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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 do 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.

The benefits of robotics process automation

Process automation enhances business development with a vast return on investment.

Author: Deanna M. Murray

In automation’s 60-year history, business executives and workers often hesitated to implement new technology before they supported its benefits. Robotics process automation (RPA) is the use of software with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning capabilities to accomplish repeatable tasks, previously requiring human interaction. Though there are jobs in nearly every industry that in time will no longer require human interaction due to automation, keeping RPA at arm’s length is a rejection of progress for businesses that want to develop and cultivate a competitive edge.

Automation benefits

Like any new technology or process, automation implementation does require upfront costs. But the use of automation can result in increased return-on-investment (ROI) because automation reduces labor costs, allowing employees to focus on more business-critical tasks instead of focusing on repeatable processes. According to Information Services Group, automation’s returns have garnered double-digit productivity improvements over outsourcing, and cost reductions between 14% and 28% have been realized.

Automation can also streamline regulatory compliance that imposes fines by virtually eliminating human error. With the correct automation solution, the cost savings reverberate throughout an organization and the ROI impacts multiple budget lines.

Automation can be complicated, but the beauty of this technology is its ability to easily scale from simple to complex. The key to understanding what type of automation can work for a particular application is to rediscover every aspect of each process then realistically think through what can be streamlined or eliminated in each action. Keep in mind that many current everyday processes exist because of automation—from simple automated stamp machines to complicated medical procedures. Automation can be applied to every business when the right automation experts critically looks at an organization’s practices.

Customer-facing businesses setting themselves apart with personal touches and big smiles should not shy away from automation as a business enhancement. In fact, the opposite is true. Automation implementation on the back-end processes can free up valuable time for employees to spend on more meaningful customer interactions—not less.

Business development, automation

Automation technology is ever-changing. But an update to automation technology only will need to change when processes or the business needs change. Unlike other business efficiency tools, it doesn’t require numerous software updates, renewals, or pricey upgrades. While there might be routine maintenance, automation expenses are controlled by the desire to expand the business and employ additional automation capabilities to realize greater benefits.

Automation is a sign of growth. It is a sign of efficiency and an investment that will pay off for years to come. Business owners frightened of RPA and what it stands for in regards to the future of the business should think of it as a natural step in expanding and keeping up with the needs of an ever-growing clientele.

While there are growing pains and staff realignments associated with many RPA implementations, current employees can use this opportunity to learn about automation and expand skillsets. Also, if an automation plan is inclusive, employees can contribute meaningful insights into the best ways for the automation to function and hence, support a more efficient RPA implementation.

If experts with a vast understanding of automation implementation and rethinking processes are put to use, automation can open the door to a new world in business development.

View the original article and related content on Control Engineering

Copyright: Copyright 2017 CFE Media LLC

Five tips for automating your food processing plant

To optimize ROI, it’s important to learn which areas of your food processing facility are best suited for automation. Below are five tips for improving your plant’s automation capabilities.

Author: Michael Griffith, Manager, Stellar

Total automation may be an ideal for most food processors, but it can be difficult to determine how to connect every system in a food plant-or if they should even be connected at all. To optimize ROI, it’s important to learn which areas of your food processing facility are best suited for automation. Below are five tips for improving your plant’s automation capabilities.

1. Leverage existing connected automation systems—Many systems are well-integrated on a common network and platform, but they don’t do much good if they aren’t fully integrated.

Consider a brewery that had a manual data system in place that was generating a great deal of useful data. Because its systems weren’t integrated it couldn’t put that data into context, making it relatively useless. Once the brewery installed a manufacturing execution system (MES), its packaging efficiency increased by 30 percent.

2. Implement overarching integration—On the packaging side of food processing plants, I often notice that processors have yet to fully implement integration across the number of individual components and machines that must run to have a fully functional packaging line. Often times, when one piece of process equipment malfunctions, the entire system stops working.

It’s important to tie all your equipment together in an overarching system so that the whole doesn’t suffer when one element stops working.

3. Use software to connect processing and packaging equipment—When talking with food processors, I find there is a lack of plant floor connectivity between processing and packaging areas. Why? While the networking capability DOES exist, there’s no software in place to connect the equipment from each area.

Considering space and labor are relatively inexpensive, the ROI on installing software like a material handling systems (MHS) can take up to 15 years, which is much longer than most processors have an appetite for (typically no more than three to four years). So, only recently have food processors recognized the value of a more integrated system.

Subsequently, older plants were often built with such an array of hardware and software that the integration isn’t always so easy.

4. Define a vision of the future—At Stellar, we’re typically involved with food plant owners on a project basis for automation. My focus in conversations with clients is to try to help them define a vision of the future-the sort of “blue sky” version of where they would like to be at some point in the future. Then, we define the scope of the current project as a logical step on the path to achieve the long-term vision.

You must understand the vision for where the system is intended to go. Then, make intelligent decisions about how to best spend capital on current projects to support that vision. It’s best to have a standard for hardware and software that is geared toward the fully integrated system you want to own someday. But keep in mind, technology changes:

  • On one hand, a small increase in costs now can sometimes future-proof the automation system purchased as part of the current project or equipment purchase.
  • On the other hand, it is not useful to add costs to a project to build in functionality that won’t be useful for two or more years.

5. Move toward becoming a data-driven business—The benefits of using real-time data outweigh the cost of implementing the systems that generate it. Automated data collection helps companies determine the root causes of performance issues, as well as enhance the efficiency of day-to-day processes. Automation isn’t limited to big companies; food processors of any size can make good use of data collection. For smaller processors looking to become more data-driven, there are resources available at a reasonable cost.

A historical data repository (historian) is the foundational technology food processors need to add value to their existing equipment and processes. A historian connects to all the existing automation, and is also scalable to include additional points when future automation projects are completed.

Manufacturing execution systems (MES) help track and document in real time the transformation of raw materials to finished goods, which is vital to the efficiency of daily processes.


View the original article and related content on Plant Engineering

Copyright: Copyright 2016 CFE Media LLC

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.