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Customer ‘wish list’ pushes design boundaries

12 May 2013

“A solution looking for a problem” is too often the way new products and technologies reach the market. How creative could a company be if they knew in advance what customers really wanted and invented products to meet those needs? Richard Bull describes his company’s strategy to do just that.

About three years ago, Norgren went to forty customers across industries in Europe, the US and Asia Pacific, and posed thirteen open-ended questions. The company then listened carefully as OEMs and end-users answered these questions and talked about their ‘wish lists’ - those key aspects of a product that would really give them a competitive advantage. 

There were five things that came up again and again. First was increased uptime. This would raise productivity, accelerate machine payback, reduce callbacks and increase customer satisfaction. Second was energy efficiency – reducing operating costs by reducing power consumption. Third, perhaps surprisingly, was aesthetic appearance. OEMs want to build machines that not only are - but also appear to be - of high quality, and end users want plants that look efficient and clean.

Fourth was the ability to meet application-specific requirements like high speed, greater control, or higher throughput. And fifth, they wanted motion control in an integrated package, combining multiple functions in one assembly. This would reduce commissioning time and costs, shorten installation time, minimise size and simplify ordering. 

Putting ‘ideation’ to work
Norgren then used its ‘ideation’ process to conceptualise products that matched up with this customer wish list. Ideation prompts creativity by bringing together people from different disciplines inside and outside the company. They use their experience with procedures and proven solutions from the ‘operational world’ to dream, speculate and experiment with ideas in the ‘innovation world’.

Among the concepts that came out of ideation was a new solution to a long-standing challenge – integrating a valve and actuator in a single package. 

Actuators are powered by compressed air, the routing of which is controlled by valves. The whole setup can be several yards long, depending on where the actuators are needed and where the valves can be installed. Multiply that by dozens or even hundreds of actuators, and suddenly there are a lot of valves and yards of tubing that need to go somewhere. The problem is compounded by the fact that actuators and valves are often added after the machine has been designed, so they look as awkward as braces on a teenager. 

The quest to integrate actuator with valve and reduce tubing has been a long and elusive one. Norgren even met one customer who tried setting a valve right on top of an actuator to get the two as close together as possible. But, frankly, no one had been able to come up with an affordable, reliable solution to this problem that could fit the same footprint as a conventional actuator.

Integrating a valve and actuator was the ideal test for Norgren’s ideation process because the company already had deep technical experience and a portfolio of proven products. The creativity arose as they worked back and forth with customers to use this background to develop the product that eventually emerged - the integrated valve and actuator control (IVAC). 

The challenge was to combine the cylinder, valve, flow controls, cushioning and sensors in a single actuator package that could fit in the same ISO/VDMA footprint as a standard cylinder. Norgren achieved this by optimising component function and design in the follows way:

Pilot valves - a module seated on top of the IVAC contains small pilot valves, which are electrically operated. Only one M12 electrical connection is required. 

Glandless spool - the IVAC relies on one of Norgren’s key competencies, the glandless spool, for its valve functions. Only this type of valve was small enough to fit in the IVAC package. With the Teflon coated inner and outer parts of the spool precisely matched, no rubber seals are required. 

Flow controls for speed regulation - in the IVAC, the flow control is built into the actuator end caps, so there is no protrusion. 

Adjustable speed and buffer cushioning for end-of-stroke damping - the cylinder in the IVAC slows at the end of the stroke to minimise impact with the end cap. When the cylinder does reach the end of the stroke, it touches a buffer rather than making metal-to-metal contact, so there is no wear of metal parts. The cushioning speed and pressure are also adjustable. 

ISO mounting rear end cover - the rear end of the IVAC comprises the single air supply port and an ISO 15552 mounting interface. All connections are at one end of the IVAC, simplifying installation and streamlining the machine’s appearance.

With these technologies in place, Norgren took the early IVAC back to customers for additional feedback. One result was the development of a cylinder-only version for applications where multiple actuators are used close together and can all be controlled by a single pilot module. 

Customers found the IVAC helped them increase uptime since, with just one electrical and one pneumatic connection, it is simple and quick to install. If an IVAC needs to be serviced, it can be easily removed, replaced and serviced offline. The single integrated package replaces up to 13 separate components that would otherwise need to be specified, purchased and stocked.

Norgren also discovered that the cleanline version of the IVAC (originally intended for operations subject to washdown), with its smooth casing and ingress protection rating of IP67, was proving popular with OEMs looking to upgrade the aesthetic appearance of their machines. 

Finally, they learned both in testing and in the field that eliminating the tubing between actuators and remote valves could reduce the amount of compressed air required by as much as 50 percent. This resulted in faster response times for increased productivity, but more importantly, it also reduced energy consumption for compressed air by 50 percent. For large operations with hundreds of actuators, compressed air can account for the largest share of energy consumption so the potential cost savings are significant. 

The IVAC was designed to meet customer requests for increased uptime, energy efficiency, aesthetics and design flexibility in an integrated package. Now it is proving its usefulness in applications as varied as food and beverage processing, meat handling, warehousing, metal stamping, packaging and any other operation that requires pushing, pulling, lifting, positioning or conveying. 

Learn more about the IVAC here.

Richard Bull is Norgren Inc’s regional product marketing manager, Americas

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