Manufacturers turning more to automation integrators for turnkey system designs
By Patrick Waurzyniak
More large manufacturers in automotive and other industries are turning to machine tool builders and system integrators to supply much more of the shop-floor know-how required to run manufacturing operations than in years past. While automotive OEMs have outsourced for years, today more large automotive suppliers use integrators to design today’s systems.
“Of the engineered projects, where some of the engineering’s being outsourced, perhaps 25–35% includes automation, with the majority including fixturing, workholding, tooling, programming, and run-off to assure statistical capability,” notes Greg Hyatt, vice president, engineering, Mori Seiki USA Inc. (Rolling Meadows, IL). “It’s especially true in automotive, although of course automotive initially drove turnkey long before they started downsizing. Before that was an issue, because they were buying transfer lines—special equipment, no two were the same—every one of them had to be run off to demonstrate that it met specifications that were unique to that particular application.
“They just carried it over, from the special equipment, so the transition in automotive was completely independent of downsizing or personnel levels,” Hyatt adds. “It’s just their traditional way of doing business to expect a single-source responsibility from the builder to include the complete process. What’s new is that it has migrated outside of automotive, particularly down through the tiered automotive suppliers. The lower-tiered suppliers would have done their own engineering in years past. In part due to downsizing, they’re looking to the machine tool builder to provide more of that now. But part of it is also that they have been studying the best practices of their customers, and have been adopting those. We see the suppliers to the major automotive manufacturers very carefully studying the best practices of their customers.”
Teaming with system integrators, many machine tool OEMs are working with large machine distributors and system integrators to provide manufacturing customers with more turnkey approaches to automation system design. In March, Mori Seiki announced an expansion of its partnership with Ellison Technologies (Santa Fe Springs, CA), which adds distribution and sales of Mori Seiki machine tools throughout the Midwest to its previous sales and support of Mori Seiki equipment on the West Coast. “Many of the smaller-tiered suppliers recognize that they will never be able to make the investment in the development of those processes that the larger customer can make,” notes Hyatt. “So rather than re-inventing the wheel, they study what Toyota or the other OEMs have developed, and adopt it to the extent that seems suitable for their business.
With turnkey systems from machine tool OEMs or system integration specialists, manufacturers can take advantage of manufacturing engineering knowledge in tweaking an assembly line, or even improving fixturing or part designs to make a product easier to manufacture. “It’s very important. A single tier supplier may install an engine block line every 5–10 years in their facility,” Hyatt says. “It’s not something they do every day, every year, or maybe even every decade. But a machine tool builder that specializes in automotive may be putting in block lines in multiples per year, so they have a much broader experience of the latest techniques and strategies and tools. You can’t get experience without doing it every day, and a few of the builders were doing this all day, every day.”
Robotic automation designs from the robot manufacturers and their integration partners also have employed the significant specialization and expertise developed by system integrators and passed on to manufacturing OEMs and smaller manufacturers. Metal finishing machine tool builder and systems integrator Acme Manufacturing Co. (Auburn Hills, MI) works with robot manufacturer Fanuc Robotics America (Rochester Hills, MI) to produce turnkey systems for grinding, polishing, buffing, and deburring parts used in medical device manufacturing, aerospace, and the automotive industry.
Because of the downsizing wave, more manufacturers turn to the company for robotic finishing applications. “Metal finishing is kind of a black art,” says G.A. “Fritz” Carlson III, Acme Mfg. president. “There are a lot of companies that do it, and we have a relationship with Fanuc Robotics where they provide robots and we do the metal finishing side. We’re a machine tool builder by trade—we were building machine tools for 80 years for metal finishing, and then got involved with Fanuc Robotics on robotic integration a little over 20 years ago, but that all work had to do with finishing.
“Our business is a little different, because we’re not interested in having somebody come to us and say: ‘We’re going to give you the robot, and you give us all your secrets on finishing.’ That’s our business,” Carlson adds. “We’re used to providing a turnkey solution. Maybe somebody will drop-ship us robots, but then we’re paid to do all the integration, the programming, and the process development. When somebody gives us an order, we’re totally responsible for producing a good part within a given cycle time and at a certain quality.”
In many cases, large manufacturers want a turnkey solution from the system integrator or machine tool builder, he adds. “A lot of these big companies today have really scaled back on advanced manufacturing,” Carlson states. “We have a customer overseas, a major jet engine manufacturer, and we’re doing all the development. This is a major supplier of commercial jet engines, and they don’t have an advanced manufacturing group anymore. We have several development programs going on in our facility for this company, because they just don’t have the people. They look for the experts in a certain technology, and then partner with them, and that’s basically what’s going on with a lot of these companies, because they don’t have these big advanced manufacturing engineering groups anymore.”
Robotic milling applications are among the system designs offered to manufacturing customers through a partnership of Kuka Robotics Corp. (Clinton Township, MI), a subsidiary of Kuka Roboter GmbH (Augsburg, Germany) and systems integrator Seis Group Inc. (Huntington Beach, CA). “We have a different cost-to-market philosophy as a robotic manufacturer than some of the other robotic companies from Japan or in the US,” notes Elijah Szasz, area manager, US West, Kuka Robotics. “We partner up with certain system integrators, certify them through Kuka, and exclusively use them for all the value-added and services, whereas our competitors are trying to come in from both sides, supplying equipment and also doing value-added. So with Seis Group, we do all of our tooling design, implementation of a robot in front of a cell, programming, and then deliver that package to the customer.”
With Seis Group and Kuka working together, the suppliers work as integrators from the start, offering a turnkey approach for manufacturers. Seis Group had teamed with other robotics manufacturers, but started working with Kuka last fall, according to Chris Barbazette, Seis president. “We really liked Kuka’s philosophy that they’re going to drive business through their system partners, rely on that as the value-added, and not try to do that themselves. We offer a value and a benefit in that we do robotics and vision systems, so we’re doing vision-guided motion, integrated workcells, doing a robotic system that’s integrated with conveyor-less drives—all those kinds of things are a little bit more value-added than a company that’s trying to develop a solution around a particular set of products, and we have the freedom and benefit to pick the best of breed.”
Robotics and vision are two of the fastest-growing technologies in manufacturing, offers Barbazette. “If you go into a number of industrial environments, manufacturing environments, you’ll already see a lot of PLCs, operator displays connected to PLCs, and drives, but you’ll still see guys at the end of the production line that are lifting stuff manually,” he adds. “So from our perspective, one of the biggest growth areas in the market is vision and robotics, and it’s one of the last areas where you can have a very quick return on investment for the customer, where you’re going to solve some very real problems for them.”
“There are a select number of companies that have internal integration capabilities, where if we sell the robotic arms to them, they have to be a very experienced and expert user to make any use of them,” notes Kuka’s Szasz. “The majority of customers, probably 95%, if you handed them a robotic arm, it would just be a piece of metal sitting in their factory. They need the knowledge of a company like Seis Group that can provide the tooling, the vision system or the eyes for the robot, sensors, and a human/machine interface, and put it all together in a nice package for us so it works.”
Software automation solutions also play a large role in integrating turnkey automation systems into a manufacturing organization’s enterprise-wide infrastructure. “It’s a real advantage right now, because of the fact that we can provide not only the engineering from mechanical controls and building the machine, and we can also provide the software for the machine,” says Sarah Wiseman, software engineering specialist, Eagle Technologies Group (Bridgman, MI), a machine builder and systems integrator. “We are definitely the one-stop shop for any machine for a manufacturing facility. Instead of having four different contractors working on one project, they’re trying to find somebody that can do it all.
“The biggest hole that I’ve seen in the last four years, especially in the automotive industry, is their knowledge in IT for the manufacturing floor,” Wiseman says, “and that’s going to pose a huge problem with all these government regulations related to information tracking that are starting to trickle down.”
Software systems like Rockwell Automation’s (Milwaukee) FactoryTalk suite of solutions can help bridge that gap, according to Wiseman, who recommends the software system to customers and works as a partner with Rockwell. “FactoryTalk gives users an Internet type of research solution to the automation information side, so you can say you need this piece of information and start doing an analysis on it. It is capable of being completely automated. This makes my job so much easier, because I don’t have to manually pull information from several different places. FactoryTalk does that for me. And the information can go from the shop floor, from the operators, to the maintenance guys, to the production supervisors, to the top floor, to the business manager or CEO. You can set up this information to specify to each individual in that company the information they need to do their job better.”
With dozens of software modules comprising its industrial software suite, GE Fanuc Automation Americas Inc.’s (Charlottesville, VA) software solutions can help automate manufacturing information flow, and ensure that manufacturers’ factory operations reach maximum potential.
“Our approach at the end-user level, specifically with GE Fanuc’s industrial software suite, is certainly where we’ve done a fair amount of work in being able to help customers integrate the information flow for automation, not so much the automation itself, but the data required to support that kind of automation,” notes Jim Spearman, GE Fanuc manager, CNC Technology & Machine Tool Solutions. “Our Proficy suite of software entails about 40-some-odd different modules to allow you to accomplish that, from visualization to SPC, and reporting systems all the way up to the CEO-level type reporting.
“We have enterprise-wide systems that pull products and pull information from product satellite facilities into a common single database to allow the management level and the production level to understand how that automation’s performing, where the gaps are, and areas where you might need additional automation in order to increase the productivity or increase the efficiency of several factors from an enterprise-wide standpoint,” Spearman adds. “Our software allows us to connect, collect, and approve the data. We connect through software straight into the CNC system itself, and that allows us to look at production rates, trends, gather alarm definitions, etc., through software such as the Workstation Shop View, which allows an operator, a cell manager, or a foreman/supervisor to get detailed information that’s constantly available.”
With GE Fanuc’s solutions, manufacturers can analyze and adjust performance of a workcell, a group of machines, an assembly line, or an entire factory, Spearman notes. “With the workstation view, there’s a little bit of granularity there where you can actually see at a workstation level exactly what’s going on—the runtime minutes, the downtime minutes, the part loss, the part gain, speed—everything on the productivity of yesterday, today, the last seven days, this month, last month. So when you think about leaving the shop floor, what different business systems need this data? This system allows you to walk up the MES chain with a reporting mechanism, a reporting system that goes up into production control, into management and maybe to an operations manager, all the way to the CEO level. This side of the system has connectors into SAP, Oracle, the different type of databases you need, to align that information flow. Data rates, capacity, and capabilities, all flow from the shop floor up through the entire business operating system.
“Right now, there’s a significant OEE [Overall Equipment Effectiveness] initiative basically at any Fortune 500 company that’s a discrete manufacturer,” Spearman adds. “But as you flow into the tier suppliers, they’re starting to put more pressure on their tiers to understand this information. Visualize an OEM with a set of tiers. With this type of system, they could look down into the tiers. And if the companies have the same system, you can collectively pull all the data together at this level from your own factory, plus your tiers, all through the supply chain.
“At this point, this approach is used in automotive, aerospace—anyone who’s got a supply chain,” observes Spearman. “We probably have not done much work past a Tier 2 level, but I think that’s only a matter of time for that, because the information flow with these data are critical to making a US company competitive in manufacturing. You’ve got to understand how fast you are, where the bottlenecks are, and the things that you need to attack from a Lean standpoint or a Six Sigma standpoint. If you don’t know that information, it’s very hard to stay competitive, and it’s very hard to achieve the lowest cost per part.”
System Integration Helps Automate Automotive Line
Machine builder and systems integrator Eagle Technologies Group (Bridgman, MI) needed to set up a large assembly line for manufacturing clutches at automotive Tier 1 supplier Metaldyne Corp. (Plymouth, MI). A custom builder of assembly and test systems for automotive and other industries, Eagle Technologies makes systems used by manufacturers to build and test their products. By incorporating testing throughout the process, manufacturers can ensure that products meet its own strict quality specifications.
At Metaldyne’s Bluffton, IN, manufacturing facility, Eagle Technologies needed to install a large new assembly system consisting of about 800’ of conveyor and 20 automated workcells. The company’s deadline was 28 weeks for a system typically requiring up to 32 weeks for completion. To reduce overall engineering time, Eagle engineers teamed with Rockwell Automation (Milwaukee) to review the system specifications and identify areas that could help it complete the system within the allotted timeframe. Working together, Rockwell and Eagle created a system that required more investment in hardware and software up-front, but would ultimately reduce time spent engineering the system.
The solution Eagle devised integrated several Rockwell products including Rockwell’s FactoryTalk platform, which combines a flexible architecture with a common set of services and software modules to create seamless information flow across the enterprise. This system allows distributing critical plant-floor data throughout the facility quickly and easily, which helped the project engineering undertaken simultaneously in two separate facilities using a VPN (Virtual Private Network) connection on Eagle’s networks.
Eagle also applied Rockwell Software RSSQL as a transaction manager, and Rockwell Software’s RSBizWare Historian provided production reports to the customer through Web-based reporting, allowing the customer to see part and process characteristics as they are happening. In addition, the manufacturer accessed current and historical information on machine performance through Rockwell Software RSBizWare PlantMetrics, helping the customer achieve maximum efficiency.
The hardware system deployed included five Allen-Bradley ControlLogix processors to share tag database information. Allen-Bradley Ultra3000 digital servo drives and MP-Series motors provide high-performance motion-control functions. Servo programming is performed in the controller, eliminating the need for additional motion software. The drives are connected via SERCOS fiber optic communications, which delivered real-time information about process characteristics so that operators can adjust the drives accordingly.
Eagle delivered the new system on schedule in 28 weeks. Standard engineering was critical to reducing the system’s design time. Controls engineering time was reduced by about 12% for this system, which Eagle expects to reduce even further, by as much as 20%, in the future.
This article was first published in the May 2006 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.