OEMs find advantage with mechatronics use, sustainability goals

A Rockwell Automation motion control expert describes how machine builders can use mechatronics modeling software to realize sustainability targets for their customers.

By Control Engineering Staff July 7, 2009

By John Pritchard, Rockwell Automation, special to Control Engineering.

Manufacturers have always looked to their OEM partners to help drive costs down and productivity up. Today, they are also calling on machine builders to help them achieve sustainability goals. With the ever-present need to operate more efficiently– paired with regulatory demands to meet environmental benchmarks – manufacturers are under intense pressure to reduce energy consumption, cut the costs of running machines, and improve productivity and safety.

It’s a tall order for a machine builder to deliver, but mechatronics provides an excellent starting point. Mechatronics, a collaborative venture between mechanical, electrical, and control design engineers, helps machine builders and their customers be more sustainable– and thus, more profitable – in a number of ways. Machine builders can cut costs by building fewer prototypes, catching necessary design improvements earlier, realizing raw materials savings, and improving time to market. Better mechatronic design helps customers reduce costs for energy and rawmaterials, improve throughput and productivity, minimize downtime, and be more socially and environmentally responsible.Perhaps one of the easiest ways for machine builders to impact manufacturers’ sustainability goals is by providing them with the most productive, energy-efficient machine possible. With manufacturers basing their purchasing decisions on total cost of ownership, including the cost of the energy needed to run the machine, OEMs can use mechatronic design software to build equipment that requires the smallest possible amount of energy to run. This gives machine builders a significant competitive advantage.Mechatronic software tools that model a machine before it is built are equipped with an efficiency analysis tool that analyzes an entire machine design and shows engineers where power is being consumed. If the majority of power is being used by the motor to move the load, the design is energy efficient. However, if most of the power is being lost in transmission, it may be back to the drawing board.By using this same analysis tool, machine builders can also implement a lower power, and therefore lower cost, control system. The final design will cost less to build, creating a win-win for both machine builders and their customers. Indeed, using the tool in several of these “what if” scenarios helps machine builders arrive at an optimized mechanical design that can boost machine performance and significantly reduce energy consumption.

Prototype for sustainable production Using mechatronic design software to build a virtual prototype of a machine also can help reduce or even eliminate the time, cost, and raw materials required to build multiple physical prototypes. In addition, machine builders can optimize the design to reduce wiring, panel sizes, and the overall machine footprint. These savings directly impact the machine builder’s bottom line and help reduce the environmental impact needed to design, develop, and deliver the final machine.For example, a leading packaging OEM used Motion Analyzer software , a free mechatronic design software tool from Rockwell Automation, to reduce the number of physical prototypes it was building during the design process. Originally, designers were building up to 20 prototypes for each new machine design. Using Motion Analyzer, they reduced that number to around two or three. The packaging OEM saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in development costs—and significantly reduced the amount of raw materials consumed in building prototypes.

Flexible machines for the future Using mechatronics design software to select a servo-driven control system can also help manufacturers get more flexible and reliable machines. End users or OEMs can run an analysis that will test the machine’s envelope and identify whether the machine can handle, for example, varying bottle heights or widths. Instead of spending thousands of dollars retooling a machine for production changes, or scrapping it altogether, mechatronics can help machine builders design a more flexible, modular machine upfront using servo controls. Such a machine has the potential to last years longer than a machine built using traditional design methods.Mechatronics software can also help machine builders test a prototype for reliability without having to build a physical model. Running a machine design-tolerance analysis can help identify improvements to be made in the design stage that will help avoid the jams and stops that cause scrap, waste raw materials, and create unnecessary wear and tear on the machine. This means the lifetime of the machine can be extended before the first model has even been built.For example, a Rockwell Automation customer used the Motion Analyzer software to complete a mechatronic analysis of a thermoforming machine that wasn’t operating efficiently. The machine’s old design, which required a high-powered drive, was suffering stability and thermal issues that caused frequent nuisance trips. Every time one of these trips occurred, the manufacturer had to clear out the wasted material—generating a lot of unnecessary scrap.Analysis revealed that the chain-driven transmission was responsible for the majority of the losses and stability issues. By switching to a gear box, the machine designers could use a 4 kilowatt (kW) drive instead of the 13.5 kW drive they had been using previously. This saved their customer a significant amount of energy needed to run the machine. In addition, stability issues were reduced significantly, and the waste caused by the nuisance trips was eliminated. The line speed also increased, which improved the machine’s output and the manufacturer’s overall productivity.

Similarly, another users glass production line, responsible for moving 700-lb. sheets of glass through various treatment stages, simply couldn’t get the sheets close enough together, causing significant waste. The customer needed to increase output, improve quality and reduce scrap. A mechatronics analysis revealed transmission issues, and helped the customer see the benefits of a design featuring an integrated gear-motor unit. In addition, via simulation on the virtual prototype, the glass-maker confirmed that its accuracy and quality requirements would be met by the final, improved machine design.There is no question that manufacturers are looking to their OEM partners to help them be more efficient and socially responsible. And while many machine builders look at design changes as a potentially risky move, the machine builder who doesn’t implement some progressive design changes is actually taking bigger economic, brand, and regulatory risks by not addressing market needs. Those who lag behind by sticking to conventional design practices could damage their brand reputations. Finally, missing an opportunity to address sustainable design practices now can leave machine builders ill-prepared for current and future regulatory mandates. For these and other reasons, mechatronics analysis can help machine builders stay ahead of the competition.

John Pritchard is global product marketing manager for Kinetix Motion Control at Rockwell Automation. Rockwell Automation also has a team of engineers focused on OEM solutions , which can explain the benefits and challenges of mechatronics.