How Flexible Are You?

May 1, 2005
A few years ago I pulled a muscle at a physical performance test for soccer referees. Coming up lame was bad enough when you are trying to upgrade your rating, but it’s worse when it happens in front of all the best referees in the state.

Figuring I needed greater flexibility in my old age, I took up yoga. The results have been gratifying. It is possible to bring flexibility to something old.

Manufacturing processes have been seen as old and rigid, but the concept of flexible manufacturing is not new. We were trying to build machines with greater flexibility in the mid-1980s, at the beginning of the robot craze, and my company shipped several of us off to various locales to learn all about these marvelous new toys. Instead of building the ultimate flexible work cell, however, these robots mainly found work palletizing and de-palletizing parts. It seemed like buying a Ferrari to use in a tractor pull.

The flexibility that we started to design into machines had more to do with quick-change tooling and fixtures and better bowl feeders.

Finding flexibility everywhere

It’s still true that for most people even today, the thoughts “flexible manufacturing” and “automation” conjure pictures of robots. Indeed, Automation World Managing Editor Wes Iversen found some of the latest best practices combining robots, vision and flexible manufacturing, as reported in his cover story. But our intrepid contributing editors Jim Koelsch and Rob Spiegel look at some other areas where flexibility pays off. Packaging machines have historically been designed with a steel drive train—resulting in changeovers ranging from difficult and time-consuming to impossible. Koelsch found how designers have figured out how to make these machines flexible. Then, lest anyone think that flexible manufacturing refers only to discrete manufacturing, Spiegel reports on how companies are using flexible thinking in batch processing.

Motion control technology advances have enabled great advances in flexible automation design. Closed loop servo control is now smaller, more reliable, easier to implement and less expensive than it was just a few years ago. Servo controllers use computer logic and incorporate modern programming and hardware platforms that include the ability to store “recipes” of configurations. With a simple command from the operator, or even from the manufacturing execution system, motors whir, shafts move and the machine is quickly and easily prepared to produce the next product.

Standards are the principal foundation for the success of technology platforms. In order to make the most out of their company’s investment in enterprise and manufacturing enterprise software applications, the designers need to make their automation systems communicate seamlessly and flawlessly with those applications. Standards such as ISA-88 and ISA-95, promulgated by the Instrumentation, Systems and Automation Society (ISA), as well as OPC, an open connectivity standard promulgated by the OPC Foundation, are examples of successful collaboration among end user engineers and suppliers to make life better for all.

Jim Pinto and I have been batting e-mails back and forth about the current state of automation industry trade shows—and what might replace them. He offers some lucid thoughts in his column this month. As always, I’m interested in what you think about this. What sort of event would draw you out of the office?

Company consolidation and version upgrades have been constants the past few years in the software industry. We would like to know how you have fared while navigating the treacherous waters of software installations. Take our software survey at Even better, send me a note with your comments to [email protected]. I’m looking forward to hearing from you.