Posted: December 3rd, 2013 | By: Eagle Tech
With manufacturers investing in automation technologies and training employees to use and maintain them, it’s only natural that company executives would begin to ask what the value of all of this technology really is. Automation World’s David Greenfield asks the question, “As someone who’s responsible for automation at your company, do you know how the executives at your company view what you do?” He asks this because, although there has been a surge in investment in automation, there has not been a clear answer what to do with automation, or the information that comes from it.
The reality is that your company’s executives probably see what you do and the technologies you oversee as being a cost. Though this is not your fault—industry as a whole has come to view automation technology as an industry that exists principally for technology’s sake.
With automation comes information, and that information is currently being collected at a fast pace. But what is being done with it?
To bring things back to a true problem/solution mindset, Martin said it’s critical to realize that, as Einstein said, “information is not knowledge.” Capturing and storing data that is rarely, if ever, used is counterproductive and a symptom of an ill- thought-out automation system application. You have to realize—and be able to communicate— that automation “puts knowledge to work.”
Thankfully, this idea of putting knowledge to work is starting to happen more often as more companies—and automation suppliers—are focusing on technologies that deliver actionable intelligence to the operator where immediate decisions can be made to benefit the bottom line in real time.
By putting the information collected by automation technologies to use is the best way to show the value of automation technology. Reducing waste and increasing productivity and efficiency are always looked highly upon by executives.
Posted: November 26th, 2013 | By: Eagle Tech
The manufacturing sector has held steady in the US economy during the last two decades, maintaining about 300,000 facilities. Today this sector of the economy employs eleven million people and is responsible for slightly more than half of all export dollars.
Sectors of the manufacturing industry that are performing the best, in terms of shipment value, are: petroleum and coal products ($837 billion), chemical ($777 billion), food ($710 billion), and transportation equipment ($690 billion). From there, the size of the industry sectors, in terms of shipments, are considerably smaller, with the next category—machinery—clocking in with $366 billion in shipments, about half of the shipment value total of the equipment sector.
As well as being a large employer and exporter in the US economy, a worker in the manufacturing sector is paid, on average, 27 percent more than the average US worker’s salary. Manufacturing also spends more than $3 trillion on materials and almost $150 billion in capital expenditures.
It seems that the attention paid to the manufacturing sector in recent years has been worthwhile, and with off-shore manufacturing returning to the US, it seems like this industry is continuing to grow.
Posted: November 19th, 2013 | By: Eagle Tech
As automation technology improves and prices are reduced, there are many more opportunities for smaller manufacturers to include robots and other automation technologies into their facilities, creating safer, more productive work environments for their employees.
Robotics and automation technologies installed at small manufacturing operations are assisting employees in completing what we call the “dirty, dangerous, and dull” jobs. Instead of an employee completing a mundane or unsafe task all day, that same employee could be trained to operate automation equipment that can do that task in a safer environment. This leads to many benefits to the employee and employer, including higher job satisfaction.
In addition to employee benefits, automating can mean the difference between staying competitive and going out of business.
The main driver is the need to compete, often on a global basis. Can certain tasks be automated in order to improve productivity and product quality? Can overall manufacturing costs be lowered by automating? Can the company respond to changing demands more quickly if they automate? Can the company find new customers if they automate (because they are now producing more products faster and with greater quality)? Have our competitors automated in order to gain an advantage? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, automation is likely to be considered.
If a firm that is not automating is losing business because of competitive pressures, then they risk going out of business. Marlin Steel in Baltimore is a great example of this. They used to bend wire baskets by hand, producing about 300 a day. Once they automated, they were producing thousands a day with higher quality and no injuries to employees. This allowed them to remain competitive, win new business, and ultimately add more and better (higher-paying and safer) jobs. Marlin is a great example of increased productivity and profitability through automation.
However, there are still those out there that believe that automating factories can, and will, replace employees completely in an effort to be the most efficient, productive, and competitive. The Association for Advancing Automation has a different take on automation’s effect on employment.
Overall, we believe automation has a positive impact on employment. The real threat to jobs is when a company is no longer competitive. In that case, the options are (a) go out of business, in which case all the jobs are lost; (b) outsource the jobs to another country; or (c) automate, in which case jobs are saved and the opportunity for growth exists. Of course, I’m just talking about the jobs inside a factory or business. When you include the jobs outside a factory, automation that helps keep a plant open also is helping keep open restaurants, gas stations, bowling alleys, and many companies that supply the factory – an entire ecosystem of jobs that might otherwise be lost.
Overall, it seems that through factory automation the manufacturing industry can create a more diverse industry landscape and continue growing.
Read more at areadevelopment.com.
Posted: November 13th, 2013 | By: Eagle Tech
Eagle Technologies was a major participant in this year’s Michigan Manufacturing Day, on October 4th. Check out the video from the event below!
Posted: November 12th, 2013 | By: Eagle Tech
In the 1970s, American automakers dreamt of completely automated factories reducing the workforce as a way to compete with the Japanese competition making its way into the American car market. As it turned out, though, automation didn’t reduce the need for people to be on the lines, keeping the lines moving and building the cars.
But competitive globalisation had not been taken into account. Today, reduced headcount and increased leisure are not options; the remaining employees are working harder than ever.
Factory automation has come a long way since then. And it has plenty of room to grow.
Many of the new production methods in the next manufacturing revolution will require fewer people working in factories, and some lights-out manufacturing is now possible.
Manufacturing will still need people, if not so many in the factory itself. Automated machines need people to design, program and service them.
As manufacturing transforms into a high-tech workplace, the new generation of process and automation engineers and technicians will be completely different – they will have grown up with the Internet, smartphones and video games.
The next step in factory automation still won’t remove the need for people in the manufacturing sector, but as it continues to change, it will change the way those people work.
Read more about the future of factory automation.
Posted: November 5th, 2013 | By: Eagle Tech
With the increase in automation, sensors, and data in the factory, the question of what to do with all the data that’s being collected is being asked more and more. The first step for any manufacturer is to manage all of the data being collected.
GE has been dealing with Big Data for quite some time, Walsh says, with more than 200,000 GE assets connected around the world. How does Big Data get big? Consider just one consumer goods manufacturer, which takes 152,000 sensor samples every second. “That adds up to 4 trillion samples a year that they’ve got to figure out a way to deal with,” Walsh notes.
But it’s not just about the size of the data; it’s about the type as well, Walsh says. With 4 trillion data points, you need to be able to correlate that data, managing it in a consistent and coherent way.
Walsh emphasizes the importance of laying a solid foundation, however, and not trying to rush the data process. “Everybody wants to start too far up the continuum,” he says. “They want the change-the-world analytics. But you need to lay the foundation. That’s not as sexy as the analytics that have an impact on your balance sheets.” He adds, however, “If you have the foundation set up, your ability to accelerate up that value continuum increases exponentially.”
In addition to managing the data, however, getting people to begin to accept the data is a large hurdle.
The technology of Big Data isn’t actually the hard part; it’s the people, Courtney says. To a large degree, there is a shift in thinking that needs to happen for Big Data to really be effective. An operator often knows just by the vibration or sound that a machine is going to go down. And now we’re asking that operator to trust numbers instead of his own instincts. “If you can’t get him to take action, predictive analytics is useless.”
Courtney cites an example from a recent pilot with a potential customer. GE’s sensor data found vibration on a turbine that didn’t make sense. So GE asked the manufacturer to shut it down to take a look. The operator, however, insisted there was nothing wrong, and didn’t want to stop production for what he saw as load-related vibration. Some time went by, and GE was still monitoring the disturbing vibration on what was a very expensive asset. So they contacted the company again, urging them to shut it down.
Because it was a trial situation, the customer essentially said that if they shut it down and GE was wrong, that would be it for their relationship. But GE stood by its data, confident that there was a problem that needed to be explored. The customer shut down the turbine and put a bore scope in, finding corrosion on one of the blades that ran most of the way through. As Chad Stoecker, who runs GE’s Industrial Performance and Reliability Center, put it, “That blade was three to five days from liberation.”
While this issue was a large one that could have cost the company millions, more often than not, the data being analyzed is catching problems before they reach this point. The idea is to be proactive, finding small problems and fixing them before they become large, costly problems. In manufacturing, where uptime is the goal, finding and fixing the problem before it happens is the name of the game. And Big Data is part of the solution.
Read more about Big Data at Automation World.
Posted: October 29th, 2013 | By: Eagle Tech
A major drawback for many European manufacturers looking to add automation to their factory floors is the price and turnaround time. The costs associated with switching over to an automated factory cause many manufacturers to stick with their current processes. Now there is an alternative: the Factory-In-A-Day project.
The FACTORY-IN-A-DAY project’s ultimate goal is to reduce the installation time – and related cost of installation – from months to one single day. As part of the Commission’s Economic Recovery Plan, this will help European manufacturing enterprises adapt to global competitive pressures by improving the technological base of manufacturing across a broad range of sectors.
In practice, the project will achieve the following. Before the robot is actually taken to the SME premises, a system integrator will analyse which steps in the process can be taken over by the robot. In most cases, repetitive work can be done by a robot, while the human worker carries out more flexible, accurate tasks and deals with problem-solving.
New standardised arms, mobile platforms, and hands will be combined with 3D printed custom parts, capable of being designed in a matter of hours from novel design templates. This will greatly reduce the time it takes plants to automate and be up and running. New self-calibration routines and a novel software framework will furthermore allow the easy interconnection of robot components and existing machinery.
This system will allow for collaboration between robots and humans, faster implementation times, and even offer leasing to relieve the burden of the cost associated with purchasing. The project has a budget of 11.9 million Euro for a four year term.
Check out phys.org for more on this project.
Posted: October 22nd, 2013 | By: Eagle Tech
With automated factories using more wireless machines and data collection taking place in a central location within the factory, servicing and repairing machines has become more difficult than it once was.
“When maintenance guys go to the line to fix a machine that’s down, they’re wasting a lot of time,” says Bob Meads, founder and CEO of iQuest Inc., Alpharetta, Ga. “You can’t get the product data at the equipment where you’re at. You have to look at the problem, then go through 40 pounds of technical resources to find what you need.”
Or, Meads adds, if you want to know how fast and long a motor has been running, it’s on a control room screen somewhere. Or on an interface 20 feet away and someone has to shout out the values to you. “Thirty years ago, I could get information at the source because pressure valves and indicator lights were hardwired in. Now, with HMIs, you don’t know anything. That’s a problem, especially when you’re troubleshooting,” he says.
This is where iQuest’s iQagent app comes in. The app runs on iOS currently and connects to a custom database that allows the user to access all of the support documentation for the machines in the factory, simply by scanning a QR code.
The iQagent app is free. What’s running behind the scenes and powering the app is the iQagent server. To set it up, you use the software’s configuration tool to a create a “point of interest”—a motor, valve, warehouse shelf—that you associate digitized technical document files (PDFs) or live data points located in your SCADA system or coming from a PLC. A QR code is created for each point of interest, and a label with that code is attached to the machine or shelf.
When an operator, engineer or technician needs to retrieve the information, he or she scans the QR code with the iPad’s camera. Suddenly, overlaid on the camera image is a table of real-time data, a list of relevant PDFs and/or additional search options. There’s also a menu function that doesn’t require the scanning of the code, for those who want to browse and choose from a list of points of interest.
iQagent gets live data from the process via OPC, and “Kepware does OPC better than anyone else,” adds Meads. There are other apps that are OPC-specific, but they are often tied back only to a specific piece of vendor hardware. “Kepware has hundreds of drivers that can talk to any system. They also have a simulation driver for memory and values so I can quickly test [the communications],” says Meads. “If Kepware didn’t exist, I would have had to prefer one type of vendor hardware, or do what Kepware did and build all those different drivers myself.”
To read more about the iQagent app’s uses in the factory, head over to automationworld.com.
Posted: October 15th, 2013 | By: Eagle Tech
As technology changes and we are able to connect to more and more devices wirelessly, new issues crop up that we hadn’t had to deal with previously. One of those problems in today’s factories is how to power some of the wireless monitoring devices that we use to gather information.
It’s reasonably common now to see wireless sensors and measurement devices in industrial applications. These small devices can drastically reduce wiring because they can be placed virtually anywhere to measure anything. Powering such small devices is also relatively simple. Or is it? As with consumer devices, battery power seems the most obvious solution. Batteries are cheap and readily available. Some battery types can source low-power devices for years, with lives of over 10 years claimed in some cases. But are these batteries really the answer and do they really last 10 years?
Batteries have interesting issues when it comes to battery life. While a battery may have a long, 10 year lifespan in a laboratory testing setting, the environmental changes that take place on the factory floor can drastically affect the lifespan of a battery, which can cause other problems by requiring that they be checked periodically and replaced costing many man hours and many dollars. There are, however, alternatives to batteries.
There are other options available, all of which reduce strain on the battery, or eliminate it altogether. Low-power wireless technologies, such as Bluetooth Low Energy or ZigBee, reduce the power required to transmit data in the first place. Some technologies also offer the option to mesh network devices in order to use a lower power network. This has issues in itself in that latency times can increase if the mesh network is sufficiently big. This isn’t an issue if data readings are only required every minute or so.
Of course, a significant way to reduce issues related to battery use is to remove the battery altogether. This can be done by energy harvesting, which can be achieved in a number of ways and works very well for low power devices such as sensors. Solar is definitely the most common harvesting solution. Solar panels are more efficient than ever and cost is constantly falling. Solar powered sensors can be implemented almost anywhere and with a long-haul radio solution can be put in the most remote of places.
Both of these are solutions to the battery problem. Both of these solutions have their own problems. Bluetooth Low Energy works well only if data need to be collected every minute or so. Solar requires the initial investment and has the potential to cause surges that can damage the wireless sensors they are supposed to be powering, unless a battery is implemented, which is what the solar power is supposed to be replacing.
It would seem that there are many drawbacks and costs that can be attributed to the introduction of data collection sensors. But, as with any technology, data collection can quickly become a source of savings in both time and money.
To read more, visit Automation World.
Posted: October 8th, 2013 | By: Eagle Tech
At Pennsylvania manufacturer Rodon, there is a new employee named Baxter. Baxter is a robot who works alongside his human counterparts, assisting them in their tasks.
Factory VP Lowell Allen has put Baxter to work at what he’s best at: boring, repetitive jobs.
“Our people have really taken to Baxter,” said Allen. “He’s non-threatening. He’s helping them do their job.”
Baxter is designed to work safely alongside humans. Six facial expressions communicate status to human partners — a raised eyebrow signals confusion if something’s not right on the line. But most of time, Baxter works alone.
“And the best part I like is that Baxter doesn’t have a mouth,” said Allen. “So Baxter doesn’t talk.”
Slow but steady, Baxter toils on 24/7 without breaks or benefits. He costs only $22,000. And even with power and programming costs, Baxter is a $3-an-hour worker.
While Baxter can perform basic, repetitive tasks for a fraction of a human’s wage, he isn’t replacing human employees. In fact, Baxter requires skilled technicians to make sure that he is working at his best. Automation, including robots like Baxter, is bringing manufacturing jobs back to the US from abroad.
Baxter is part of the new factory floor: a cutting-edge mix of people and technology that has helped to reduce production costs enough to bring manufacturing back from China.
“So we’re seeing now,” said Hal Sirkin of Boston Consulting Group, “is companies bring jobs back to the U.S. Not just because of patriotism but because of pure economics. The wages are rising in China, the U.S. is getting more competitive. The average American worker is at least 3 times as productive as the average Chinese worker.”
For Rodon and its sister company K’nex, that means 25 new jobs in three years. “We’re adding equipment, people and possibly breaking ground next door,” said Allen.
Sirkin said: “Had the automation not been put in place for a lot of these companies, we would have no jobs coming back to the U.S.”
This trend is expected to bring between three and five million jobs back to the US by the end of this decade.
Read more about Baxter and the expanding manufacturing industry at cbsnews.com.