Automation Fair

Overcoming gotchas in material-handling system design

By Mike Bacidore

Nov 21, 2019

Sponsored by Rockwell Automation

Intellimodus knows material-handling systems. For nearly 30 years, the Kentucky-based system integrator has designed airport handling equipment and industrial sortation machinery, specializing in controls, software and panel fabrication.
Hosted by Rockwell Automation, the Material Handling Forum at Automation Fair 2019 provided a venue for David Cahoe, Intellimodus’ senior technical advisor, to warn audience members of the five most common gotchas in material-handling implementations—and how to overcome them.

Gotcha #1: system design

“When we bid a project, we have to worry about the specs, customer expectations and what we need to make it work,” said Cahoe. “Sometimes hardware design choices are open, but planning and preparation are key. To integrate the system to the upper level, we need graphics and reporting.”

In the past, everything about the system was physical. “But more and more, servers and workstations are being virtualized,” he said. “There’s a decision to be made between physical PCs and virtual workstations. And, when it comes to virtual servers, who sets up and configures them? Sometimes it’s the user, and sometimes it’s us.

“Network switches are a big item these days, too,” said Cahoe. “With cybersecurity issues, switches tend to be managed now. If we’re installing switches, we have to have the IT knowledge. We have to have people who know that.”

Gotcha #2: system access

How is the system supported remotely, and who configures or sets it up? “We used to have dial-up modems,” Cahoe reminisced. “VPN access is the most common now. Who configures that? For IT, it’s done locally. For operational technology, or OT, it’s usually us. The key is to get IT involved early in the project and continually throughout to avoid costly redesigns and other roadblocks. If we can get them involved early, things run much more smoothly.”

Gotcha #3: data retrieval

“Everything is web-based these days,” said Cahoe. ”Customers want to make reports and alerts accessible anywhere. We can send production reports. People want data at their fingertips. Dashboards and widgets are becoming popular, too. Have a conversation on data retrieval and determine what their needs are. Quite often these come late in the game, so don’t let them catch you off guard.”

Gotcha #4: corporate connectivity

Enterprise software will want to retrieve all the important information, so how is it communicated, and how do you talk between systems to get the information back and forth?

Is it a direct interface, or is it database-driven? Each company’s interface requirements are unique. “Sometimes an interface gets reused, but there’s no standard interface,” said Cahoe. “Everyone’s shipping interface is different, unless it’s multiple interfaces with the same customer. Be prepared to work together, and be ready to compromise.”

Gotcha #5: devices

Interfacing with different devices and brands has become a larger issue of late. “In the past it was barcode scanners or RFID,” said Cahoe. “Changing technology and new equipment have created the need for constant innovation and learning to keep things integrated properly. Keep communication open. Keep talking with IT. And keep evolving and changing with technology.”

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