By Jim Montague, Executive Editor
Because economic dangers seem to loom around every corner, it's good to have a few experienced guides to help us avoid them. Luckily, a tailor-made squad of broad shoulders to stand on showed up in Chicago this week at the Rockwell Automation Manufacturing Perspectives media event, just before the opening of the company's 20th annual Automation Fair. The panel's theme was "Optimized Plant and Supply Networks: The Next Frontier," and was moderated by John Nesi, vice president for market development at Rockwell Automation.
"The four main keys to successful manufacturing today are keeping the pipeline of innovations open and viable, managing rapidly diversifying markets and workforces, maintaining efficiency and improving production, and keeping up on sustainability," reported Nesi.
First up, Nagesh Nidamaluri, senior general manager at Mahindra & Mahindra Vehicle Manufacturers Ltd., reported that his company's 13 greenfield auto plants in Chakan, India, already are working with the company's IT department to connect the manufacturing execution system (MES) on its huge and expanding plant floors to its enterprise resource planning (ERP) system.
"We're connecting all of our many varied components and production equipment with IP addresses, which gives us the flexibility to be lean and expand as needed," explained Nidamaluri. "This method also gives us visualization for our plant managers, so they handle production in real-time, and shift or expand production lines more quickly in response to supply-chain issues and other situations."
Nidamaluri added that traditional IT versus control engineering conflicts mostly are resolved by the fact that he oversees both departments, and so he's been able to encourage them to work together. "We're even merging our digital manufacturing capabilities to the point that we're creating a digital bill of materials, and we're hoping to seamlessly link it with our MES system instead of relying on the old Excel worksheets."
Fritz Quitmeyer, director of manufacturing and controls engineering at AAM, formerly American Axle & Manufacturing, added, "Production data needs to be treated as a natural resource that's mined, refined and put to work. This information can be used to optimize operating systems, perform proactive maintenance, identify quality issues or just reduce costs. All this data can come from sources that are in-house, but instead of using it to react to situations, we can now use it to improve capacity ahead of time. It's been six years since we implemented a new controls architecture based on ControlLogix controls and EtherNet/IP networking on final assembly applications at about 10 sites. This approach has taken us from 52 weeks to 26 weeks to design and build a new manufacturing system, and from 24 weeks to six weeks to launch it on a plant floor."
Similarly, Stolle Machinery Co. recently worked with Rockwell Automation to develop a telemetry program, and add remote sensing functions to assist users of its "body making" machines, which extrude and form aluminum beverage cans after they arrive from an upstream cupping machine. "These machines can produce 3,000 cans per minute and need to run 24/7 for weeks at a time, and so we're trying to come up with a way to go from preventive maintenance to proactive maintenance. That's why our project goal was to drive and secure more intelligence," said Robert Isaman, CEO at Stolle. "We're also trying to have our customer standardize on just five can designs, instead of the 36 types they've been making worldwide, which should increase their satisfaction and keep costs down."
Likewise, Marquis Management Services operates several ethanol refineries in the midwestern U.S., and so it's also seeking long-term sustainability and to be the low-cost provider in its industry. "We're on the process side, but we also have a lot of data to collect and analyze to better predict operating parameters and reduce variability," explained Jason Marquis, president of Marquis Management Services. "Even small, 1% improvements in production can mean millions of dollars in savings, and so with help from Rockwell Automation engineers, we're creating multivariable process control models that can help us produce the highest-quality product at the lowest cost."
For example, because many bio-refineries are located in remote, small towns, Marquis is even connecting key, offsite engineers with these facilities by giving iPads to some of its some local operators, which gives everyone access to the data they need. "This is also empowering people who have been using mostly wrenches for much of their careers," added Marquis. "Now, instead of the maintenance guy having to radio in from the field and then wait for actuations to come out from a central control room, he can take the iPad into the field and make direct adjustments as needed."