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Is It Time To Go On-Machine?

The automotive industry is known for being “guinea pigs,” in the kindest sense of the word. For at least 15 years, these companies have been pursuing an idea that is just now making its way to other industries — it’s the idea of stashing automation and safety controllers on the machine itself, rather than in a centrally-located cabinet. Is it time for other industries to follow suit?

The automotive industry is known for being “guinea pigs,” in the kindest sense of the word, for new manufacturing technologies that promise to bring new efficiency, speed or cost savings to large-scale production. For at least 15 years, these companies have been pursuing an idea that is just now making its way to other industries — it’s the idea of stashing automation and safety controllers on the machine itself, rather than in a centrally-located cabinet, as is the current standard operating procedure.

It sounds relatively simple, but the philosophy’s progression has been anything but. Todd Montpas, a market development manager with Rockwell Automation, says that in the automotive sector, this change was driven out of their need to optimize and standardize the manufacturing process, and make plants more compatible to producing multiple vehicles. And with more global operations, and models meant to be manufactured in identical fashions at plants in either Alabama or Thailand, these automakers began to realize that it would be far more convenient to have a cell that is a complete package in a single box, figuratively speaking, rather than disparate boxes for the robotics and the associated automation controllers.

When a company is running multiple vehicles in a plant, or bringing new vehicles in, they have to load-balance and ensure that every line is meeting its cycle time. Moving work from one station to the next needs to be fluid and effortless. Montpas says, “That’s very difficult to do with big panels that are hardwired back.” With an on-machine philosophy, he says that a company can “drop in an additional station, plug in power, plug in communications, and hydraulics, and [they] can add a station without disrupting the entire line.”

The on-machine philosophy has been made far easier in recent years due to the advent of Ethernet as a primary means of networking machines and the controllers that manage them. Rockwell Automation is strongly pushing toward standardization in Ethernet, as it helps in training people on the plant floor, and offers much more data than solutions of the past.

Montpas says, “Whether it’s on-machine or not, the ability for Ethernet/IP to carry large packets of data in a safe manner, to eliminate some other components you might have.” Ethernet allows connections to robots or CNCs, so it can be used for safety relays, and then can bring back data from these machines for better diagnostics.

And because of Ethernet’s ease-of-use, companies that have already implemented an on-machine philosophy haven’t reported much in the way of challenges when it comes to rolling out the necessary infrastructure. Montpas says there’s some best practices around for moving toward Ethernet, but not many challenges that manufacturers can’t easily figure out themselves. But, in the end, the small tie-ups with Ethernet are an inevitability — for many companies, it’s only a matter of time before their operations require that kind of connectivity.

The on-machine philosophy is, according to Montpas and Geoff Sieron, a product specialist with Rockwell Automation, a good excuse to spend the money on an Ethernet roll-out, because the subsequent cost savings can make it a very worthy investment.

While any change on the manufacturing plant floor can be narrowed down to affecting cost in one way or another, companies that have already rolled out an on-machine solution are reporting that the concept, first and foremost, makes the process of implementing automation a lot simpler from a technical standpoint.

Sieron says that at the very beginning stages, when a system is still in design, companies can save a lot just by using an integrated safety system like the company’s Armor Guardlogix — oftentimes in the 30 to 50 percent range.

Another Rockwell customer says a big benefit was based on I/O connections alone, or the lack thereof. “Instead of having to wire up and strip and put in every I/O connection, a lot of our on-machine technology uses M12 quick-disconnect cables,” Sieron says, adding that it’s much more efficient to install or replace these modules because of that simplified cabling. And because they don’t need a lot of specialized tools to make it happen, it’s always much easier to take out two connectors than pull hard-wired cabling.

And on the note of cabling, Montpas says on-machine generally saves in that area as well. He argues that if one does a price comparison of all the components necessary to do both a panel and on-machine solution, you can save a lot on the wiring and labor costs. He says it’s easily between 25 and 30 percent cheaper for aspects that are easy to find and quantify. For the rest, he’s heard anecdotally from customers that on-machine is a benefit all around.

Montpas and Sieron have seen the on-machine concept move well outside the automotive world in the last few years as well, if only because of those many benefits. It’s being used widely in material handling, because machines are becoming increasingly small and modular. With the logic built into their construction, it’s much easier to “building-block” out production lines, as Montpas describes it.

Food and beverage, along with consumer packaged goods (CPG) are two more industries investing heavily in on-demand, due to the greater prevalence of washdowns. Many of Rockwell’s newest on-machine products can be bought with washdown-rated housings, which means there’s no restrictions to where automation or safety equipment can be located.

The mining and heavy metals industry has also come to adopt an on-machine approach, even putting these controllers directly on the massive vehicles that transport mined materials from deep beneath the ground to the next phase in the extraction process. It means there’s a higher degree of safety, and it’s not adding any layers of complexity. Sieron says, “Combine all of [its benefits] together, and we’re seeing a very diverse amount of applications for on-machine technology.”

Despite it being around for two decades, the on-machine philosophy, when it comes to actual implementations on the plant floor, is still very much in its infancy. Despite its clear benefits, it hasn’t moved into a number of industries quite yet, which means it has enormous room to grow. And Rockwell Automation, for its part in the equation, is doing more work to bring parity to its offerings of standard, panel-based automation solutions and its on-machine versions.

Montpas and Sieron both recognize there are many situations in which a panel-based solution will almost always work better — it’s impossible to apply a single method for every kind of operation. But, with the on-machine offerings, they’re opening up a new method, for the first time, to many industries that might have been languishing in an old way of thinking. For certain operations, it may just be a revolution. The cost benefits and a rich history of success in the automotive world — in many ways the most advanced and innovative — speak for themselves.

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