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The Changing Face of Automation

April 10, 2009
Factory automation grows smarter, leaner and finds a new market to serve.

The factory floor at Coating Excellence International is an ode to automation. From robotic arms to automated sewing equipment, from the latest process controls on production equipment to automated inspection systems, the production areas bristle with advanced equipment and technologies that allow the company to reduce costs and increase efficiency, as well as improve safety, gain better control over quality and more.

"To me [automation] is a key way to battle against foreign imports," says company president Mike Nowak, a founder of the Wrightstown, Wis.-based packaging company formed in 1997. "It has let us keep our business growing. It's been a key to our growth. We have to keep getting more efficient." Indeed, even as the economy flags, Nowak's company continues to invest in new production equipment. He is even contemplating opening an additional manufacturing plant.

Get more efficient. That's been the mantra for many manufacturers even in good economic conditions. It gains ever-greater significance in the current economic downturn and the continuing march of globalization and increased competition. And just as manufacturers continue to seek means to become more efficient, automation equipment and controls are evolving to provide the necessary tools to make that happen. The end result includes factory automation that is growing smarter, leaner and finding entry into new markets.

More Intelligent Automation

Earlier this year, ARC Advisory Group forecast the worldwide production machinery automation market would reach $21.2 billion in 2013, up from $18 billion in 2008. That market includes programmable logic controls, general motion controls, computer numerical controls and low-power AC drives. "Increasingly more machinery applications are moving to much higher speeds of operation as well as providing more capability to reduce changeover time. Production raw materials are becoming less consistent as recycled materials enter the market. The result is that machine builders need to consider a wider range of operation in the original design to accommodate changes," according to ARC Advisory research director Sal Spada.

Coating Excellence International says automation is the key way it battles against foreign competition.

Many of the companies Spada has spoken or worked with are seeking greater intelligence about their manufacturing processes to enable them to adapt even as they perform a process. It is driving greater interest in automation that brings intelligence with it. An arena in which Spada has observed the impact of this is end tooling for robots. In automotive spot welding for example, he points out that the dominant solution is pneumatic tips. "Now we are seeing some introduction of the servo-based spot-welding tips which use electric servo motors instead of pneumatics," he says. The servo-based tips can provide greater information about the process, such as how thick the materials are, how much pressure is being applied, and more. "It's a smarter tip," Spada says.

That intelligence is finding its way into the metal-cutting industry as well. The research director outlines a scenario in which a casting or forged steel part is delivered to a machining shop. Because the shop providing the forging couldn't control its process well enough, the forging has hard spots. As a result, the machining shop doing the work is breaking tools, wearing out tools more quickly than anticipated, or it needs a human being standing by to monitor the process and manually adjust it as necessary. Spada says he is beginning to see adaptive solutions play a greater role in helping machine tools automatically adjust to material variances.

Another market that has some commonality with these issues is packaged, notes Spada. Much of the material used to packaged goods contains recycled paper or cardboard, and presents machinery with inconsistencies to which they must adjust. Likewise, many plastics contain recycled components with differing melt rates and other variations.

"So you have all this variability going on in the process, and what you have is people trying to solve or create machinery that is able to handle a wider variance in the materials," Spada says. "You can say, 'Why don't they just push back on the material providers -- and they could -- but it's a longer process, and some things can't be controlled. And it drives up the cost."

Adaptive devices have been around for some 20 years, the ARC Advisory analyst notes. However, there has been a "rapid uptick" in their use in the last five years or so. That's partly because the early generation of adaptive solutions required adding expensive instrumentation and wiring to the outside of machines, and it was somewhat unreliable, Spada says. Today the intelligence is better. Also, the introduction of all digital CNCs eliminates the need for outside instrumentation. "They are picking up data directly from the CNC itself, and the CNC picks up data directly from the CNC servo drives," he says.

The Lean Influence

Depending on whom you talk to, lean manufacturing philosophies and automation are viewed as a natural fit -- or natural enemies. Others believe it doesn't have to be an either/or debate. "My experience is that implementing lean in a lot of manufacturing environments means that it really is an approach to solving manufacturing problems. And if the best solution to a particular problem involves automation, then that makes automation lean," explained Jamie Flinchbaugh during a recent segment of automation provider Bosch Rexroth's lean manufacturing audio series. Flinchbaugh is a founder of the Lean Learning Center and co-author of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to Lean."

Indeed, IndustryWeek's Best Plants winners, 90% of whom say they use lean manufacturing methodologies, also have embraced automation. For example, 90% of the 2008 class of Best Plants winners and finalists had access to and used real-time customer data to plan production; 95% have implemented computerized maintenance management; 85% have implemented mobile or wireless technologies; and more than 81% have automated customer order entry.

The Rapid Material Placement System from MAG Industrial Automation aims to help wind-turbine producers increase throughput and quality.

Nowak says office automation, particularly order entry, has absolutely improved production operations at Coating Excellence International.

Lean has influenced automation as well for MAG Industrial Automation Systems, says Bill McCormick, vice president of business development, wind turbines. His background includes working for an automation vendor that provided equipment to the automotive industry. It was there he saw the automotive industry begin to take notice of the lean manufacturing philosophy.

As automakers began to embrace lean, automation vendors had to adjust as well, McCormick says. They had to shrink the size of their equipment as well as increase its flexibility to adjust, be moved and modified, he says. Part of that flexibility included the ability to add or remove workers depending on how much production output was required. Simply stated, as automakers made efforts to become more dynamic in their ability to quickly change parts and volumes, they wanted -- and want -- automation that was equal to the task. "The volumes aren't there, so companies are broader-based. What they need is more flexibility, more of a quick-change environment to accommodate a larger product family," he says.

Automating the Next Generation of Power

All signs point to nontraditional fuels becoming a more significant source of power in the coming decades. As such "green" energy sources as solar, wind, and others play a greater role in offsetting the use of fossil fuels, automation is likely to play a bigger role in their manufacturing processes. So suggests MAG Industrial Automation Systems, which is producing systems to automate what so far has been largely manual processes, the company says.

Why largely manual? The youth of industries primarily, say J. Manjunathaiah, vice president, business development, solar, for MAG Industrial Automation Systems, and MAG's McCormick. For both solar and wind power, there has been a lack of standardization in processes, and still quite a bit of innovation occurring. "A certain amount of learning can come from still doing many things manually," says Manjunathaiah. And without a pressing need for higher volumes, automation hasn't been a priority.

"To me [automation] is a key way to battle
against foreign imports."
-- Mike Nowak, founder, Coating Excellence International

That is beginning to change in both industries. Growth in the wind-turbine market has doubled in the last two to three years, and the United States has adopted some "very aggressive" green energy goals, points out McCormick. He says automation in that market is beginning to make more sense as some standardization begins to occur. To that end, in May MAG will introduce several new systems to automate composite wind-turbine fabrication at the American Wind Energy Association Windpower 2009 show. MAG's rapid material placement system is a CNC-controlled blade-molding facility powered with programmable drives and servomotors. The automation company also has developed a quick-cure mold system that yields a finished blade to specification with each cycle.

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