Concept Systems, Albany, Ore.
The Pacific Northwest is home to airplanes and the raw materials for paper airplanes. It’s also a home for outstanding system integration. Albany, Ore.-based Concept Systems has built a reputation as a problem-solver for its customers in aerospace, pulp and paper, building products, food and beverage, and metals. Michael Gurney, president of Concept Systems, discusses his team’s success and how to help integration customers get the most out of their project in a conversation with CFE Media.
CFE Media: What is the one thing plant management can do to help ensure a successful integration process?
Gurney: The most important aspect of the integration process is managing the risks; identifying and mitigating each. The types and scale of risk vary from project to project and change dynamically during the course of a project. This requires that you have a team that has the skill set and processes in place to handle them.
Partnering with a (Control System Integrators Association (CSIA) Certified Integrator is a good place to start, as having processes for risk identification and mitigation is a key qualifier. Getting your integration partner engaged early in the process is the one thing that can be done to ensure success.
We understand automation projects and the inherent risks. As such, we know the right questions to ask to avoid project pitfalls. Most project risks can be identified early in the process if the right questions are asked and all the information is on the table. Like any risk in life, the earlier the risk is identified, the better it can be mitigated. With the proper planning, automation integration should be the norm.
CFE Media: What are your customers looking for in automation projects? In turn, what should they be looking for in terms of automation in their plants?
Gurney: Our customers are generally looking for reliable and flexible systems to increase production, improve processes, increase efficiency, reduce waste, improve quality, improve safety, and/or provide better data intelligence. These are the things they should be seeking. This covers a lot of ground, but that is really the nature of automation technology today. Every segment of automation has evolved/expanded, and will continue to do so to provide value on the plant floor.
One key is ensuring reliability of the systems in the applications for which they are intended. As technology advances, it is easy to get excited about the possibilities on the plant floor, but integrating a technology before its time can be costly. Our approach is to continually keep an eye on emerging technologies and evaluate them for their readiness. Couple this with our intimate knowledge of our customers’ processes, and we know the right time to recommend automation solutions for their unique challenges.
The other key is providing flexible systems. Our manufacturing customers are challenged with a dynamic consumer base and a global market. Being able to have a production/processing line that can change dynamically with demands of the market is of tremendous value. More and more, we are seeing smaller batches, more frequent change-overs, and even complete overhauls of what the line is making. Today’s automation technology allows for this type of dynamic production/processing line.
CFE Media: Describe the project that provided your team with the most satisfaction in the past year. What was the big challenge, and how did your team overcome that challenge?
Gurney: We worked with a small company that had found a niche in the consumer goods market. They were not an established manufacturing company operating in any of the classic industrial sectors, but rather a company with a unique idea with huge market potential. They were unsure how to best scale an operation to meet the potential demand. However, they knew what they wanted to deliver and had manual processes established that proved to them what they wanted to do was possible.
The next step was to determine how to scale, or if scaling was even a viable financial option. By working closely with them to understand their process, future capacity needs, and financial constraints, we drew from our technology expertise and leveraged process expertise we had garnered in other industries to identify a solution: a high-speed, reliable, and flexible robotic work cell.
Ultimately, we deployed 30 robotic work cells across eight regional facilities, giving them the ability to meet customer demand and the flexibility to scale smartly to meet future demand.
CFE Media: What are the key areas of opportunity for manufacturers to improve their operational efficiency?
Gurney: There are many opportunities to gain operational improvements. The lowest-lying fruit, with the biggest gains that I see across all industries and applications, is real-time data analytics and robotics. With automated systems, all the data is sitting there on the plant floor. With network capabilities, processing speeds, and open-architecture software, the tools are there to capture that data and present it in a meaningful fashion to any/all operational personnel that can use it to make decisions.
And it does not need to be a six-figure proposition to make it happen. If you are being told it is, you are talking to the wrong people. Talk to me and I will tell you how. The sky is really the limit on what is possible with real-time data analytics. The key is defining what is really needed and zeroing in on what I call a minimal viable product. What key piece of information do you need, on a real-time basis, to improve your operational decisions? By focusing on what is key, you can get your architecture in place and expand from there.
The other key technology that offers tremendous value is robotics. Not robotics in the traditional pick-and-place sense, but rather robotics with added senses-think vision-guided robots, force-controlled robots, or high-precision robots. The applications for robots with added senses have a wide range: flexible infeed systems, machine tending, painting, and material removal, to name a few.
By adding senses to robots, we are giving them the ability to adapt to their environment and to the raw materials they handle. This goes a long ways to open up processing areas, eliminate mechanical fixtures, handle mixed-product runs, provide quick changeovers, improve product quality/consistency, and minimize raw material usage, among other possibilities.
CFE Media: What are the best attributes of a great manufacturer? What common thread runs through the best clients you have that makes them successful?
Gurney: The best manufacturers are always looking for a competitive advantage, not only in their manufacturing process but also throughout their entire organization. All great manufacturers have a unique manufacturing process that drives their success. The best ones continually look at ways to improve those processes, be it through automation, their people, or their operations. They establish a culture of continuous improvement throughout their organization and invest smartly in initiatives that ensure solid returns. In many ways, thanks to the rapid evolution of automation technology, manufacturing has become a very progressive environment, where if you are not improving, you cannot survive. Generally, the common thread I see with companies with a progressive approach is that they treat people right, take safety seriously, and adhere to strict quality standards. Trying to implement a culture of continuous improvement is fruitless without these components.
CFE Media: What is your overall outlook for 2016?
Gurney: The forecasters we follow are calling for slow, steady growth-much like we have seen over the past 2 years. I suspect impending inflation will continue to be held in check to help protect this current, delicate environment.
– Learn more about the other 2016 System Integrators of the Year below as well as a roundtable video discussion with all of the winners.