OEMs Explore "Smart Machine" Automation Needs

Global Machine Builders Share Capabilities and Concerns

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Automatio Fair 2011

By Joe Feeley

Of the three D's of bringing an industrial machine to market, companies are finding that Deployment is becoming harder and more expensive faster than Design and Development, said Chris Zei, vice president of Rockwell Automation's global OEM industry group, in his welcoming remarks at this week's Global Machine Builder Forum at Automation Fair in Chicago.

Indeed, machine builders are looking to reduce the costs of effectively supporting far-flung machines via open networks, real-time monitoring and remote troubleshooting tools, a panel of international machine builders from the United States, Europe and Asia reported. But that's just one of the issues OEMs are struggling with.

The panel discussed the key issues of sustainability and integrated machine safety, but we also heard quite clearly that there's still a pretty big gulf of understanding between the machine control camp and the IT group.

Regarding the value of remote monitoring capability for customers that have critical uptime needs, Scott Bivens, engineering manager at Oystar, summed it up well, saying "You can't fix it quickly or easily if you can't see it."

Jim Barry, electrical engineering manager of Ixmation-US talked of the tangible value of remote diagnostics by recalling a time when he was in Florida with a customer and received a call from a California customer with machine vision system problems. "I pulled over, pulled out my laptop, made a WebEx phone connection over my cellular network, and I was looking at live images of the vision system on that customer's floor and within five minutes had the problem solved."

Remote data access also is important to Jim Chapman, electrical engineering manager at Stolle. "Remote capability is a key part of our after-sales support strategy," he said. "Being able to take an ‘over the shoulder' look at the machine is important to better advise our customers. Even if we have to dispatch a field technician, he's better equipped to address the problem."

Some customers are specific about some of the data they'd like to see access to. "We have more customers asking for diagnostic help on things that deteriorate over time," reported Howard Dittmer, vice president of engineering and technology at ARPAC. "Looking at the current draw on shrink-wrap heaters, which can predict when it might fail, is one example of the important things that can reduce downtime for customers."

All of the panel members agreed that remote data access can be a game changer. "The exciting opportunity is to provide a higher level of support than what's out there," said John Dillon, divisional vice president of Wynright Control Solutions. "The opportunity is there to provide a corrective-monitoring program with real-time diagnostics and on-site camera systems."

The consensus of the panel is that the current "disconnects" between the concerns of the IT group and the machine level is impeding further progress.

Rather than use WebEx, Barry would prefer to have VPN connections to his equipment, "but the IT group always seems to be concerned with the machine-level data being part of their IT layer," he said.

Dittmer also is chagrined to find cases where IT folks don't realize that the machine side needs to be able to talk to the world. "They are spending more time blocking activities. We used to have capacity to email information out from the machine regarding maintenance or supplies, but that is opposed by the IT people. Even when we can show them it's not causing them a problem, they become intractable to allowing that access."

Dittmer adds that he's stunned to find that even in Fortune 100 companies, the maintenance and operations staffs often don't have mobile devices needed to receive important messages. "They [corporate and IT] just don't get it."

Customers have responded very well to Wynright Control Solutions's initiatives for data access, Dillon said. "There are people who are telling us they want this, but ‘we can't get past the secure access provisions we have to deal with.'"

As the panel session wrapped up, an audience member asked a question that doesn't always accompany the usual conversations machine builders have regarding price. He asked the panel if there are certain things that customers are willing to pay a premium for.

"Our customers really value reduction in setup time of the machines," responded Bivens. "That usually means converting over to electronic servos from a pneumatic solution, and some customers are willing to pay more for that."

A single line of responsibility for larger systems seems to be another area where the machine users are willing to consider paying a premium. "Just this past week, we began installing a larger system that has 25 pieces of equipment, and we were responsible for integrating it all together," said Dittmer. "Only half of them were our machines. The customer paid a significant premium for us to ensure that all these pieces of equipment worked together seamlessly and provided the performance they wanted."

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