Machine Builders Look for New Ways to Compete Globally

No Longer Enough to Make Quality Machines for Big Customers, Machine Builders Are Learning What It Takes to Create Value in the Face of New Cost and Flexibility Demands, as Well as Regional Variances

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Rockwell Automation

In many ways, the game is still the same: Users want high-throughput machines that perform well. But as machine builders try to compete in an increasingly global marketplace, "competition" takes on new meaning. Some new dynamics come to the fore, including more demands to compete on price, and to be closer to the customer and understand the widely varying regional characteristics and requirements.

There are growing trends from end users focusing more on their core competencies and instead outsourcing more of their automation concerns back to the machine builders. Also, with fewer and fewer qualified technicians working at those companies—whether because of layoffs or increasing retirement levels—the automation surrounding those machines needs to be simpler.

As a strong indication of the global nature of the market, Rockwell Automation offered up presenters from around the world to address the challenges and opportunities for machine builders at Automation Fair this week in Orlando. At the Manufacturing Perspectives media event earlier this week, a panel discussion on OEM globalization and collaboration featured machine builders from the Netherlands, Mexico and the U.S., and the discussion continued today at the Global Machine Builders Forum as machine builders from Italy and China detailed the challenges they face to deliver competitive machine solutions.

The wrong way to compete, according to Christopher Zei, vice president and general manager of Rockwell Automation's OEM business, is on cost alone, which is not a sustainable strategy. Instead, as Rockwell Automation turns more of its attention to the machine builder, the message the company is trying to get across is something comparable to the end user's total cost of ownership (TCO) equation—TCD, or total cost to design, develop and deliver.

Auxel Automation in Arcugnano, Italy, specializes in safety for amusement park rides—an area that most would agree should not be dictated by price alone. Auxel, the first integrator in Europe, in the safety field, to be certified as a recognized System Integrator for Rockwell Automation, uses a variety of the supplier's products such as SoftLogix and RSLogix lines. "Sometimes our customers complain about using Rockwell because it's more expensive," said Enrico Dalla Benetta, international sales manager for Auxel. But looking at TCD, it saves time and money overall, he added.

Although Auxel specializes in amusement rides, those rides are really just machines, no different than any other machine. And the amusement industry is faced with similar concerns as industrial automation in terms of having fewer qualified technicians to maintain the machines. "Maintenance, connected to safety, is a big challenge for machine builders and also for our end customers," Dalla Benetta said.

In 2003, almost 2 billion people rode amusement rides in the U.S. Among those, there were almost 2,000 injuries. This number is relatively small (one in a million), but avoidable maintenance issues were the cause almost half the time. "Nearly 50% of these 2,000 were accidents caused by a lack of maintenance, or maintenance not done in a proper way," Dalla Benetta said.

To combat this issue, Auxel has developed a tool, Unixon, that takes advantage of the latest technologies to improve maintenance activities. With PLC control, Auxel is able to gather a variety of data points from each ride, sending information to maintenance operators. As one example, the tower rides that are common today rely on large cables to move the cars up and down. Those cables have a limited life span, which depends not only on the number of cycles, but also on applied force, which depends in turn on the number of people on a ride and the weight of those people. Unixon is able to record all of that information each time the ride is run, letting maintenance know more accurately when they should check the cables.

The program, which is in its finishing stages and will be tested at the Coney Island Amusement Park in New York, makes ride maintenance simple and straightforward, but also forces more accountability from machine technicians, and doesn't allow anyone to make a fix who isn't technically qualified.

In fact, these are very similar to concerns shared by industrial machine builders, including VMI, which makes tire building machines in Epe, the Netherlands. As VMI works to compete on a global level, it must take into consideration various regional differences, including the cost of labor, the type of tires used, and the education level of employees in that area.

"In areas where the education level is lower, we need to design simpler machines with built-in diagnostics," said Jan Grashuis, R&D manager at VMI. "It's very hard for tire manufacturers to have trained operators at the machine," he added, noting the need for higher levels of automation.

For the machine industry overall, the need has grown to cater to smaller as well as larger end users. VMI, for example, found that to compete in the Asian market, it could no longer rely on its single VMI 248. Instead, the tire machine builder has created three different offerings—the 242, 245 and MAXX—to compete at lower price points, with varying levels of automation.

"There used to be a time when everyone wanted the biggest machines," Zei said in response to Grashuis's presentation. "Now people are having to differentiate their machines for different cost levels."

On the Automation Fair show floor, Rockwell Automation was highlighting its Connected Components Building Blocks (CCBB) toolset that is specifically targeted at low-cost standalone machines, particularly for smaller OEMs that may not have the kind of manpower of a larger OEM, said Amy Montes, commercial program manager at Rockwell Automation. The idea behind the collection of tools is to make it faster and easier for system designers to implement common control-design tasks. Rockwell Automation has developed a new family of micro program controllers, the Micro800, designed for cost-effective control solutions for small applications. The company plans its release for the first quarter of 2011.

Latin America has often competed from a cost point, but even it has seen increased price pressures from China, according to Eduardo Porchini, president of Conveyors & Automation Systems in Mexico. "I think China affected everybody," he said, but added that companies are beginning to come back. The name of the game is productivity, he said, and Latin America is focused on speeding up overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) and productivity at plants.

One industry that will depend on productivity to a great extent in order to survive at all is the solar industry. "We want to find a way to move renewables away from subsidies," said Mike Sweet, director of MES at First Solar, a leading solar panel manufacturer based in Tempe, Arizona. First Solar, which makes thin-film photovoltaic modules, has been the manufacturer most successful at driving down the cost per watt on its panels. They "blew through" the $1/W barrier in 2008, Sweet said, and are now at $0.76/W, with a goal of $0.51/W by 2014. "We get to keep doing what we've been doing, but for a whole lot less money," he quipped.

Although First Solar is not a machine builder, it actually drives the automation and innovations for its OEMs, Sweet explained. The partnerships it has with OEMs are key to achieving its productivity goals. As the solar manufacturer expands its operations, with new plants in France and Malaysia, and further capacity announced recently in the U.S. and Vietnam, it is more important than ever to standardize control systems. "We have to help our OEMs get together and standardize," Sweet said, noting the need for one set of software, and the same training, support, spare parts, etc.—what First Solar calls Copy Smart. "When we had a dog from every neighborhood, it was very difficult."

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