Encouraging Economic Outlook for Machine Builders

“Encouraging” is how Darren Elliott describes the economic outlook for machine builders.

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“We are seeing signs the economy is stabilizing, as evidenced by the fact that many of the previously cancelled or postponed machine-building projects are now moving forward,” observes Elliot, manager of global original equipment manufacturer technical resources for automation vendor Rockwell Automation Inc. (www.rockwellautomation.com), Milwaukee.

Pete Squires also foresees overall growth for the industry. “In fact, we experience a surge of demand in the packaging industry, simply because many of our customers are now releasing projects delayed by the recession,” says Squires, vice president for technology and control engineering with end-of-line solutions-provider Schneider Packaging Equipment Co., (www.schneiderequip.com), Brewerton, N.Y.

But Squires sees some customers who, having reduced production during the recession, now apply automation rather than reinstate production employees. That spurs the need for machinery, he comments, adding “at least machinery makers in the packaging industry are hiring to meet demand.”

The economic downturn has also forced machine builders to dig deeper than ever to not just reduce costs, but also to differentiate themselves from their competition, Elliot says. What have they found? “The best way to add value to today’s machines is to make them more intelligent.” Machines with embedded intelligence generate data and diagnostic information that helps end-users identify opportunities to improve productivity, Squires asserts. “Fortunately, industry standards such as ISA-88 Batch Control or EtherNet/IP continue to evolve to help make building more intelligent machines easier than ever.”

Also during this downturn, as expected, some machine builders have invested in research and development, Elliot notices. Key areas include machine- and process safety, as well as robotics. “For example, safe-speed control helps improve flexibility and increase productivity by allowing operators to perform maintenance and other tasks while a machine is in a limited-motion state.” And machine builders can incorporate robotic control directly into the main system’s programmable automation controller, he adds. “This reduces control components, lowers overall system costs and helps optimize floor space.”

Embrace robots

Schneider Equipment has seen its clients embrace, rather than shun, robots in the past several months. Robotics’ software and peripheral devices have improved to the point that a vision-equipped robot is becoming commonplace, Squires says. “This system-development task that once took many engineers and programmers to work—
causing customer apprehension—has now become simple enough for most any production facility to use.”  Additionally, robots’ inherent reliability and flexibility over the hard automation they replace is a huge advantage, he believes. “For example, Fanuc Robotics rates many of their models at 78,000 hours mean time between failures.”
 
There is also an increased overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) aspect to machine building. “Embedding intelligence-gathering devices into machines, such as EtherNet/IP-enabled controllers, helps machine builders provide customers with self-diagnostic equipment capable of predicting and preventing failures,” Elliot comments. That helps improve productivity and reduce repair costs, he says.

Some machine builders provide an OEE dashboard and other advanced-information displays as part of the machine’s human-machine interface, “giving operators instant insight to these diagnostics,” Elliot explains. And because Squires finds that machines using robots are more flexible and reliable than traditional “hard” automation—while also improving machine set-up time, reducing scrap and improving quality—he suggests that “the OEE of a machine is better than ever.”

All this should be good news for machine builders who need to minimize downtime and improve efficiencies. “Tactics to achieve these goals include higher levels of automation with increased adoption of servos, software and robotics to speed changeover and reduce faults,” recaps the Arlington, Va.-based Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (www.pmmi.org) in its November 2009 “Packaging Trends 2010” report.  The operational intelligence and diagnostics of the automation system helps improve equipment productivity and lifespan, and reduces downtime, Elliot adds.  This all, indeed, is encouraging.

C. Kenna Amos, ckamosjr@earthlink.net, is an Automation World Contributing Editor.

Rockwell Automation Inc.
www.rockwellautomation.com

Schneider Packaging Equipment Co.
www.schneiderequip.com

Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute
www.pmmi.org 

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