Author Archive | Leigha McCreery

The Concept Systems Guide to Selecting an Integrator

It’s an exciting time to be a manufacturer. Technology continues to revolutionize how we do business, how we make things, and how we keep up with customer demands. There are new solutions every day to improve processes, reduce waste, gain quality control, and ultimately increase your bottom line.

Whether you are investing in your first robotic work cell or planning for the coming world of the Internet of Things, we know that selecting the right technologies and automation strategy is equally scary as it is exciting. It’s a complicated journey with a high risk of costly speed bumps. Unexpected delays mean downtime. And downtime means loss of profit. Sometimes an automation upgrade can feel more like a headache than an enhancement. However, selecting the right integrator will make a world of difference. With a knowledgeable integrator, your vision will become a reality with a seamless, low-risk experience.

So, how do you find an excellent integrator? The answer is a project methodology.

A project methodology is absolutely essential to the success of any automation project. Although each project has its own unique challenges, a methodology provides the structure for:

  • Completing the project on time and within budget
  • Outlining clear expectations and responsibilities of both the integrator and the manufacturer
  • Communicating the project status at any point in time

From design and implementation to testing and training, the project methodology of an excellent integrator will outline how they will work with you to meet your needs and handle unexpected problems over the entire automation integration process. It is an integrator’s promise to you that the upgrade will be completed as fast as possible while minimizing downtime.

In short, a project methodology means peace of mind.

So, you’re considering an integrator and they have a project methodology. How do you know if the methodology is effective and complete?

A Proven Project Methodology Begins with a Proposal

Each manufacturing plant has its own unique needs and goals, so your project proposal should reflect that. An integrator’s proposal must answer three questions:

  1. What are your desired results and what is integral to making those solutions a reality?
  2. What are the integrator’s responsibilities and duties? And what are yours in return?
  3. What is the cost and timeline of the project?

Proposals for complex projects may take a few months to put together. This planning time is crucial, so everyone understands the scope of the project. Once a proposal is approved, it’s time to put together a plan.

At Concept, we love a good plan. That’s why we provide our partners with a Project Management and Quality Plan. This document identifies the key people on the project team. The plan also spells out how we will stay on budget, when we will meet our obligations, and how the team will communicate throughout the rest of the process.

Do not underestimate the need to get these details in writing. Whether your automation integration is expected to take three months or three years, this document is the foundation of a smooth process. No project is simple and no plan is perfect. Problems will arise and a project management document lays out who and how the unforeseeable will be addressed. A project management and quality plan ultimately prioritizes your time and resources, keeping your project on schedule as best as possible.

How A Project Methodology Tackles Design

Designing equipment and systems does not, as you might think, begin with a computer. Rather, communication (and lots of it) is key. Before you can dive too far into design and development, it’s important that your integrator takes the time to have a robust understanding of your specific system requirements. When researching project methodologies, this step cannot be overlooked.

When in the design phase of an automation integration, remember that the lifespan of your manufacturing system relies on maintenance. A system that is easier to understand simplifies documentation and employee training. That is why, a strong project methodology is rooted in functional design. Functional design assures that each individual part of the system performs with minimal secondary effects on any other part. A knowledgeable integrator knows that a functional system is a sustainable one.

Design deliverables are the next step in a proven project methodology. It is time for your integrator to prove to you that they are following through on their proposal promises. You began this project with a list of needs. A detailed design document must go down your list and show you how the automation design will provide solutions to these problems. Before any implementation begins, you can expect to see full electrical schematics, materials lists, detailed assembly drawings, and complete software specifications.

Seeing the Future with 3D Vision

Written by Michael Lindley, VP of Business Development and Marketing

Robotic work cells are providing several benefits in cost and productivity. But they can be made even more effective with 3D laser scanning systems.

cake decorating systemOver the past 18 months, the demand for robotic work cells that target business issues has skyrocketed. On a continual basis, we see clients who are achieving a return on investment (ROI) by cutting operating costs, increasing productivity and reducing errors.

The robotic work cells can be made even more effective with the addition of 3D laser scanning technologies. The scanning is able to capture all aspects of a part, allowing us to inspect and analyze objects or environments, which is often necessary for the measurement and data collection on the exact shapes and orientations. By employing 3D technologies, we develop a more robust data set, creating a smarter solution that can be used in more variable work conditions.

Various industries can utilize 3D scanning systems—from manufacturing and engineering to design, development and surveying, to movies, art and medicine. It often results in two key benefits: lower-cost manufacturing processes and higher-quality products (increasing yield). It has been estimated that 3D scanning can reduce manufacturing costs by 75 percent.

Based on our experience, below are a few examples of how businesses can benefit from 3D scanning systems.

The 3D concept phase

When working with clients, we often go through a concept phase prior to starting the actual design work. At this stage, clients are thinking about the big picture—the inputs and outputs, and how a work cell fits into the overall manufacturing process. What we have found is that we can use 3D scanners during the idea generation phase to digitize objects and then use them to interpret and enhance concept diagrams. The more work that can be done virtually, the more will be saved when it comes to final design and build. The 3D scans that we generate during the design phase can be incorporated into robot simulation tools offered by leading manufacturers—Fanuc Roboguide or ABB RobotStudio.

3D scanning for design development

By employing 3D technologies, we develop a more robust data set, creating a smarter solution that can be used in more variable work conditions.

As discussed, 3D scanning can be applied at the beginning of the design phase by scanning a physical object to generate a computer-aided design (CAD) model. Our designers usually need to design around existing parts and part tolerances. By having 3D models of the parts we will be handling, we can drastically improve the accuracy of the final design because so much of the trial-and-error work can be done with software. 3D model scanning systems can benefit the actual design process in the following ways:

  • Increase the effectiveness of working with complex parts and shapes.
  • Assist with the design of input/output mechanisms for the work cell.
  • If CAD models are outdated, a 3D scan will provide an updated version.
  • 3D scanners quickly capture all physical measurements of any object.
  • A 3D scanner ensures that the parts fit together on the first try.
  • Assist with end-of-arm tooling for robots to ensure end effectors properly handle and manipulate parts.
  • Scanners use modern manufacturing on parts that were manufactured before CAD existed.
  • Allows for a comparison between as-designed models and as-built parts.

3D scanning—maximizing investments

We have discussed the many ways 3D scanning technologies can improve the concept and design phases of a robotic work cell. Outside of those applications, we have had numerous incidents where we have employed 3D scanning to create more flexibility in a work cell. For example, by using 3D scanning, we are able to locate parts in space and, if required, provide a path offset to a robot so it can handle a part that is in a random orientation. Another example is to use 3D scanners to inspect the part before it is handled by the robot. By scanning the part, we can compare it to the “golden model,” and if it is out of compliance we can pass over it or sweep it into a rework bin. Last, by scanning parts, we can determine what it is and then execute the corresponding robot program. This creates dynamic functionality, which requires less input from an operator, allowing them to focus on other tasks.

The world of 3D scanning technologies is rapidly expanding. With more processing power, lower price points and easier user interfaces, it is safe to say these technologies are here to say. If you are in the market for 3D scanning, check out the new solutions from leading manufactures such as Sick, Cognex, Keyence and Hermary.

Michael Lindley is vice president of business development and marketing at Concept Systems Inc., a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association(CSIA). See Concept Systems’ profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.

Meggitt Robotic Drilling Workcell

Meggitt Polymers & Composites recently updated their manufacturing operations by installing a Drill and Cutting workcell, designed and integrated by Concept Systems. The fully automated workcell uses a Fanuc M-710 series robotic arm and state of the art end of arm tooling to drill and cut material for the aerospace industry. The goal of this project was to improve accuracy and throughput of thousands of parts, allowing Meggitt Polymers & Composites to meet the needs of their customers.

Project duration: 4 months

Client: 1
Concept Systems: 4

Concept Systems’ time on site: 2 weeks

Headquartered in the United Kingdom, Meggitt PLC is an international group employing some 8,000 people specializing in aerospace equipment, high performance sensors, defense training and combat systems. Meggitt Polymers & Composites, in McMinnville, OR focuses on delivering gaskets and seals to rigorous standards to be used by some of the world’s leading manufacturers.

Meggitt Polymers & Composites had an opportunity to expand their business with a current client, but to do so, they would have to increase production by means other than human labor. Historically, the work on these parts was being done manually in a labor intensive manner. Production rates were limited to an average of 1000 parts per year, but needed to increase production by 300%, or 3000 parts per year, to meet demand. In addition to throughput, accuracy and safety were of high concern.

“A lot of these operations were being done by hand, and we were missing holes,” James Robertson, Meggitt’s vice president of operations, said in a recent news article featuring the project. “This enabled us to simplify the process and improve our quality.”

Concept Systems kicked off the project by meeting with the project manager at Meggitt, to first understand their operations, concerns and goals, ensuring the right solution was delivered based on measurable results and a favorable return on investment.  Once the objectives, timelines, and goals were established, Concept moved forward with the design of the workcell.

The system that Concept created for the drill and cutting project is a fully automated workcell featuring a Fanuc M-710 Robot. The workcell boasts an integrated tool changer that provides seamless interchange of tools, allowing continuous production of the desired hole shape and size for 8 different parts. Further, Concept designed end-of-arm tooling to accommodate 14 automated, interchangeable options for drilling and cutting.  To support flexibility of the workcell, Concept also designed and provided fixture racks to accommodate 8 different parts. All of this was under the direction of a thorough risk assessment based on ANSI/RIA R1506-2012: safety first design of the workcell and all components.

Technology used in workcell:

  • Fanuc M-710iC Series Robot
  • ServoRobot Tool Changer
  • PushCorp High Torque Servo Toolholder
  • Tool Changing Station
  • 4 Custom Built Part Fixtures
  • Safety Interlocked System Guarding: Light Curtain, Area Scanner, Dust Hood

The workcell has now been in production for over 6 months and the initial results show that the project was a success. Meggitt has expanded their production capacity to 3000 parts per year – a 300% increase as per the project goal. Meggitt has also achieved high precision and repeatability from the robot and tools which significantly reduced rework and product loss. Last, the physical guard fencing, door interlocks, and area scanners provide the latest in worker protection.

Control Design I/O Basics

Concept Systems Lead Designer, Donavan Moore, takes you through the basics of control design. 

Using a distributed I/O system has many benefits but before you start designing, consider the following factors:

  1. Proximity of the devices to the local rack
  2. Quantity of items
  3. Shipping breaks
  4. Voltage drops
  5. Speed of communications

Of these factors, the most important to consider is distance between the devices and the local rack, AND whether there are enough points of I/O in the same vicinity to warrant:

  1. The added cost of a communication module
  2. The added cost of a new enclosure
  3. The design time to develop a separate I/O control enclosure or distributed I/O scheme

A specific distance and exact number of QTY alone will not determine the need for distributed I/O. However, in general once equipment is 50-75 feet from the local rack and there are 8-12 individual connection points, consider a distributed I/O solution. At that point, the savings in wire and routing simplification begins to offset the additional hardware and design costs incurred.

If the machine requires a shipping break (meaning the machine is modular for shipping purposes), a distributed I/O structure is fantastic advantage over home runs back to the local rack. The reduced time to break down the machine, setup the machine onsite, and debug on startup typically justifies the additional cost of the distributed I/O system. Reduced documentation and lower hardware costs also add to the appeal of distributed I/O.

Another reason for using a distributed I/O scheme would be to mitigate the risk of voltage drop. Our designers get nervous anytime you have low voltage (24VDC) connections more than 200 feet away from the source. At that distance, we start watching our device loads like a hawk knowing that we’re in the range where voltage drop can start to make things stop working. If we have only one or two sensors out there, we may just make sure we’re within tolerance, but if we have enough out there to fill an I/O module, or a brick of I/O, we’re going to recommend distributed I/O so that our reliability and predictability will increase.

Regarding communication speed, you need to make sure that your I/O update time is less than your fastest signal. There are several factors that we watch when determining which signals to take to the distributed I/O:

  1. What type of network are we using?
  2. How many devices are we communicating to?
  3. What are the run lengths of the communication cables?
  4. What speeds can our network switches and other network infrastructure support?

Newer ethernet networks with 5 or 6 communication modules attached to a switch and with home run lengths around 100 feet can usually handle 20ms I/O update speeds. If you add more wire length, and devices to the network, then 50ms is considered a best practice. If your system has signals that need to be faster than this, those would need to go to the local rack.

Determining what model of distributed I/O to use comes down to the types of signals we’re dealing with and what makes the most sense for the application. At Concept Systems we use Allen-Bradley Flex I/O remote racks, and Allen-Bradley Point I/O mounted in remote enclosures. We do this because the number and type of signals we’re dealing with are varied, and we like the flexibility of Allen-Bradley platforms. The Allen-Bradley ArmorBlock style of distributed I/O also works great in a conveyor type application where you have fewer points per group, and simple devices like limit switches, proximity switches, and solenoid valves.  These kinds of devices typically require one cable to connect and don’t have complicated power and wiring needs. This is mentioned because the block style I/O doesn’t allow a lot of flexibility in separating power for the devices, so if you need something more complicated than just power for outputs, and power for inputs, an ArmorBlock setup may not be what works best for you.

There is a lot to consider when determining whether a distributed I/O system is right for your application.  The factors listed above provide what we consider to be “best practices”, but there can be additional details when determining the final design.

The staff at Concept Systems is always ready to help – we are your Automation Solutions Partner.


Preventing Extensive Downtime From Equipment Failure

When updating or maintaining older equipment, it’s important to have maximum visibility into plant operations and make every investment dollar count.

As a company that specializes in automation controls, we field a lot of different requests from clients who want a quick budgetary quote to retrofit an older piece of equipment. These requests usually come in after a piece of machinery has failed and the company has encountered one of three scenarios: 1) The company doesn’t have any documentation. 2) The last person to work on this machine has retired, and no one has been trained. 3) Replacement parts have finally become too difficult to find, even on eBay. There are other reasons, of course, but most often a client is responding to some situation that has left the company exposed to a much larger downtime risk than previously thought.

I want to discuss two different prevention techniques in hopes of providing some insight for companies to consider as they wrestle with keeping equipment current—and we all do! First, don’t be caught off guard with not knowing how and when a piece of equipment is likely to fail. There are several software options available today that provide performance data and maintenance scheduling, helping companies avoid unplanned downtime. Second, consider a machine retrofit as a way of preparing for tomorrow’s manufacturing instead of just reacting to a problem with a rush to update the machine.

Software solutions for machine monitoring have come a long way in the past five years. I don’t know if it can be considered a “mature” market, but there are many established providers that have proven their solutions. Conveniently for users, there are several options available from complete software platforms that monitor everything from CNCs, robots, PLCs and test stands to simple offerings that are designed to provide real-time monitoring per single device. Regardless of your specific needs, be assured that you have options that can be found with some basic Google searching. To make matters easier, a lot of these software providers offer their solutions via a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model, which reduces the risk of overcommitting and lowers upfront costs.

All this to say that it is wise to seriously consider employing a machine monitoring software tool of some sort sooner rather than later. The advantages of doing so far outweigh the risk. Consider some of the benefits: scheduled maintenance events based on known wear, use or observed conditions; dashboard monitoring and/or reporting available via desktop computer or mobile devices; uptime and throughput reports to monitor trends; and automated alarming provides alerts that will send alert condition messages to supervisory personnel to facilitate an immediate response. With so many software solutions available provided as flexible options like SaaS, it is a good time to develop and implement a strategy that takes the guessing out of machine monitoring.

The second key aspect to keep in mind when maintaining or updating older equipment is when you evaluate a retrofit investment, consider what you can do to make that piece of machinery or that production line ready for the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). In the not so distant future, experts predict whole manufacturing floors will be populated by intelligent machines that are able to monitor themselves, schedule their own maintenance and provide constant monitoring. This future state will allow machines to interoperate and create dramatic efficiencies not possible today. Machines will do this by dynamically adjusting to manufacturing conditions to ensure maximum efficiency. Although all of what is predicted is very exciting, we won’t get there overnight. The clear majority of manufacturers will use a phased approach to slowly migrate equipment to Industry 4.0 requirements over the next decade, since very few companies have the luxury of starting their production strategies from scratch.

Companies can prepare for the future by utilizing their automation roadmap, or 3- to 5-year manufacturing plan, to ensure that any investment made in a machine retrofit will not only be applicable in the future, but will also be an advantage as they phase in more Industry 4.0 equipment. Learn why an automation roadmap is essential to remaining competitive. Not sure how to get started? Learn how to get started on an automation roadmap.

There are several software options available today that provide performance data and maintenance scheduling, helping companies avoid unplanned downtime.

Here are some important things to consider with a retrofit: network compatibility, whether wired or wireless; security protocols to ensure all data is protected; virtualization (consider server consolidation and thin client architecture); and an interface that provides operators and decision-makers with valuable information to make appropriate, timely decisions.

In today’s world, the information coming at us is unlimited and it can feel like we are constantly reacting to issues and scenarios. When updating or maintaining older equipment, it is crucial that we take a proactive approach. To do this, ensure you have maximum visibility into plant operations as described above and make every investment dollar count when you retrofit equipment to be fully prepared for tomorrow’s manufacturing.

As a final comment, integrators certified by the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA) can be an invaluable resource whether you are considering manufacturing software or creating an automation roadmap. Often, integrators have worked in a vast range of manufacturing scenarios and they can leverage that knowledge to the benefit of the client.

Michael Lindley is vice president of business development and marketing at Concept Systems Inc., a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association. See Concept Systems’ profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.