The market for automation technology, and specifically for assembly and handling systems, has been experiencing sustained growth for a number of years, far surpassing worldwide economic growth. That was one of the comments of Dr. Eberhard Veit, a member of the Festo board of directors, speaking at a press conference held during the Motek trade show in Stuttgart, Germany. As a result, says Veit, he sees a new global trend: ready-to-install automation systems.
As you might expect, the trend is about speed. Here in South Germany, the heart of the world market for production and automation technology, machine builders are always talking about speed. But as Walter Pfaller, Festo’s manager of regional sales coordination says, “Automation technology today is more than increasing cycle times—there is also a need for flexibility in terms of human input for handling small batch sizes.”
In other words, it’s not enough for a production or assembly system to work fast; operators must be able to quickly implement changes from one lot to the next. This may require some retrofitting and adapting to current equipment, or it may mean that entirely new machines have to be developed.
Whatever the case, Pfaller thinks Festo has the answer that machine builders need with its Systemtechnic “plug-and-work” customized handling systems. Instead of supplying a box full of components, Festo will put the whole thing together and deliver it to the customer’s door—and also guarantee that it will work as promised. These handling systems are usually subsystems that are bolted onto larger machines, or have motors or other power sources added to them at the end user’s site.
The Systemtechnic solution may be purely pneumatic handling axes, or purely electrical handling axes, or hybrid forms drawing from both. The critical factor here, says Pfaller, is the machine assembly tasks can be performed by the customer. “Install it and forget it,” is the company’s motto.
The compelling force to increase automation has come recently from the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, where automated workstations are replacing manual workstations to improve quality, speed up cycle times, and reduce costs. As everyone knows, this won’t go on forever; wages are rising and labor-intensive manual workstations are being relocated ever further east. Eventually these Europeans will catch up with the West, but for the moment, it’s great business for automation suppliers.
But suppliers have to move quickly, because their customers are. Automobile manufacturing in the Czech Republic and Slovakia is moving so fast (last year, the region produced over three million automobiles), engineers don’t have time to browse through catalogues and figure out which ballscrew to put in which positioner. They prefer to have the final assembly shipped to them.
“We only supply ready-to-install handling modules to Siemens VDO,” explains Jiri Petranek, Festo’s area sales manager in the Czech Republic, who recently shipped a linear gantry with electric axes and pneumatic grippers to test car radios at Seimens’ plant in Brandys, close to Prague. The radios must first be repositioned from one workpiece holder to another, turned by 90° and tilted by 30°. The new linear gantry meets these requirements.
Benefits include faster system planning and procurement with less process cost, due to simplified sourcing with one part or project number.
At Leoni Autokabel in Trencin, Slovakia, equipment engineers developed a system that carries out 100% quality control inspection of the cable sleeve for anti-lock braking systems. The subsystem included Festo’s Checkbox Compact, the valve terminals CPX/MPA, electric and pneumatic axes, slides and grippers. One employee feeds 2,000 to 2,400 cables per shift into the system, down from five, and the anti-lock braking system stays lock-free.
Ready-to-install automation systems are a global trend, says Pfaller, not just something Festo is doing to curry favor in East Europe. Tasks such as finding the right components, dimensioning drives, drafting circuit diagrams, incorporating individual components into an overall design, ordering procedures, installation, commissioning, servicing and maintenance are all cost drivers that can be identified by a total cost of ownership (TCO) analysis. Pfaller says that, in the U.S., many OEMs and end users believe they can reduce overall costs by considering TCO. And that is why, he says, manufacturing companies are considering the possibility of ordering ready-to-install handling systems. Among other things, it allows them to concentrate on core competencies.
|Michael Babb is editor of Control Engineering Europe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .|