drive capable of delivering full torque immediately upon startup, constant torque throughout the operating speed range, and full torque down to zero speed. Integrated control capabilitiesOther advances in drive technology centre around logic control capabilities. These control features allow users to optimize general-purpose drives for specific applications without having to order a special drive or write additional code in a separate processor. Because the embedded control is tightly coupled, users achieve higher speed and throughput. For example, users may be able to position-synchronize a printing press to boost throughput, or more quickly and precisely move items within a work cell, such as lifting and moving vehicle parts on an automotive assembly line. By embedding the logic right into the drive, users can also reduce the size of the drive-control package, and improve reliability by minimizing the number of required connections. While applications with large I/O requirements may still require a separate controller, many simple processes can benefit from the improved speed and efficiency of a standalone drive unit. Drives and positioning applicationsIn the past, AC drives were not designed to place products and materials with the accuracy required to be effective. Although high-performance drives can sometimes match the accuracy of servo motion technology, more commonly, todayís drives are replacing older mechanical systems, such as those on assembly lines.For example, the Ford Motor Companyís plant in St. Paul, Minn., recently replaced hydraulic and mechanical transfer systems on the assembly line producing the Ford Ranger with drives that contain an embedded controller. This enables the drive to meet the exact positioning requirements of the assembly line. The drives direct the truck frames to the exact point needed on the assembly line, streamlining production and reducing maintenance associated with complex mechanical systems. Ease of use takes prominenceAs microprocessors get faster, more powerful and less expensive, drive manufacturers continue to look for ways to reduce the size, cost and complexity of AC drives, while enhancing performance. New techniques allow higher bandwidths of control, even when faced with machine resonances. Still, while some end-users demand more application versatility and flexibility, others need ease-of-use features, rather than technological advances. One of the biggest areas of technology innovation is occurring in the area of drive programming and configuration, where simplification and ease of use drive the developments. The use of programming wizards for drive startups is becoming an area of focus. These tools operate much like the setup programs in new PCs, where after a few prompts, the wizard automatically installs the software and required drivers, sets all the parameters and recognizes the hardware devices that are plugged into the PC. For example, new drive programming wizards will prompt the user for information about the application and size of the motor. It will then automatically set up all the parameters to meet the defined application and hardware requirements. For more complex installations, like a centrifuge or lifting processes, the wizard might request additional parameters, such as the type of application, the speed of the process and the weight of the load. It will then automatically adjust the parameters to optimize the drive for that application. These tools can dramatically reduce drive startup and commissioning time, and improve setup accuracy by eliminating a significant amount of manual configuration.One result of increased connectivity is that individual devices will no longer be viewed and managed as isolated components, but rather as part of an integrated system. Thatís because users will be able to program, control and troubleshoot drives, controllers, relays, I/O and motion devices from a common interface using a single software package. This includes the ability to add logic using common software tools with the same look and feel, regardless of whether the application involves a small drive in a standalone process, or a high-performance drive as part of a large PLC-based, integrated and networked system.In addition to reduced setup and operational costs, a key benefit of this integrated environment is that users are able to save their drive parameters and control logic in a single database.The proliferation of high-speed Ethernet and wireless networks on the plant floor enables users to continually increase the ability to monitor and control drives and share information. New technologies such as time-synchronized services in Ethernet provide even higher levels of control. The drive can then become an "information window" to the production process.Improved diagnostics is another feature of newer drives. For example, with current technology, users typically have a few minutes until the drive will trip as a result of an overload condition. Enhanced thermal regulators extend this time by optimizing the insulated gate bipolar transistor (IGBT) switching patterns during periods of thermal stress. New diagnostic tools allow users to perform a trend analysis over longer periods of time to show that a drive may be drawing more current than normal to achieve the same speed.With access to more detailed information over longer periods of time, users are able to potentially predict problems and prevent catastrophic failures. Moreover, the improved quality and availability of data enable maintenance personnel to be better positioned to troubleshoot, helping to reduce costs and improve uptime. Advances in AC drive technology are helping manufacturers increase productivity and save energy throughout their facilities. New technology delivers more precise speed and torque, as well as enhanced communications capabilities. It reduces downtime, increases throughput and gives a more accurate picture of the manufacturing environment.Jon Simons is technology leader, drives business, for Rockwell Automation.
Trevor Jones is the director of OEM business development for Thermo Electron in Burlington, Ont. After graduating from McMaster University with an honours degree in engineering and management in 1981, Jones and close colleagues founded CRS Robotics. In 2002, the company was acquired by Thermo Electron Corporation, a Boston, Mass.-based company that implements automation solutions for the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. This year, Jones took on the role of president of Robotics Industries Association (RIA), and has the distinction of being the first Canadian to lead the North American industry group. Manufacturing AUTOMATION visited Jones at his office in Burlington to discuss his plans for the association, and whether the industry can sustain the huge growth it has seen in recent years. Manufacturing AUTOMATION: How does it feel to be the first Canadian president of RIA?Trevor Jones: I donít know whether itís particularly a landmark. I donít look at it that way. I just see it like anyone else would taking the position. Itís an honour. MA: What will you bring to the association as a Canadian? TJ: I donít think itís so much a nationality thing. I think what it may have more to do with is my involvement in the robotics industry. Our products were typically not sold into automotive applications, and RIA has a strong automotive background. So my influence will probably be less nationalistically oriented, but [will] probably [be] more in terms of looking at new applications for robots other than the traditional automotive [applications]. My background is more in automation for pharmaceutical and biotech drug discovery applications. Itís just a different perspective.MA: What is your vision for RIA?TJ: We want to grow it by really educating other markets and industries of the value of becoming members in the RIA. We have a new program, for instance, called the New Market Incubator Program, where we are encouraging collaboration amongst RIA members to the point where the RIA will fund programs to investigate new marketsÖ If I saw that our membership grew, and that there was more diversity in the membership in terms of background and in terms of industry, then I would consider [the program] a success. MA: What is the major need in the industry that RIA can address during your term?TJ: We believe that automation is a key factor to promote the strength of North American industry. I think that there is a general agreement that North American manufacturing is under attack from offshore, lower-cost manufacturing centres. And I believe I speak for the vast membership of the RIA when I say that itís important for North America to have a healthy manufacturing sector amongst other sectors in the economy. So I think that [we need to] promote the technology to people who want to do business in North America, [so they can] take advantage of the technologies available. MA: What is the association doing to attract students to careers in robotics? TJ: We try to encourage academics to become members of the RIA so that they can bring new technologies and new ways of looking at things to the membership. And also the networking obviously helps to locate their students into automation companies that they get exposed to as being members. Twenty years ago, when people would ask the question, "What is preventing the growth of robots, the penetration of robots in the industry?" one of the classic responses was thereís not much education. I donít think thatís an excuse any more. Most Canadian universities, for instance, have automation programs in their engineering departments. Probably the same is true of all major U.S. educational institutionsÖ The RIA actually has a program where used equipment can get diverted to educational institutions so that hardware becomes available to students.MA: The North American robotics industry has seen tremendous growth over the past two years, mainly driven by the automotive industry. Can we expect to see this type of growth continue in the future?TJ: The view forward is cautious optimism. Many indicators of economic activity are still strong, but you canít discount the stories that you hear all the time about the automotive sector in North America being under attack. The good news is thatís really nothing new, and obviously the North American automotive [industry is] still investing in their plants to become as up-to-date as possible and as efficient as possible. What theyíre doing is theyíre relying on automation as part of their strategy to remain competitive... I donít think that the growth rates that weíve seen are sustainable over the long term, because it was double digit growth. So we think that thereís a strong year ahead, but I donít think that those growth rates will be repeated. The one thing that we have to be able to do to promote robot growth even more is make them easier to use, so we can promote their use in smaller companies that donít have the infrastructure of training and support that the larger manufacturing companies tend to have. Robots have to become more affordable, which is an obvious trend. Over the last 10 years, robot prices have dropped on average five per cent per year. So the robot now costs less than half of what it did 10 years ago for equivalent performance. Thatís making robots more accessible to smaller businesses that have less access to capital. MA: What is the biggest trend our readers can look forward to in the robotics market?TJ: I think that youíll continue to see robots used in more and more applications where youíd thought youíd never see them. Youíve probably already seen a lot of stories on medical robotics, for instance. Automating a lot of these medical procedures is quite technically feasible now. Where the RIA helps in that regard... [is] we try to promote the notion that these markets require standards in order to make sure that the technology is safely and efficiently used. But you canít paint all markets with a broad brush in standards. Every market has different requirements. So, for instance, the thought of a robot working in a medical procedure would probably violate most industrial standards. So the standards development has to be diverse enough to support the deployment of the technology through all these different markets.
Most manufacturers are aware of the benefits that radio frequency identification (RFID) can bring to the supply chain, but they often overlook the technology's opportunity in manufacturing processes. RFID can address numerous manufacturing challenges, including security, quality control, production execution and asset management. When implementing the technology in a manufacturing environment, however, the key is not the tag, the reader or the part identification. Rather, it is the data that can be obtained. The objective is to use RFID to become a data-enabled enterprise, a manufacturer that obtains data and uses the information to further its competitive edge.Production processes are typically in a better position to harness the value and positive return on investment provided by RFID-collected data because they take place in a closed-loop environment where the RFID investment ó the tags ó is repeatedly used. Users can also take advantage of the existing process automation infrastructure inherent in most manufacturing facilities. RFID can bridge the gap between manufacturing execution systems (MES), enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and the production floor. The technology has the ability to provide the enabling data at a much greater level of accuracy, timeliness and detail than other alternatives. The following are some examples of how RFID can be applied in the manufacturing environment. Security RFID can be used to control various aspects of security on the plant floor. It can replace the need for passwords for process control and parameter changes. It can assist in applications where there are issues with operators logging in and leaving; multiple operators working from the same node with different security requirements; or supervisors forgetting to log out. RFID can link the user, machine and task together to verify that only qualified people are maintaining and operating the equipment. It can also allow users to track which employees have done which task, as a means of controlling quality and safety. OPEL, a car manufacturer in Europe owned by General Motors, uses RFID to solve security issues. Its production process requires that systems and computers be specially configured via about 650 programs to initiate different production steps. Today, each worker has a glass transponder on a key ring. The glass shell protects against dirt, moisture, impact and temperature. If an individual wants access to the control panel of a particular machine, the personís transponder must be verified by the reader before new data can be entered. Using RFID, the company achieved its goals of reducing input errors, monitoring and logging security and task information, and protecting sensitive system data. Changes are time- and date-stamped with the tag ID, creating a historical log for root cause analysis in the event of problems. Quality control Companies are continually looking for ways to improve quality. When a process requires certain materials, when formulations dictate certain aspects of manufacturing, or when sensitive materials can expire from exposure to excessive heat or elapsed time, RFID may be the solution. RFID tags can track products through production, reporting data as required at critical stages. In addition, data enabled by RFID can meet Six Sigma or Kaizen real-time data requirements for statistical and root cause analysis. For validation, RFID can provide the data needed to ensure clean-in-place (CIP) or sterilization has occurred. In the life sciences industry, it is not uncommon for work orders to be paper-based, especially with critical documents for validation and history. Tags embedded directly onto documents can become an automatic, reliable method for creating the work order audit trail and ensuring the correct process of the work order. A pharmaceutical company uses RFID for process monitoring and validation. During production, 1,000 bottles are loaded onto metal racks, which are moved into an autoclave for sterilization at 120 C. If there is any doubt about correct time or temperature of sterilization, the complete batch must be destroyed. Previously, product tracking and control measures were done manually, which allowed room for error. To solve this problem, the company installed a conveyor system to automatically move the racks. RFID tags are used to track and validate each rack through sterilization, operating within various environmental constraints including high heat, line of sight and stainless steel racking. Production execution RFID can also provide users with the real-time data needed in production execution. Consider applications where it is critical to ensure correct labour, machine, tool, materials and components are available and ready. The read-write capabilities of RFID can be used to control, modify and reconfigure production steps based on inbound materials and assemblies. For example, BMW needed flexible automobile assembly in a plant where every car is assembled according to the purchaserís custom order. With varying options for colour, engine, trim and tires, there could be hundreds of variations in the line. The solution BMW is using is to attach RFID tags, programmed with each vehicleís specifications, to the skid that carries each car. As the skid moves through each station, the operator or robot reads the information on the tag and manages the steps according to the data received. Genealogy A hot topic in many industries, especially food and life sciences, is the need for thorough product and material tracking and genealogy. Legal requirements, such as the United States FDA Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act, mandate that food companies need to comply with product tracking throughout the supply chain. This, combined with other issues such as recalls, creates the need for increased visibility of raw ingredients through the manufacturing process. RFID can be used as an enabler for genealogical tracking by recording such relevant information as product identification, time-stamp, physical characteristics, lot numbers and disposition at each stop through the production process. It creates the ability to retrace when, where and under what circumstances a specific unit was made, and to identify manufacturing success or failure. RFID can create finer data granularity over other types of data collection, right down to the batch, lot or item. Northern Fine Foods, a manufacturer of processed meats and cheeses, uses RFID for raw material and product tracking. Operators install RFID tags on the pallets or containers of raw ingredients when they are received from each supplier. The tags are integrated into a data tracking system that indicates which containers are to be used and when, with alerts if any container is nearing expiration. RFID is also used for their work in process (WIP) requirements. Once the ingredients are mixed, batches are placed in racks for cooking, chilling and aging. Tags are applied to these racks to automatically read and record at each production step, give information for the next step, and alert when the duration of a particular step is not correct. Asset management Manufacturers pursue lean manufacturing and just-in-time methodologies to obtain the benefits of reduced inventory. Some manufacturers, however, build up inventory to handle unforeseen circumstances, or because they do not have an accurate representation of WIP. RFID can improve inventory visibility and tracking within the manufacturing operation. Asset utilization in a closed-loop system is often a great way to gain experience with RFID and drive overall equipment efficiency. Another driver for equipment efficiency in highly automated facilities is through maintenance, repair and overhaul activities. These processes are supported by computerized maintenance and management system (CMMS) applications, and are becoming one of the top priority applications within facilities. RFID-enabled data can fulfill CMMS requirements of providing detailed, accurate and timely data. With RFID, many types of data can be ascertained, including location on the floor, usage or maintenance history, information on cleaning and sterilization, and validation for use for particular lines or ingredients. Let goals be your guide When considering the implementation of RFID, it is essential to avoid the "tag first" approach–looking at tag capabilities and then trying to force it to fit into operations. Before examining any RFID project, manufacturing goals and data requirements need to be outlined. Ultimately, success comes not from the technology itself, but from how it is integrated into an enterprise's systems and business processes to support overall operations and create that data-enabled enterprise. Alix Russell is the manager of new projects at Cougar Automation Technologies based in Woodbridge, Ont. Checklist for implementing data projects For an RFID project to succeed, it is necessary to approach the business problem and potential solution using a systems approach. RFID systems should be conceived, designed and implemented using a systematic development process in which end-users and specialists design RFID systems based on an analysis of the organizationís business requirements. At a basic level, the following eight-step process should be followed: 1) Clearly define the objectives: Establish goals to be achieved or problems to be solved. 2) Education and awareness: Get the functional organization involved to take ownership of the project. 3) Analyse the business case: • Understand the functional process and benefits. The objective is to quantify and measure the benefits and establish the ROI. • Develop a plan for the data management. • Examine data collection, storage and business rules for data interpretation and how this data will be used to improve your current process. • Ensure that the projectís objectives and cost profiles are aligned with overall company budgets and operational plans. 4) Establish the technology. 5) Do a pilot. 6) Analyse results and ROI. 7) Roll out. 8) Keep analysing and improving: Set up an ongoing process to monitor and adjust as changes occur in requirements or technology capabilities. By Bob Moroz, R. Moroz Ltd., and Katherine van Nes, Cougar Automation Technologies Inc.
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