Open, interoperable control architectures and flexible, modular automation equipment that can be easily mixed and matched in any configuration is high on the wish list of many manufacturers. The Packaging Working Group, one of three Working Groups within the Open Modular Architecture Control (OMAC) Users Group, has been highly active in this area. Under its “Plug-and-Pack” initiative, the Working Group has developed a set of common guidelines that are now being adopted by some packaging automation vendors.
Andrew McDonald, global automation and control technology manager at consumer products manufacturer Unilever, and co-chairman of the OMAC Users Group, has helped lead the charge. McDonald is a principal architect of the packaging “state model” used in the Guidelines, and has been an active participant in the Working Group’s Packaging Machine Language, or PackML, team. In a recent conversation with Wes Iversen, Automation World’s managing editor, McDonald discussed OMAC initiatives, the benefits for Unilever and the future of packaging automation.
AW: What are the primary drivers for the types of activities that have been undertaken at OMAC, and why is this work important?
McDonald: The first thing for me, the thing that drives me really, is that I am an automation person. My job at Unilever is to coordinate a strategic global program of automation.
I got involved with OMAC because of some work we were doing at Unilever about how to solve this perennial problem that we have every time we put a packing line together. We buy the best-of-breed packaging machinery from the best manufacturers, the best capper, the best lidder, the best filler, the best cartoner, and we’re buying from different companies all over the world. And what it meant was that we’d spend a huge amount of time and effort in engineering the interfaces between the different machines.
So that was the problem we were trying to solve. We needed to find a way of defining some standardized approach to packaging machine automation. We’d done some work internally, and it hadn’t worked. I went to an OMAC meeting in 2000 and met the OMAC Packaging Working Group, and I stood up and spoke from the heart. Within a couple of days, when I arrived back in my office, Fred Putnam, who is an OMAC member, was on the phone saying, ‘We need to form an OMAC working team,’ and that’s how we came up with PackML.
AW: How can Unilever benefit from the OMAC work?
McDonald: If you look at the business drivers for Unilever, it’s about customer service, innovation, simplification, getting our costs down, having an agile, responsive supply chain, really sweating our assets hard and reducing our asset base. So the ability to have this machinery that we can buy off-the-shelf and get working very quickly is very important to us.
We also recognize from talking to our colleagues in competitive companies and in other industry sectors, as we’re able to do at OMAC, that we all have a core set of requirements that are common. And if we can agree on those, and drive the industry to adopt those, then we’re doing two things. We’re bringing our own costs down, and we’re helping our suppliers reduce their marketing budgets, because they don’t have to go through so much effort to find out what we need.
AW: Have the OMAC activities provided a payoff yet for Unilever?
McDonald: The Plug-and-Pack initiative started in February 2000, and it took us a couple of years to get things established. There are packaging machines on the market that are being developed according to the OMAC Packaging Working Group guidelines. And at Unilever, we’re actually in the process of developing some packing lines where we’re planning for the first time to apply the OMAC Packaging Working Group guidelines, in their entirety. We’re still looking at various options as to whether we’ll take lines out and replace them with brand new, high-speed lines or just upgrade certain parts of the plant. But the intent is that because we will be sourcing this machinery from different manufacturers, we will be putting in the OMAC Packaging Guidelines as part of our procurement specification.
AW: What benefits do you see from this project?
McDonald: We are expecting that our engineering costs will be less, or at worst case, the same as we’ve seen in the past. However, we’re also expecting that on subsequent projects, we’ll be able to significantly reduce those costs.
The budget that we’ve set aside for engineering of the individual machines into a line, we can use to support the OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) who are perhaps going through the application of the Guidelines for the first time. And we’ll be able to use that engineering money to create something—a guideline, or standardized approach—which can be reused in the future. So we are expecting that we will spend no more than we used to do. We are hoping that we’ll spend less. But we know, and our expectations will be that next time we do this, we will significantly reduce our engineering costs.
AW: What is the vision for the OMAC Packaging Working Group going forward?
McDonald: It’s currently about Plug-and-Pack, which is first about building higher performing, modular, flexible Gen3 (Generation 3) machines and then about integrating these machines into lines. That’s the first two stages. The next Plug-and-Pack stage will be integration of lines into the enterprise. Now, it’s at that point that we can start thinking about a wide range of things, like taking schedule information directly down, reporting materials usage back up again, responding to queries from scheduling tools and predictive maintenance condition-based monitoring feeding up through into the scheduling. Going forward, we plan to build on the data structures that have been defined in ISA 95 (an ISA standard for enterprise-to-control system integration).
AW: Besides packaging, OMAC has two other working groups. What’s going on there?
McDonald: One group is called manufacturing infrastructure, and that group has two major deliverables. First of all, MS-MUG, the Microsoft Manufacturers Users Group, is where a bunch of enlightened manufacturing people have gotten together with Microsoft and software suppliers, and said that, “If you’re going to develop an HMI (human-machine interface) system for me and you follow certain test procedures, you can stick a logo on that HMI that says, ‘Designed for XP.’ ” And that gives me confidence as a user that if I buy that package, I can run it on my XP machines.
The Group has also issued a Best Practices document that helps users implement more reliable, cost-effective systems that are easier to support. This work covers a broad range of areas including architecture, security considerations and change management. It addresses issues specific to manufacturing environments, the principles can be applied more widely and it has been written for a non-IT target audience.
The other working group is Machine Tools, which is working on this idea of STEP-NC, the ability to be able to take a computer-aided design (CAD) drawing of a component and translate that into standard format, such that the computer-aided manufacturing people can use the information to design fixtures, and then convert the information into the part program for the CNC (computer numerical control) to actually manufacture the part. To be able to do that all seamlessly is the work of the Machine Tools group.
AW: As someone who works in consumer packaged goods automation, why are you interested in machine tools?
McDonald: There’s a strong business reason for this. At Unilever, most of the innovation in our product line is coming through into packaging. If you look at our products, like the Dove shampoo or Axe deodorant spray, all of these products have fancy packaging, and fancy actuators. And the person who designs the bottle may be different than the person who designs the cap, who is different than the person who designs the actuator.
So it’s an engineering task that requires collaborative design between two or more parties. They may be using three different CAD packages for their designs, but if they all produce an output in a consistent, standard file format such as STEP-NC, then we can ship that to the blow molders who can then design the molds that we need to make the bottles. We can ship it to the packaging machine manufacturers who can then define the kind of machine settings that we need to run these down our lines, and we can ship them to our own factories, who can then help design the packaging machine recipe that will actually package that product.
That function, the procedure, the workflow, is exactly the same as the aerospace industry making a part, or the motor industry making a part. It’s exactly the same process.
AW: Going back to packaging, there has been a lot in the press about so-called Generation 3 packaging machines. These are usually characterized as machines that include integrated logic and motion control, open architectures and heavy use of servo technology for improved flexibility and performance. What does Generation 3 mean to you?
McDonald: A Generation 3 machine for me is characterized by the machine builder taking a radical look at his machine design, perhaps starting completely from scratch, so that his design makes the best use of the available technology. It means that the machine builder has really thought about, “What does my customer really need, and how can I deliver that to him, and how can I make the best use of available technology, such that I deliver his requirements, and I can do so in a time scale that meets his requirements and his needs, at an affordable cost.”
So with a Gen3 machine, it’s not like you have a check sheet that says, ah yes, it must be built to one of the productivity and architecture designs, it must have servos, it must have PackML, it must have this or that. I think a Generation 3 machine will have those things, but it’s the approach that’s taken that epitomizes, to me, a Generation 3 machine.
AW: Not all packaging machine builders have reacted favorably to the idea of Gen3, and to the perception that the OMAC Packaging Working Group is promoting Gen3 technology. How do respond to those who react negatively?
McDonald: The objections that I’ve heard are that it’s perceived that the technological changes needed for Gen3 will cost too much, that there aren’t enough people in the machine design community who are able to work with the technology, and also that this technology is really a barrier to innovation.
And the way I answer that is, well, like it or not, if the technology is there, and it makes sense, you’ve got to use it. The market will drive you that way. If you go against the market, the market will always win. So if the technology is there, and there is a value proposition for deploying it, and it’s the appropriate level of technology, then you should use it.
I also disagree that it’s a barrier to innovation. What we’re suggesting with Gen3 is that the standardized approach based on guidelines will take care of 80 percent of packaging application needs. The other 20 percent will require some innovation, where we do really need the talents of the OEMs and the technology providers, to help generate the solution that we need. So it isn’t a barrier to innovation. It’s an enabler to innovation.
And the other thing about people not knowing enough about it, well, okay, that is an issue—the transfer of knowledge—because technology is changing so quickly. But I think we’ve got that covered through great relationships with the technology providers, who are working with the OEMs, and also, we’ve got proactive programs at OMAC to provide the education needed to bring people up to speed. This is the specific objective of the PackLearn team, who, under the leadership of Dr. Ken Ryan of Alexandria Technical College, in Minnesota, is developing syllabi for the education of technicians and engineers in core subject matter of networks, servo systems and digital networks.
AW: Some people are now starting to use the term Generation 4. What’s that all about?
McDonald: This generation thing was a convenient way of explaining the past, present and the future. So this type of approach I can support, because it helps people get their head around what these things are.
A Generation 4 machine, again, comes back to business requirements. Let’s say I’m packing stick deodorants, for example, and I want to go from a 2.7-ounce pack to a 1.3-ounce pack. What I have to do today is stop production. I’ve got to physically put in some change parts before I can start running the new product. And all that changeover time is probably the biggest loss of time in manufacturing today, so it has the biggest dent in my overall equipment effectiveness measure.
Now, let’s say I had a machine whose operation was completely configurable, and its function was defined by a recipe, for example, where the recipe defines a whole set of parameters to do with not only the way the machine operates, its motions and the way it works, but also the way it is set up. I might be able to change that machine over in 15 minutes, instead of taking half a shift to do it, which is a tremendous amount of savings.
So a Generation 4 machine to me is one whose function is completely flexible, that can manage to pack a full range of products that I define for it, with minimal invasion to make it do that. Because it is able to do these fast turnarounds, it has to be set up such that the line can receive order information from the enterprise, and it can report on the consumption of materials. It can also have features such as predictive maintenance, which can warn the scheduling system of an impending failure. And, it can have the ability to self-diagnose and report problems before they occur.
AW: So, the flexibility is the promise of Gen3, but what Gen4 adds is the ability to receive the order information, the predictive maintenance and all of those other things?
McDonald: It’s a subtle difference. Generation 3 is about a machine that has more flexibility, but it doesn’t have universal flexibility. Gen4 for me is a stage further. Again, it’s a radical redesign of the architecture of the machine, but from a software perspective. Mechanically, a Gen3 and a Gen4 machine may be the same. But from a software point of view, they will be different.