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The next generation of factory automation shown at the Hanover show

Posted: April 22nd, 2014 | By: Eagle Tech

Today, factories are able to produce larger numbers of product variations and more custom products than ever thought possible in the past. Factory automation and the new technologies associated with this are what have made this all possible.

“Digitalization has made it possible to have a production line that doesn’t only produce one product,” said Jochen Köckler, the head of the trade show, adding: “You’ll be able to paint a product one color one day and a different one the next.”

Today’s factories are producing more custom-made goods than ever before, Köckler noted. A significant challenge thus remains remaining competitive while addressing consumers’ individual needs.

At the Hanover industrial fair in early April the future of factory automation made its debut, showing off technologies that could revolutionize how products are handled and made – though in novel displays.

Futuristic novelties on display included production lines that communicate directly with the components they assemble. There were also robots capable of parking a car entirely on their own.

At one point on Sunday, a dexterous robot developed in the Netherlands sporting golden pigtails and a traditional Dutch bonnet handed a tulip to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was there to open the event with her Dutch counterpart, Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

Though they were being shown performing activities they might never have to perform, the point being made is that industrial robots just might be capable of anything we can think up, and this has implications for manufacturing.

Consumers “expect to get the product they want as fast as possible,” said Eckhardt Ebele, who works with industrial automation systems for Siemens.

Another major trend this year is an emphasis on sustainable, low-energy production facilities.

Finding ways to increase efficiency and lower costs, all while becoming more flexible is the direction that manufacturing is moving since customers want more options and to have them faster. It seems that factory automation technologies are catching up with, and surpassing, these consumer wishes if the Hanover fair is any indication.

Read more about the technology on display at the Hanover fair here.

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What ‘Heartbleed’ means for factory automation

Posted: April 15th, 2014 | By: Eagle Tech

With the discover of the Heartbleed bug last week, the perception of a secure internet was shattered. Many of the services and products that we use every day are vulnerable to hackers. Luckily, companies like Google have been working to make sure that the data stored on servers is safe. While servers with openSSL are being fixed, many of the internet connected hardware devices that make up the Internet of Things won’t be.

…unlike the Yahoos and Googles, which have already upgraded to the fixed version of OpenSSL, the infrastructure of the web is even less secure. It will be significantly harder to stop the bleeding in hardware devices, experts say, and in many cases will never be patched at all.

Anything from industry IT equipment to home automation systems are vulnerable: wireless routers, cable boxes, security cameras, and an array of smart gadgets.

This could lead to trouble for automated factory equipment that is internet connected.

OpenSSL is widely used in software that connects these devices to the network. In an interview with MIT Technology Review, Jonathan Sander from STEALTHbits Technologies compared the cryptographic library to an engine part that’s in every kind of vehicle that comes off the production line, from a golf cart to a scooter. If a devices was shipped out before Heartbleed was discovered Tuesday, it’s vulnerable to attack, and unless its software is designed to receive regular updates, it will probably stay exposed for a very long time.

The good news is that companies like Cisco and Juniper are testing equipment for the Heartbleed vulnerability. The bad news is that not everyone is, and many companies won’t perform upgrades to close those vulnerabilities. Automated factories have been adding internet connected devices to their manufacturing processes and these devices should be tested for the Heartbleed bug, and upgraded if they are vulnerable.

Check out this link to learn more about the Heartbleed bug and its effect on the Internet of Things.

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Creating parts from scratch to gain insights into factory automation

Posted: April 8th, 2014 | By: Eagle Tech

In the age of automation, manufacturers are getting further and further away from the manufacturing process and relying on machines and computers to produce their products. Toyota is trying to bring itself closer to the production process in order to better understand their production needs.

Inside Toyota Motor Corp.’s oldest plant, there’s a corner where humans have taken over from robots in thwacking glowing lumps of metal into crankshafts. This is Mitsuru Kawai’s vision of the future.

Toyota’s next step forward is counterintuitive in an age of automation: Humans are taking the place of machines in plants across Japan so workers can develop new skills and figure out ways to improve production lines and the car-building process.

The idea is that by using machines to automate production tasks, there is separation from the manufacturing process which can keep it from changing or evolving as needs or technologies change.

“Fully automated machines don’t evolve on their own,” said Takahiro Fujimoto, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Manufacturing Management Research Center. “Mechanization itself doesn’t harm, but sticking to a specific mechanization may lead to omission of kaizen and improvement.”

By becoming more familiar with the manual processes of production, Toyota believes their overall manufacturing process can become more efficient and create higher quality products. Going back to basics could be the key to a better automation process.

Read more about going back to basics in manufacturing.

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Factory automation’s benefit of being connected

Posted: April 1st, 2014 | By: Eagle Tech

The 21st century brought about many technological advances to factory automation, from basics like internet connectivity all the way to remote data collection and production control. Since the beginning of automation, with robots performing never-changing repetitive and dangerous tasks, automation technology has been changing, new tasks being automated, new technologies being added, and more information being collected – to be used to inform the next generation of automation.

“These internet-enabled, intelligent devices and the explosion of data they produce could transform manufacturing operations and the factory as we know it today. “In the future, production components will directly communicate with the manufacturing execution system and send out instructions to downstream processes,” says Mirko Bäcker, marketing director EMEA, Tecnomatix, Siemens PLM Software. “The system will then be able to respond more quickly and make adjustments based on the data it has received. In this way, it will become more intelligent, networked and connected. We believe that cyber physical systems will serve as an innovation engine for the future of manufacturing.”

The new software, HMIs, and wirelessly-enabled machines are all geared toward making an automated factory that is smarter and more agile, one that requires little or no human presence.

This includes less down time for machines as manufacturers will be able to remotely diagnose the problems. “When companies use smart, connected machines, they can manufacture with far greater detail and intelligence, and then use the information to be more productive,” says Comstock. “For example, it will be possible to easily schedule thousands of machines across multiple locations remotely, from a central hub. Under this type of scenario, machines could self-diagnose and order spare parts autonomously within a fully connected system.

The ultimate automated system, it can be expected, would be one that can analyze the production data it collects by itself in order to make adjustments to the process or even request preventative maintenance to ensure that production continues without major or unexpected interruptions. This future may still be a way off, but it is surely on its way and it will ensure a prosperous future for the manufacturing industry.

Read more about factory automation’s technology here.

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A portable assembly line makes factory automation more practical

Posted: March 25th, 2014 | By: Eagle Tech

Coming out of the last recession, companies that had invested heavily into new automation technologies beforehand are less willing to invest again in new technology. However, there is new automation technology that would make new investment worthwhile: the portable assembly line.

It uses battery-free automated guided vehicles (AGVs) with inductive power transfer (IPT) to create a virtually invisible conveyance that is quickly relocated or rerouted. It allows every operation to be independent of the others, which improves efficiency and also gives a clearer picture of the true cost of automated and manual processes at each station.

As an example of how such AGV systems are being applied, we recently worked with a construction vehicle manufacturer that recently moved production back to the United States from Japan. Traditionally, a company like this would have selected chain based conveyance anchored to the building, requiring thousands of pounds of steel track that is scrapped whenever the line is changed. Instead of this more typical approach, the company wanted something that could be rerouted quickly without wasting tons of steel and investing in tons more.

While there is, of course, a significant investment to be made into any new factory automation, installing a portable – a movable and rearrangeable – automated factory would better accommodate any changes in the product and production process.

Read more about the portable assembly line here.

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Automation’s flexibility a benefit to large-scale manufacturing

Posted: March 18th, 2014 | By: Eagle Tech

In manufacturing, automation has existed for several decades as a tool for performing repetitive tasks. Today, though, automation can be a great benefit to production, allowing for flexibility and increased efficiency.

It is through the subtle flexibility of large-scale automation that allows the economy of scope to excel against the economy of scale. Technologies are being developed to allow a variety of parts to be produced through a single system or by a single machine. It is through these changes in large-scale automation that will move a company from the economy of scale into the economy of scope.

Today’s factory automation can perform complicated tasks as well as respond to changes in the production process as they occur.

Up until the 1990s, robots were simple machines that would mostly repeat a single task. But increasing capabilities in computing, sensing, and motion control have brought to fore robots that can do multiple complex tasks. Some can even decide which tasks to do and in which order, based upon live-floor stimuli.

This flexibility and responsiveness of 21st century factory automation is a benefit to today’s manufacturers. It allows for more lean manufacturing, cost savings, and faster changeover when parts or processes change.

Large-scale automation comes from combining robots and machine tools into a flexible system. And designing large-scale automation creates more efficient and elegant manufacturing processes. These processes do not just complete one single task but can perform various tasks within the same setup, with a focus on greater customization for what best fits the customer.

Read more about the benefits of automation on ThomasNet’s Industry Market Trends.

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Preventative maintenance strategies to keep your factory going

Posted: March 11th, 2014 | By: Eagle Tech

There is no way to prevent a factory from having an unscheduled shutdown from time to time. However, there are ways to prevent many of the equipment failures that can cause these shutdowns. One of the easiest preventative measures is conducting proactive, rather than reactive, maintenance.

An analysis by ABB’s Process Automation Service found the answer. Kevin Starr, R&D manager, said their findings revealed the root cause of the disparity: the plant experiencing difficulties operated under a run-to-failure philosophy for maintenance, spending nearly 35 percent of maintenance time on unscheduled corrective procedures. In contrast, the plant meeting its goals spent only 8 percent of maintenance time on unscheduled activities.

Other aspects of production that should be taken into account are asset reliability and the criticality of each asset. Understanding which assets are most critical to plant operations and then making sure these assets can perform reliably is an important step in conducting the proactive or preventative maintenance that will keep a factory moving.

The methodologies for managing assets to ensure reliable performance first began to be developed by the airline and power industries and the U.S. military in the 1970s, according to Augie DiGiovanni, vice president of reliability key accounts for Emerson Process Management. “In the last 10-15 years, an understanding of the value of asset reliability as a plant performance issue has spread to all industries.”

Many universities began offering programs in reliability management, DiGiovanni says, and graduates are now entering leadership positions in operations and maintenance at many companies. “They’re realizing that their plants are not executing the reliability methodologies they learned in school,” he explains. “When they experience too many failure events and issues, they recognize that this can’t go on.”

Any reliability program must begin by ranking assets for criticality in terms of the potential impact of their failure on plant production, DiGiovanni says. Strategies then need to be developed to ensure the optimal performance of these critical assets and extend their operating life.

Finally, decisions must be made about what technologies and what data to use to determine asset health.

Understanding which processes in your factory are most critical and keeping them working are some of the most important steps in keeping the production process from having unscheduled downtime. By making sure that engineering teams are trained to identify when maintenance should be undertaken, production lines can have scheduled downtime, which will reduce costs (and downtime) in the long run.

To read more on how preventative maintenance can save you in the long run, visit Automation World.

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Applying lean principles to produce results

Posted: March 4th, 2014 | By: Eagle Tech

In a case study, Manufacturing Business Technology Magazine shows us how a company used lean manufacturing principles to achieve a 90 percent improvement in on-time delivery, 20 percent reduction in waste, and a 35 percent improvement in productivity. Starting in 2003, FLEXcon, which manufactures pressure-sensitive film and adhesive products, has saved 10 times the dollar amount as it invested to implement these principles and train their 1,000 employees.

FLEXcon has integrated lean manufacturing into all aspects of the company including its corporate culture. Through the steps outlined below, they have improved productivity, improved customer relations, and have grown their sales, earnings, and competitiveness.


In a kaizen, a multi-department team of production management employees are assigned to a specific problem and carefully map out and analyze processes, then recommend solutions. FLEXcon applied kaizens to many aspects of internal operations. FLEXcon’s Packaging Kaizen, for example, looked closely at how pressure sensitive film products were prepared for shipment to customers after rolls had been slit. A frequent issue employees ran up against was backlogs in packaging which were causing machine downtime, lost productivity and delayed order delivery.

Cellular Manufacturing

The concept, which seeks to take advantage of the similarity between parts through standardization and common processing, allowed FLEXcon to reorganize plant layout so finishing machines were aligned directly next to the automated packaging line conveyer, and the conveyor was directly aligned to the packaging area, creating a seamless process in which products exiting the slitter could be ready for shipping in a mere four minutes.

5S Visual Workplace

The 5S visual approach, which focuses on providing clear visual cues to help identify and expedite processes, used color-coded cards and labels for quick identification of certain activities or materials and created  neat and clutter-free work areas. In line with each of the five S’s, we sort (remove unnecessary items from each work area); set in order(such as installing shadow boards to indicate where co-workers could place tools after use); shine (set preventive cleaning schedules); standardize (put certain key procedures in our ISO documentation); and sustain (assign specific areas for regular cleaning by certain personnel).


Within lean manufacturing, visual records or signals are known as “kanbans.” They add precision to the work process. FLEXcon adopted this by introducing a system of color-coded labels to identify each operation within our plants. Adhesive coating, top-coating and laminating, for example, each have their own distinctive color. The colored labels on a product roll allow operators to see from a distance if all processes on that roll are complete or what remains to be done. Among other benefits, this eliminates the possibility of a roll being transferred to finishing prematurely.

Waste Reduction

“Waste,” as defined by lean principles, means more than just leftover materials on the shop floor. It includes overproduction and excess inventory, unneeded motions by workers and bottlenecks that cause excessive waiting. This expanded definition inspired the organization to find time and cost-saving opportunities which otherwise may have been missed.

Value Stream Mapping

When a kaizen team creates a map showing the step-by-step process by which a product is manufactured, finished and shipped, bottlenecks often become clear. A careful and thorough mapping process helps us identify, reduce or eliminate tasks that do not add value. By applying this process to our coating machine set-up process, for example, we identified ways to reduce waste and time required for set-up between product runs. Measures included shorter clean up times and a reduction in total footage of product in the start-up mode prior to the first “good” foot on a roll. Additional inspections helped us find and correct issues during the run rather than after it was completed, which reduced the need to re-run jobs and contributed to our ability to deliver orders more quickly.

By integrating these principles of lean manufacturing into their company and corporate culture, FLEXcon has been able to see improvements across the manufacturing process and even into other aspects of their business. Taking time to understand lean manufacturing and analyze the current processes within a manufacturing business can be well-worth the investment, whether it is time, energy, or money. And these efficiency improvements can be undertaken with the existing manufacturing infrastructure.

To read more, head over to mbtmag.com.

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Knowing what your business knows to help find your niche

Posted: February 25th, 2014 | By: Eagle Tech

Your company has undoubtedly developed a pool of knowledge over the years about what it does and how to best perform those tasks. Over the years, though, the details can become blurred. In automation, the lines can be blurred from the beginning.

Sometimes, your organization just needs to sit down and figure out where your niche is:

To define, quantify and develop your organizational knowledge, follow this outline:

  • Determine how much it would cost you to replace your most knowledgeable employees. Not just their knowledge in “hard skills,” but the understanding of your business and corporate culture held by your top employees. They understand what makes your company unique. Sit them down with the NAICS codes and I would bet that your top employees can pick the top two codes that define what you do. These people are the backbone of your organizational knowledge. Without them your organizational IQ drops—a lot.
  • If you have been in business for any length of time, you have developed processes and procedures that help you do what you do efficiently and profitably. These processes probably have been developed through lots of trial and error. Your processes and procedures also constitute organizational knowledge as they help make you unique and have value. How much are these processes and procedures worth to you? Can you buy them? Can you survive without them? I doubt it.
  • Plan to develop your organizational knowledge. In your strategic planning, are you looking at those in your organization who are the most knowledgeable and valuable to the company? Are you planning on transitioning and capturing this knowledge for those who are not as seasoned?

By investing time into understanding, or re-understanding, what your organization knows, all of your organization’s resources can be better, and more efficiently, used for doing its best at what your organization does.

Read more about understanding your organization’s knowledge at Automation World.

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Green manufacturing doesn’t have to be expensive

Posted: February 18th, 2014 | By: Eagle Tech

It’s no surprise that in discussing sustainability, a discussion about cost will most likely arise. The argument usually involves the costs of implementing green technologies being more than the overall savings of “going green”. The problem with this is that there are steps that can be taken to be more green, and there are also costs associated with not going green.

It’s also important for companies to understand the underlying principles that allow green logistics and savings to coincide. In a post for Environmental Leader, Madico Window Films Senior Vice President of Operations Shawn Kitchell discussed the overlap between sustainability and lean manufacturing.

  • Avoiding overproduction: Kitchell noted by producing the least amount of goods necessary to meet demand – a foundational concept of the “lean” movement – energy use and raw materials consumption can decrease.
  • Managing transportation:  Keeping shipments to a minimum helps to reduce fuel costs as well as carbon emissions.
  • Using fewer materials: Avoiding over-processing cuts expenditures and limits environmental impact.

Taking stock of the different aspects of your business can help you find more efficient ways to get things done. Also, by making green changes to your company’s processes can help your business’s reputation with the end-user, who is more concerned today about the impact products have on the environment.

Visit The Strategic Sorcerer to learn more about why going green makes sense.

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