What’s Next for Packaging Machine Automation?

Dec. 10, 2014
A tour of Germany’s interpack 2014 show reveals what’s next for high-speed, mechatronic, servo-based machinery. Hint: Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things will figure prominently.

It wasn’t too many years ago that a debate was still raging among packaging machine builders and their customers about the value of servo motion control for packaging. But that debate is over. Servos are widely accepted, and machine builders and users are enjoying the benefits of fully mechatronic designs. With this enabling technology now so widespread, one wonders where the next significant increase in competitive advantage and performance can come from for packaging.

Automation World Contributing Writer Keith Campbell took a walk through the miles of aisles within the 20 mammoth halls of the Interpack 2014 show in Düsseldorf, Germany, this summer to find out. As a former employee of a consumer packaged goods (CPG) company and a member of the OMAC Packaging Workgroup (OMAC, http://www.omac.org) since its founding, Campbell saw how what came before has laid the foundation for what’s next in packaging machine automation.

Patrich Marchion is a mechatronics engineer with Swiss machine builder Dividella (Dividella, http://www.dividella.ch/en/home.html), which makes Gen 3 machines with high axis counts for the pharmaceutical industry. “Gen 3” is an OMAC term for the latest generation of high-speed, mechatronic, servo-based machines. Marchion expects that the next breakthrough will occur when engineers rely more heavily on mathematical modeling for designing machines.

“This will be a fundamental transformation of machine design from an art to a science,” says Campbell. “I have heard a similar idea expressed before from some of the more sophisticated CPG companies—those who still rely on their own internal machine design departments for development of machines for their proprietary processes.”

Performance breakthroughs do come from end users who are not constrained by time and cost concerns when it comes to optimizing the key machines in their operations. “Much more can be done in terms of improving performance if machine designs are subjected to rigorous dynamic modeling to identify resonances and other factors that limit performance,” says Campbell. “Many designers have made the transition to 3D CAD models, but these are largely static models that help with optimization of part geometry. Taking these static models to dynamic models that embed the complex mathematical relationships of the materials, components and systems may be a means of achieving breakthrough performance because there are a lot more opportunities to optimize both the component designs and the drive software.”

Modeling technology providers report that only a handful of machine builders are currently taking advantage of mathematical modeling. They also stress the increasing ability of the drives themselves to optimize the machine dynamics. “Bosch Packaging (Bosch Packaging Technology, http://www.boschpackaging.com) was touting a new generation of delta robots that have improved kinematics due to new software. Bosch Rexroth (Bosch Rexroth, http://www.boschrexroth.com) showed their drives’ ability to detect and suppress vibration. B&R Industrial Automation Corp. (B&R, http://www.br-automation.com) also spoke of suppressing vibration and compensating in real time for the system dynamics,” says Campbell.

Schneider Electric (Schneider Electric, http://www.schneider-electric.com) suggested eliminating the servomotor cogging by using feed-forward and other advanced control loop strategies within the drive. Beckhoff sees a need to model motors, drives and machines. Both Schneider and Beckhoff stressed the speed advantages.

“Beckhoff mentioned the need for high-precision, high-performance synchronization in time frames of 100 ns, enabling builders to have reaction times in their machines of 60 μs,” says Campbell. “Schneider also sees benefits from being able to change the motion profile of an axis within every cycle of the machine, taking advantage of higher-speed networks and processors. The limiting axis of the machine may change as conditions change, and being able to detect this during runtime and adapt to it could be a game changer.”

Lief Juergensen of Schneider said that their controllers are able to change a cam profile within one cycle of the Sercos network, Campbell adds.

Integrate and optimize the system
As machines reach the limits of increasing speed, some believe that more performance improvements will come from system optimization than from machine optimization. “Having machines utilize those higher-level integration strategies defined early on by OMAC will enable machines to talk with one another—and with their human overseers—to benefit from improved planning, reduced downtime and better overall performance of entire packaging legs, cells or lines,” says Campbell. “Most of the engineers that I spoke with expressed support for the belief that the next breakthrough will come with the full integration of information from the top floor to the shop floor.”

Some of this is in place already. For example, onboard drive diagnostics get passed up from the bottom through software functionality such as that offered by B&R Automation’s System Diagnostic Manager. From the opposite direction, orders get passed down from the top-level enterprise resource planning (ERP) system to at-line or in-line printers to enable order quantities as small as one. In both cases, integration is the key, says Campbell.

“Increasing the number of changeovers requires more efficient changeovers,” Campbell says. “Maurizio Tarozzi of B&R pointed out that with more companies manufacturing for markets in multiple countries, in-line printing offers the opportunity to put country-specific information on the label to satisfy regulatory requirements, or to put village-specific information on the package to satisfy marketing needs.”

“Schneider’s Juergensen believes that these standards are all so similar that they should converge, maybe in another dog year,” says Campbell. “Isn’t it unfortunate that there is not a neutral arbiter that could cause this to happen in a people year, as the computer and cellphone industries seem able to do?”

Applying the Internet of Things
Beyond tag and protocol standards, engineers are talking about something much greater. Gerd Hoppe of Beckhoff Automation (Beckhoff, http://www.beckhoff.com) described the work taking place in Europe on Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things.

“Perhaps Gen 4 [machines] depend upon Industry 4.0, which imagines automatic configuration of smart cities, smart health and smart manufacturing,” says Campbell. “This will take a breakthrough in both technology and the cultural divide that often exists between IT and manufacturing engineering. Those predicting this development aren’t talking about just passing streams of data around, but massive use of computer power in interconnected machines.”

Campbell predicts the future this way: Motors and drives will have electronic nameplates. Machines will describe their own features through an electronic passport, allowing upper-level systems to browse lower-level systems to figure out what they do and what they are able to do. Following the model of USB devices plugged in to your computer, a machine may identify itself as a flow wrapper and tell the network that it is capable of running at some speed x, that it supports PackML, and that it contains a recipe management system that is structured like this.

“Work on self-organizing sensor networks has been underway for some time, and last year a special interest group of ODVA was initiated to move machines in the direction of self-identifying,” adds Campbell.

Several companies mentioned to Campbell that Gen 3 machines are far from being optimized. Smaller machine size is one area being worked on by many, which may be a boon for end users short of space in existing factories or who want to avoid paying for square footage in new factories. Smaller size may also mean less mass, less inertia and less complexity, all of which eventually lead to less cost.

Less is more
Cabinet-free construction was being discussed with the Schubert cabinet-free design most fully demonstrating the concept, says Campbell. “Using Bosch Rexroth drives and motors with Festo (Festo, http://www.festo.com) valves, all mounted directly on the machine and networked together, there was little need for a cabinet as we now know it. One also wonders about the future need for controls engineers or systems integrators, because these configurations will largely be worked out by the technology suppliers.”

Modularity is also a benefit of cabinet-free design, allowing machine builders to create custom machines using standardized modules, reducing production time and variability in the field. Developing and applying good cable management practices will be an opportunity for many of these designs, especially in environments where dust or moisture may be present.

“Another ‘less is more’ idea involves shedding the HMI,” says Campbell. “One supplier reported that printing presses are being delivered that use only a tablet or smartphone as an interface. What’s good for the converter may also be good for the packager.”

Other ways of reducing machine size are by using fully integrated robotics, building customized arms, and using control vendor kinematics for implementation. Italian machine builder CAMA went a step further, internally developing robotic software that allowed the placement of 12 pickers in a space of 10 square meters with overlapping work envelopes—all operating together with complete collision avoidance.

“Several engineers pointed out that the true integration of robotics and vision as components in machines is still in its infancy,” says Campbell. “The converse is also true: that robots have not yet fulfilled their capability to do more than move product. Schneider described a pick-process-and-place application where a robot not only picks up a fish and places it into a can, but cuts, slices and cleans the fish along the way.”

CAMA and a couple other suppliers showed machines at interpack that used either the Rockwell (Rockwell Automation, http://www.rockwellautomation.com) or Beckhoff versions of the linear motor racetrack. But there were fewer than six such machines on the floor, “reminiscent of rotary servo penetration in 1993,” says Campbell. “The makers of these systems believe that they are a disruptive technology that will play a significant role in Gen 4. They certainly do have potential for significant reduction in the size of machines. Other direct drive servo configurations may yet be seen.”

Several technology providers suggested that better and more integrated design tools will lead to better machines. Thomas Cord of automation component maker Lenze (Lenze, http://www.lenze.com/en/home) discussed the need for mechanical engineering, controls engineering and HMI middleware tools to cooperate effectively. “Machine builders need better ways to manage the technology in the machines and deal with the complexity, especially of the ever-increasing software components,” he said.

Cord and others believe that before machine builders can get to Industry 4.0, they need to optimize the execution of Gen 3 machines. Siemens (Siemens, http://www.siemens.com), which offers the former Unigraphics design software through its Siemens PLM division, sees the need for the tools to support collaboration and parallel design.

“Siemens is not just concentrating on the automation tools, but also the mechanical design tools,” says Campbell. “While in the future there will still be some specialization, the trend must be to a systems engineering or mechatronics engineering approach. For now, products like Rockwell’s RAPID design software aim to ease the integration burden, and software tools are available to help analyze designs. Schneider’s acquisition of Wonderware should provide new opportunities for integration of tools and applications in the machine space as well.”

So what is next for a Gen 4 packaging machine? “I’m not sure it is clear that any one breakthrough will dominate the transition,” says Campbell. “But with simultaneous forward movement on all of the topics discussed here, machines are certainly going to change in significant ways.”

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