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A holistic approach to machine building

10 August 2014

Technological advances over the past quarter of a century have resulted in unprecedented leaps forward in speed and productivity, while exacting customer demands have also prompted innovations in machine flexibility and efficiency.

Yet in response to low cost alternatives from the developing world, UK machine builders are now under more pressure than ever before to develop systems that are faster, more efficient, more flexible and more reliable, while remaining competitively priced. The conundrum is how to incorporate the best that new technology has to offer, without significantly increasing the cost to the customer. 

One of the key areas in which machine building has improved is speed. Yet, faster doesn’t necessarily mean better; no machine builder has ever strived to build a machine that is slower than the previous generation, but if speed is to equate to efficiency, all machine components must be able to keep up. Omron product marketing manager, Dan Rossek explains:

“With manufacturers continuously looking at ways to improve production line efficiency, the preferred approach is to increase line speed, maximising the throughput of the machine to produce more products, faster. Whilst automated inspection is now widely adopted in modern manufacturing systems, as machine speeds have increased, vision systems haven’t been able to keep up and in some cases have become the limiting factor on a production line.

"Recently launched, Omron’s FH vision systems are the industry’s fastest – bottlenecks caused by inspection systems are now a distant thought. FH allows users to inspect more features at a higher rate than ever before, enabling machines to run faster, providing better production efficiency and ensuring product quality.”

When selecting the right technology for a project, machine builders must ensure that speed goes hand in hand with productivity; end-users will expect a machine which is not only fast but also efficient, accurate and reliable, producing quality products with a minimum of downtime.

Omron’s new Sysmac automation platform, a complete family of automation products encompassing the machine controller, servos, inverters, vision, I/O, safety and robotics, communicates on a single, open high performance network - EtherCAT. Programmed from within a single software package, it promises the best possible performance while accelerating development time and helping to reduce and eliminate programming errors.

For the machine builder, the biggest benefit is the ability to configure, programme, simulate and monitor the controller – and all connected Sysmac products – from within a single software package – Sysmac Studio. According to Omron’s automation products marketing manager, Karl Walker, this integrated environment reduces machine development time and virtually eliminates programming errors.

An efficient, integrated automation platform will bring numerous benefits to both machine builder and end-user alike, but it’s also crucial that today’s machines can adapt to different applications quickly and easily. With manufacturers constantly expanding and improving their product range, flexibility is key and machines that can facilitate production line modifications are more in demand than ever before. Dan Rossek again:

“Omron’s new fieldbus-enabled N-Smart range of sensors can be configured automatically from the machine controller. This particularly benefits companies with high levels of product changeover, negating the need for manual reconfiguration during changeover periods, which eliminates human error, reduces downtime and improves machine efficiency. This new approach puts control back into the hands of the machine builders and end-users handling challenging applications.”

So, with speed, efficiency, productivity, minimal downtime and flexibility high on the wish-list of today’s manufacturers, remaining competitive on price in the face of alternatives from low-cost economies would seem an impossible achievement for the UK machine building sector. Not necessarily so, says Omron product marketing manager, Robert Brooks:

“The key to fulfilling all customer requirements – including value for money – is to approach a project holistically,” he says. “When making their technology selection, machine builders should bear in mind the overall benefits of a system versus the price of individual components.”

This introduces another important concept - the lifetime cost benefits of a system as opposed to its initial purchase price. For example, flexible upgrade facilities will extend the working life of a machine, providing greater long-term value; the faster a machine works, the more productive it will be, generating greater product volume and providing better value for money. And the more reliable a machine, the less downtime it will incur, resulting in reduced maintenance and service costs. 

Fortunately, the latest automation technologies provide machine builders with all the tools they need to develop superior machine designs more quickly and cost-effectively. Taking a holistic approach to machine building – considering the long-term cost and service benefits to the end-user rather than simply the initial outlay – will ensure the UK machine building sector continues to thrive, no matter how cheap the competition.

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