Today's manufacturers face a powerful contradiction in the market: to stay competitive, they must focus their time and resources on constant innovation, but doing so requires implementation of sophisticated machinery that steals both time and resources from that focus.
This crisis is particularly relevant to machine builders, who are dependent upon programmable automation controllers (PACs) to control production and get their products to market.
Historically, there have been two choices for builders when selecting this equipment, according to Lee Lane, business director, Controllers at Rockwell Automation. There are high-end, high cost systems for complicated processes like automotive assembly, or there are lower-end, lower-cost options for companies with limited IT capabilities and simpler production lines to accommodate.
This leaves a sizable gap in the center of the market, Lane said.
"As a company, Rockwell Automation has always offered great products at the high end and great products at the low end, but there was this hole in the middle space, the midrange," he said. "That's why we started looking at this midrange as a place to bring new value to the industry."
The company aimed to provide the same premier integration experience of the high end properties, but scaled down to make it viable and cost-effective on the lower end -- providing a hybrid control system for those mid-tier machine builders.
The result of this effort is the Allen-Bradley CompactLogix midrange architecture, a new generation of midrange control system rolling out this year by Rockwell Automation.
"Our goal was to take the power of the high end and scale it down so you have the leading edge technology, but in a smaller package," Lane said.
Loaded with EtherNet/IP and a standard programming environment, the package meets this goal, says Lane, and in so frees the engineers from programming and set-up so they can do what they do best: innovate.
A TOOLBOX FOR SUCCESS
"What we’re trying to do for machine builders is give them the tools they need to simplify the programming," Lane said. "Our objective is to allow them to spend their time innovating their machines, not spending their time on things we should be able to provide."
Basically, he said, "we’re trying to give them the ability to innovate as much as possible by giving them as many tools as possible to do it."
One critical tool for this, he said, is the EtherNet/IP integration.
"The controllers are on EtherNet/IP, which seamlessly allows them to integrate with the IT," Lane said.
Doing so provides users with instant access to critical data all the way from the plant floor to the higher-end ERP intelligence without complicated set-ups or installations. The system is up and running essentially with one cord, he said.
This allows OEMs to focus on their own designs and mechanics around their equipment -- their real "genius," according to Lane.
"That's great," he said. "That's what they bring to the table. Let me worry about how to integrate with the upper-level systems. Let me worry about all the rest."
CompactLogix, he said, provides users with the tools they need to be more innovative and to get their machines up and running quicker for added cash flow.
This brings up another added benefit: big savings via simple systems.
AMERICAN AXLE & MANUFACTURING (AAM)
AAM -- a Detroit-based automotive supplier of driveline and drivetrain systems -- has been on a six-year mission to cut costs by simplifying their systems.
"One of our goals we set six years ago when we started along this path was to replace all field BUSs with EtherNet/IP," said Jeff Smith, technology lead at AAM.
Adopting Rockwell's midrange solutions, he said, has finally allowed them to do that.
"There's a huge savings there as far as capital expense and complexity," he said. "Now I have one Ethernet cable, so I just connect the switch to the drive and I'm done."
The company has also seen some dramatic savings in their function testing -- a critical and costly component to their production.
Function testers, Smith said, are extremely expensive one-off machines. Before adopting CompactLogix, he said, AAM used a PC running a lab view with an assortment of N.I.- CAN Bus hardware running on top of the machines that added to the overall costs.
In the end, with the move to the midrange architecture, Smith replaced the entire set-up with the Allen-Bradley L33ER controller and a small interface.
The result, he said, was an immediate cost reduction of as much as 30% on each of nine machines running on a given line, which added up to some significant savings.
"Without the L33," he said, "this just wouldn't have been possible."