Manufacturers strive to produce better products, cheaper and faster than their competitors. More companies implement automation to boost output and quality. But with the vast amount of technologies available, it can be a daunting task to identify the leading technologies that will truly make a difference on the plant floor. We asked five experts to list what they consider to be the top industrial automation technologies or trends that will make a difference in 2006 and beyond. A big thank you to Jim Pinto, Don Mahony, Rudy Poseika, Trevor Jones and Sal Spada for sharing their insights. Jim Pinto's top five Jim Pinto is an industry analyst, commentator, writer, technology entrepreneur, investor and futurist. You can read excerpts from his book, Pinto's Points - How to Win in the Automation Business, at www.jimpinto.com/writings/points.html. 1. The networked factory: The vision of fully automated factories has existed for some time now: customers order online, with electronic transactions that negotiate batch size, price and colour, while intelligent robots and sophisticated machines fabricate a variety of customized products on demand. The promise of remote-controlled automation is finally making headway in manufacturing. Today, this is purely a matter of networked intelligence. Ethernet is everywhere, and everything is networked. All segments of manufacturing will start to interact in ways that were previously unthinkable. It's about getting information in and out quickly, monitoring the business as it happens, and making quick, effective, agile decisions. 2. Wireless networks: Wireless connectivity is already wide-spread in office and consumer environments, and manufacturing will move quickly to take advantage of the overwhelming benefits. More production personnel, portable equipment and processes will be networked than ever before. A variety of technology choices are available - Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Zigbee. In 2006, expect to see these wireless networks throughout the factory floor. 3. Robots: In the last decade, the performance of robots has increased dramatically while prices have plummeted. In North America, the price of robots relative to labour costs has fallen significantly, as low as 12:1, if quality improvements are taken into consideration. As robot intelligence increases, and as sensors, actuators and operating mechanisms become more sophisticated, manufacturing automation applications will continue to multiply. 4. Machine-to-machine communications (M2M): For complex manufacturing equipment, M2M communications will track operating and usage patterns, providing production analysis and predictive maintenance. When breakdowns occur, the equipment itself will provide immediate feedback for rapid diagnostics and proactive service. Equipment manufacturers will be using M2M-connected products to develop super-efficient service relationships and reduce the hassles of equipment ownership. 5. Enterprise collaboration software: More people are working together in distributed, cross-organizational teams, across distances, time zones and conventional company borders. Team members are available from anywhere, at any time, through collaboration software suites. Desktop and intranet search and data mining solutions will allow companies to use more of the knowledge that previously was left untapped in information archives. Collaborating companies will grow smarter and add more value as they refine and reuse their knowledge. Rudy Poseika's top five Rudy Poseika is the manager of technical support for Richmond Hill, Ont.-based automation software provider CB Automation Inc., a sister company to CB Engineering. 1. Microsoft .Net technology: The implementation of .Net in the software environment should increase the reliability and security of software offerings. The technology provides the infrastructure for different applications to share data, and it has the ability to automatically update newer versions of itself. Existing applications can be re-worked to be .Net applications, but these may not be able to take advantage of all of the technology's benefits. There are also other infrastructures that can accomplish the same tasks via Java and network protocol homegrown solutions. 2. Portal: Information processing and summary viewing on the plant floor still have issues providing the big picture. Various Scada, PLCs and instrumentation can now communicate with each other, but when corporate databases become involved, and connections to suppliers and customer systems are required, it can be a difficult implementation task. Web services provide information, such as electricity prices or weather data, allowing the different systems access to more timely information. This becomes a "portal" solution for use in manufacturing environments. Portals are used for customer relationship management solutions, finance, sales automation, as well as on the plant floor. The portal viewer can reside on the present infrastructure of computers with existing Scada, hand-held devices or "tablet" devices. 3. Radio frequency identification (RFID): There has been some press about the "big brother" aspect of RFID, but the benefit in manufacturing is being recognized more and more. Placing RFID tags on pallets, cartons and individual items increases traceability and information flow in real time. There are, however, challenges to implementation. Water absorbs RF signals, while metal reflects the signals. Therefore, tag location on these applications is key. 4. Manufacturing execution systems (MES): MES has been described as the layer of software implementation between the plant floor and the enterprise application system. Now that the infrastructure of Scada exists, MES applications are easier to implement, and can relay data and information up and down the enterprise. MES can also be used for tracking purposes, as it can produce reports detailing the raw materials that went into an item, as well as each process it went through. 5. Wireless communications/networking: Wi-Fi and "hotspots" have become buzzwords these days, and are increasingly implemented on the plant floor. With wireless technologies, cabling can be eliminated, fork lifts and other mobile equipment can be in constant communication with other systems, and information flow is enhanced. Don Mahony's top five Don Mahony is a business development manager for Mississauga, Ont.-based Schneider Electric Inc., specializing in industrial control automation solutions. 1. Ethernet communications: The replacement of various proprietary communication systems with Ethernet will allow multiple manufacturers to use the same communication system. There has been movement towards this standard as more manufacturers provide connectivity using this system. 2. Advanced PLC programming tools: Users have typically defaulted to the familiar ladder logic language instead of using the power of the four standard International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) languages available in modern PLC programming packages. For example, a sequential function chart should be used as an overview for any sequential process; structured text is the most efficient way of handling calculations; function block language is an excellent way of depicting a process application; and a ladder diagram is the best approach when interlocking is required. A project is often composed of multiple applications. The key is to select the language that best suits the needs of the engineering team and the maintenance group. 3. Internet technologies: In the past, automation systems were focused primarily on the control of the process or machine. Today, there is more emphasis on obtaining data from the process or machine, which can then be turned into information for production decisions. Internet technologies, such as web servers and mail servers, can be used to make this information available to all departments on a corporate network. The latest technologies embed these servers into plant-floor controllers, drives and monitors, so the information can be accessed on a browser anywhere on the connected network. 4. Remote machine access: Machinery is becoming more complex as manufacturers strive for better throughput and less downtime. In many cases, this requires dedicated training for maintenance personnel on each machine, resulting in huge costs for major installations. Some OEMs design their machines with built-in communications back to the factory for improved maintenance and reliability. This line of communication not only allows factory technicians to troubleshoot the machine remotely, but also provides the manufacturer with information, such as wear rates, so they can provide more accurate, predictive maintenance programs to the users. 5. Simulation software: In the past, a new product's lifecycle could be expected to be measured in years. Today, it may be measured in months. This means the developmental cycle must be compressed to maximize the time the product is available. A key to minimizing the developmental time is using simulation software for product and process design. Modern control software allows both PLC and HMI applications to be exercised internally on a developmental computer to prove the logic and configuration before they are loaded into the controllers or computers. Trevor Jones' top four Trevor Jones is the director of OEM business development for Thermo Electron, Laboratory Automation and Integration (formerly CRS Robotics) of Burlington, Ont., and president of the Robotic Industries Association. 1. Robotics: Flexibility is the order of the day. Robotics will help in product line switchover when demand pulls new products from the factory. Robots also lend structure to the way products are assembled, and how the factory is laid out. Those supported with computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) software for production planning will shorten line change-over time. More powerful controllers make robots faster and more capable of adapting to sensory input than ever before. New robotic controllers will have more dedicated application-centric software to shorten set-up time and provide more optimal in-process control. 2. Automated process feedback and data collection: Adapting processes for constant improvement is key. Robotic and other machine controllers will provide more process control data and will adapt to changing process conditions. Machine vision can be used for process control and for capturing quality data. Analysis software will spot statistical and special cause variations in the processes. 3. On-demand quality documentation: Flexible manufacturing requires on-demand information. Shop floor staff have to be updated with the latest techniques and information about how products have to be built and tested. Final inspection is essentially a "waste" in lean manufacturing theory. The right job has to be done the first time with little waste, scrap or rejects. 4. Wireless communications: I see a more intimate link between humans and machines, supported by convenient communication devices. Wires are a thing of the past. Safety protocols and technologies must be adapted and supported within the framework of wireless communications. Safety standards must address these emerging technologies aggressively. Sal Spada's top three Sal Spada is a senior analyst with the ARC Advisory Group. His areas of expertise include computer numerical controllers, general motion control, servo drives and machine safety. 1. Adaptive machine controls: The manufacturing community is continuously seeking to improve quality in production as the market moves to zero tolerance in defects. Thus, there is a demand in the market for more adaptive controls. There are many forms of adaptive solutions in the market that are working in tandem with advanced algorithms embedded directly in machine controls. Spot welding is a good example of a process that lends itself to adaptive controls. The pneumatic positioning systems that have dominated the industry in the past are now being displaced by electronic servo control. The use of weld tip displacement systems that rely upon electronic motion control to position the weld tip is a trend that is taking hold. Manufacturers are able to control force and measure displacement, thereby adding another dimension of adaptive control to process. Overall, electronic servo control adds another element of flexibility to rapidly improve production processes or quickly adapt a new product to the system. 2. Intelligent software: Manufacturers want to improve the operational efficiency of their existing assets. The primary mechanism to measure and manage asset efficiency has been to use overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) analytical tools, which require visibility and connectivity to equipment on the production floor. The challenge, however, is to take this data and turn it into information that is actionable by managers and operators on the production floor. We are seeing a rapid emergence of software on the factory floor that provides intelligence and guidance on how to balance the load on a production line and fix problems that have the most impact on productivity. The key to improving production efficiency is identifying corrective actions that lead to maximizing uptime. Thus, it is knowledge-based tools that are shattering the traditional notions of managing asset efficiency. These tools employ simulation, as well as weighted analysis, to eliminate objectivity in production floor decision-making. 3. Safety systems: Business and plant managers are actively seeking an intelligent safety strategy that not only protects humans, machines and the environment, but also supports business benefits such as increased productivity, improved machine efficiency and increased uptime. Manufacturers are taking these business factors into account when considering new automation upgrades and installations. A more modern, effective safeguarding strategy is one that is integrated as a system solution using intelligent automation components. The system approach results in minimizing the risk of operator injury to a tolerable level while allowing the operator to work efficiently. Modern safety systems allow operators and maintenance personnel to gain access to machine safety zones or reduce the risk of injury by setting programmable limits on actuator speeds, forces and torques.
For many, today's SUV, with its robust construction and large size, represents the union of tough safety standards for on-road travel as well as the rugged performance necessary for off-road adventures.It's no wonder that a manufacturing facility for one of North America's most popular SUVs would use rugged assembly line conveyors for the vehicles' construction. The company also uses steel frame automated guided carts (AGC) as both travelling assembly stations for the model's instrument panel (I/P) subassembly process, and as the delivery conveyance for the sub-assemblies to the vehicle assembly line.
Advancements in automation technology, the rise in overseas manufacturing and the increased awareness of employee safety have all contributed to the growth of the robotic industry over the last decade. More and more companies are realizing that robots have the potential to significantly cut costs and prevent injuries to employees.
It came out of nowhere, and caught most manufacturers off guard. With little fanfare, the Canadian Standards Association released a new safety code for power presses in 2002.
In today's high-paced society, speed is a way of life. For case packing machines, whereby a machine or person moves a product down a conveyor to be packaged, it is important for manufacturers to move a large volume of products in a short amount of time. The case packer must not only be fast, but also cost-efficient and durable enough to ensure a long lifespan.
For years, Tom Bullock has been one of the most vocal and visible figures in the motion control business. Bullock worked at Giddings & Lewis for 28 years, where he drove many important product development initiatives and left in 1990 to form his present consulting firm, BullsEye Marketing. He has been featured in many trade magazines in the automation business, and continues to shape the direction of our industry. Here, regular contributor to Manufacturing AUTOMATION magazine, Perry Marshall, discusses Bullock's perception on important issues, past and present.
Automated control systems modified for weight-based road marking vehicles eliminate mistakes for customers In the road marking industry, competitiveness among private contractors is intense. Vying for regional and local projects with rigorous specifications, contractors work hard to gain a competitive edge. Implementing strategies that help achieve specification requirements and reduce mistakes can vastly improve profitability and the likelihood of winning future contracts.
At Ford Motor Company, new vehicles accounted for more than half its volume in sales during the past year. Among them are the Freestyle crossover vehicle and the Ford Five Hundred mid-size sedan, which has "crossover characteristics" by way of its vehicle platform, cargo capability and command-of-road seating. With its new product offering, Ford plans to establish itself as one of the industry's largest-volume producers of all-wheel-drive vehicles and a leader in continuously variable transmissions.
Steady growth in its network systems and components business swelled Cabletron Systems inventory of manufacturing components and testing equipment from 850 SKUs to 6,500 SKUs. This growth threatened to push existing storage space to its limit, jeopardizing productivity and plant safety.
Marinette Marine Corporation is a full-service shipyard located on the banks of the Menominee River in Marinette, Wis., just upstream from Lake Michigan. The company was founded in 1942 to meet the United States' growing need for naval construction. Since then, Marinette Marine has built more than 1,300 vessels and is a leader in designing and building technologically advanced vessels. Its facility and team of workers build both freshwater and seawater vessels for commercial and military applications.
In the medical supply manufacturing business, product reliability and precision is crucial. For a medical IV assemblies manufacturer in the United States, quality control involved manually inspecting sample valves as they came off the assembly line and measuring for uniformity under a microscope. The process was not only arduous for workers, but it also ate up a significant amount of manpower and time.
Nightmares–we have all had them. As students, we may have dreamt of arriving at an exam without having cracked a single book all year. As adults in the high-tech manufacturing world, we may dream of waiting helplessly for a test equipment part to arrive while our production line piles up, or an approaching army of customers babbling complaining non-stop about poor product quality, because we didn't calibrate our test equipment correctly.
For more than 30 years, Exton, Penn.-based Omega Design Corporation has manufactured container handling and packaging equipment systems for the pharmaceutical, food and beverage, chemical and other industries.In the spirit of improvement, the company sought to enhance the performance of one of its flagship products-the "Classic" series of shrinkbundlers, a pneumatic-driven, PLC-controlled machine designed to automatically shrink or stretch packaging of glass, plastic and metal containers, boxes and cartons into predetermined bundle configurations. After incorporating several machine upgrades, which resulted in a 50 percent increase in output, the company focused on the product pusher, a pneumatic-driven actuator that literally "pushed" the product into the film or other packaging material. Inherent in this pneumatic-driven actuator was excess play and uneven motion control, resulting in increased set-up time and maintenance.But that was just the tip of the iceberg. With many of Omega's customers increasing their demands for unique packaging, the company needed to accommodate an increase in alternative package designs, sizes, materials and configurations. This was proving to be a difficult proposition with Omega's current pneumatic system because the uneven motion control produced inconsistent product flow through the pusher area, and could cause the products to become misaligned, creating a machine stoppage. Stoppages result in downtime, which translates into profit loss."Frequent changeovers on a packaging line often require you to stop production for re-tooling, sometimes taking up to several hours," says Devendra Shendge, a product development specialist, Omega Design. "We needed an intelligent yet cost-effective solution that could handle a variety of packages.Omega needed to reduce the amount of air that the existing actuator system used. "The more air we could take out of this or any our machines, the better," says Shendge. "Air can be expensive, and the existing actuator system used quite a bit of it." Omega needed an actuator that would produce higher speeds, yet would have "intelligent" motion control capabilities to accommodate a broad spectrum of product dimensions. The company also needed a system that would require little or no maintenance, and one that would greatly reduce the use of costly air, as well as the occurrence of air leaks.In a quest for such a system, Omega engineers contacted Kerk Motion Products, a manufacturer of non-ball lead screws. After discussions with applications engineers, Omega decided to go with Kerk Motion's Rapid Guide Screw (RGS) 10000, a screw-driven slide. While the RGS is not an actuator, Omega used the RGS 10000 as the centerpiece of a new assembly. Omega's product development engineers worked with Kerk to incorporate a servo motor and a few additional components, to create a new "intelligent motion" system that would replace the existing pneumatic system. The easy insertion of the RGS 10000 made the unit more attractive. "It was a simple swap-out," says Shendge.Using Kerk's RGS 10000, Omega produced a new machine with benefits for itself and its customers. The new bundler demands less maintenance and requires less labour to maintain. Omega also realized significant cost savings, as less labour was needed to assemble the machine, and reduced the number of components. Omega and its customers will no longer need to stock various sensors and pneumatic parts, which the company has replaced with the intelligent actuator."Before it was just a continuous motion, zero-to-50 inches per second," says Shendge. "Now we can accelerate or decelerate the machine. This is critical, [because] when [you're] dealing with some of the unusual shapes and heavier mass of some products, you can't just thrust them through the machine at top speed. You can damage the machine as well as the product." Changeover time between products also decreased, since technicians can program the machine to adjust to various products through recipe-driven settings that are specific for each product's handling needs.Shendge also says that in the original testing, the RGS 10000 was generating 150 pounds of force, while the original air cylinder only produced 80 pounds. Omega first purchased an RGS 6000, but it was too small to do the job. Omega asked Kerk for a bigger unit; one did not exist at that time, Kerk explained, but the company was in the process of tooling up for the RGS 10000."We told Kerk to start making it fast, before the Pack Expo show where we were exhibiting the "Classic,'" Shendge says. "Kerk was able to meet our deadline, and we were able to get the RGS 10000 into one of the bundlers at the show. So we actually purchased the very first one."Upgrades to Omega machinery do not stop at the bundler's "pusher" unit. Kerk is designing a new actuator that features a round shaft. According to Shendge, Omega is considering using these new actuators to replace the remainder of the pneumatic cylinders on the machine.Art Sesnovich is a technical writer and president of AGS Public Relations. E-mail him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .
Dan Schodowski faced a challenge. As president and chief executive officer of Solon, Ohio-based JTM Products, Inc., he knew the company was ready to grow, and making the right investment choices would be critical.JTM was founded in 1890 as the Phoenix Oil Company, and is best known as the remaining piece of the Murphy Oil Soap company, which Colgate-Palmolive Company acquired in 1991. JTM started out producing axle greases, belt dressings and lubricants for the Industrial Revolution. Today, the company's business centres around two product lines: Murphy's tire mounting and demounting lubricants, and Phoenix pipe joint lubricants, used in water and sewer lines construction.With up to US$10 million in annual sales and 65 percent market share for its two main product lines, JTM had the financial stability to grow. But if it expanded, the firm would need to make some changes to its production processes. "We were pretty much pigeonholed into an old building," says Schodowski. "We couldn't expand. Even within the building we could not add a lot of machinery or equipment. If we wanted to expand our business, we needed more room."Once the company decided on a new site (its current location just outside of Cleveland), Schodowski's next challenge was to meet the material handling demands of JTM's product range. While the Murphy's line of products is primarily packaged in 25- and 40-pound pails, the Phoenix line is primarily packaged in cases of either quart or gallon containers. With both sets of products needing to be palletized before shipment, Schodowski's factory staff was left with a lot of slow and heavy lifting.The move to automation"When we started laying out the new facility, we knew that we had a lot more room and that we would be able to run both lines at the same time," says Schodowski. "Running simultaneously in the old plant was a predicament. To do that, we needed extra staff on hand-staff that would be there even if both lines were not running."According to Schodowski, JTM needed a system that could handle both product lines, and allow JTM to allocate more space in the new 70,000-square-foot facility for its chemical processing and packaging equipment and its inventory. Schodowski and Larry Wilson, JTM's director of operations, researched their options before deciding on FKI Logistex's integrated robotic palletizing cell featuring a Motoman articulated-arm robot a vacuum end-effector."It was either buy two separate palletizers to handle the cases and handle the pails, or look at a[n] [integrated system] that could do both," says Schodowski. "When we found out that FKI Logistex offered us the ability to palletize both product lines with one piece of equipment, we wanted to look at that option." The new system would also free up floor space in the new plant.The robotic palletizing system sits enclosed in a safety cage, roughly in the centre of JTM's new factory floor-surrounded on one side by the processing and packaging equipment, and on the other by pallets of stacked cases and pails. Pails of Murphy's tire lubricant paste being filled, capped, and conveyed up to the cell chug along in the background. With a whir of motion, the robot rotates to pick up an empty pallet from its pallet-loading station and places it in position at the start of an out-feed pallet conveyor so it can begin palletizing the pails.Ten pallets are pre-loaded onto the pallet-loading station at the start of a sequence and the robot counts its way down. On the infeed side of the cell, accumulation conveyors take up the pails from the production conveyors. The robot's control system instructs the conveyors to queue the pails for the robot. Depending on the product size and stacking pattern, the robot's vacuum tool picks up one or three pails at a time, and puts them down to form the rows and layers of palletized products. When the pallets are full, an automatic shrink-wrapper shrink-wraps them, before a forklift takes the pallets to inventory on the shop floor.A similar process occurs for the cases of Phoenix pipe lubricant. The operator sets up the system at the outset, loads the pallets, and then lets the robot pick a pallet to begin stacking. The cases come into the cell from a second infeed line, and the process starts anew. Beyond allowing JTM to run two lines at once, the palletizing cell handles a variety of stacking patterns and pallet sizes in addition to managing the different pail and case sizes.When JTM uses the system at only 65 percent capacity (leaving the extra capacity for continued growth), the cell handles 75 percent of JTM's annual business volume, or approximately 200,000 pails and 150,000 cases per year, according to JTM's Wilson. The factory runs one 7.25-hour shift five days a week with a factory crew of eight, but does not palletize every day. Normally, the robotic system palletizes 2,800 pails per day, compared with 1,800 pails per day that workers hand-stacked at the old facility, generating a 55 percent productivity gain that has enabled moderate sales growth since the robot was installed. The robot's addition to capacity has also freed the crew to work on other tasks in the factory.The decision to install a robot was due, in large part, to the founding family's values and to the safety and ergonomic issues surrounding a loyal, but aging, factory crew. The robotic system eliminates some of the crew's most labour-intensive work, says Wilson. "Not everything is based on hard economics, even though we thought there was a pretty good payback on the project," says Schodowski. "We could be saving someone's back, which could be a worker's compensation claim somewhere down the road. Those can be very expensive. When you factor in all of those types of costs, you can say the payback is definitely worth it."Schodowski calculates that the new system saves JTM at least one person's salary and benefits per year. "I think the payback could be even quicker because as we grow, we won't have to add additional personnel. Our original plan was to keep to a crew of eight, which is where we are today," he adds.David Abels is senior account executive/senior copywriter at Koroberi, Inc., a business-to-business marketing firm in Chapel Hill, N.C. You can reach at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .
In the past, robotic vision was confined to the laboratory and perhaps a few custom applications. Nowadays, robust robots are using sight in non-fixtured, unstructured factory environments, thanks to the integration of artificial intelligence with traditional industrial robotics. A camera, robot and robot controller are linked to a computer, allowing the robot to see, move and react much like a human being. Many automotive parts manufacturers have embraced vision-guided robotics (VGR) and integrated the technology into their factories.

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