Component suppliers in dozens of upstream industries rely on modular machine builders like Michigan-based Inovatech Automation to diversify their manufacturing capabilities across multiple sectors while minimizing capital investments. By combining expertise in automation and robotic integration, Inovatech’s custom workstation designs can often help suppliers achieve maximum flexibility and mobility to their workflow, while reducing costs.
An important part of Inovatech's business is the design of custom injection molding machines. Many customers assign one operator to run three of these machines, so automation and collaborative robots (cobots) are often a necessary part of this application. The integrator relies on a wide range of robotic suppliers for these types of equipment solutions, including Universal Robots, Fanuc, Omron and Epson. However, the key to Inovatech’s competitiveness is the speed with which it can build and program its machines. With this aim in mind, the company selected Pro-face America’s LT4000M flexible programmable logic controller (PLC) and human-machine interface (HMI) system.
“For us, our profit margin comes down to how long it takes for us to program a machine,” says Travis Buset, director of operations at Inovatech. “It's all based on hours.”
Pro-face’s HMI/PLC system comes with GP-Pro EX development software that enables simple drag-and-drop programming. This feature recently helped Inovatech to program one recipe for an automated injection molding machine in less than four hours, which is an important advantage considering the machine has 15 different operational recipes.
“[Pro-face’s] controller is a very powerful unit,” Buset says. “We’ve done systems with two Universal Robots, eight conveyors and a bunch of I/O links tied to our valve stations using one control unit.” For the injection molding machine described, Inovatech used a master/slave control architecture for the cobot handling the molded component and applied sensors to the end-of-arm tooling.
Pro-face’s HMI allows operators to troubleshoot Inovatech’s machine and monitor any part production issues via alarm screens. Moreover, if operators ever need to troubleshoot a machine’s components, the HMI provides options to manage the fixture or machine manually. Other HMI features include a full graphic touchscreen interface, LED-backlit displays and communication modules that can be separated for quick mounting into standard 22 mm holes.
Inovatech uses Ethernet-based communications for most of its customized machines, along with the IO-Link communication protocol to provide more data to operators and reduce the amount of wiring. For its injection-molding machine, Inovatech monitors load and unload conversions, part count, inspection, bin part count and more.
As mentioned earlier, programming time during machine production is critical for Inovatech, and the IO-Link protocol allows for quicker commissioning no matter what type of sensor is applied. IO-Link provides standardized, uniform access to diagnostics, configuration and service data, such as device identification and serial number. Plus, a plug-and-play operation via an IO-Link device master automatically adjusts the baud rate supported by the sensor.
“With IO-Link, the wiring is easier, and we can run our masters outside our control cabinet,” Buset says. “We don’t have any low-voltage enclosures. It’s all outside, and we can use IO-Link products from Balluff, Murrelektronik or Turck.”
The machine flexibility that Inovatech’s customers expect also includes the ability to move data to other enterprise levels—for example, feeding data to enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. According to Inovatech, the control system will produce a signal every time a good part is made and send this signal to an ERP platform.
Branding is another essential element for any machine builder, and the HMI overlay option from Pro-face allows the OEM to add its company name to its machines. “We were able to place the Inovatech logo right on all of our machines just by sending a vector AI file to Pro-face,” Buset says.
Finding flexible machine solutions is getting easier these days with the increasing availability of lower-cost automation and control technology, along with software advances that provide quicker integration and commissioning of new machines.