Risk is an inescapable part of innovation. Pushing the boundaries of what’s been done before inevitably leads into areas of uncertainty where the rewards are greater, but with an equally greater chance of failure.
For FANUC UK, an automated solutions provider based in Coventry in the UK’s West Midlands, risk has always been something to be managed rather than feared. In March 2020, one of FANUC’s valued customers, a plastic components manufacturer, presented the business with an attractive problem to solve: to deliver massive throughput improvements on the company’s long-standing production lines and ready the organisation for a new, more connected era of productivity.
Relishing the opportunity, FANUC UK were given a blank canvas on which to design and integrate a solution that could help deliver these objectives. The company brought in Rockwell Automation as its solutions partners to explore the latest in manufacturing technology.
Getting Equipped for Industry 4.0
Being ‘Industry 4.0-ready’ is becoming a common aspiration across the manufacturing world as the industry takes massive strides forward in the development and availability of next-generation equipment and connected machinery.
Embracing the new, however, often means giving up the old. In practice, this can be a tricky problem for industrial decision makers, as replacing established, value-generating assets with newer, less-proven solutions can be a tough sell to internal stakeholders.
For Oliver Selby, Robotics Business Development Manager at FANUC UK, helping to guide customers through the challenges of transformation and manage potential risks is an important part in fulfilling the company’s role as a visionary partner and systems integrator.
“In this particular case, the customer had a production facility with nine separate systems, all using rotary turntable equipment to manufacture its components. The oldest one is 17 years old, so there’s been a lot of technical progress in the time since it was installed,” he said.
The key issue the business faced related to throughput and maintaining efficient flow of product through the assembly process. The TAKT for the existing turntables is only as fast as the slowest assembly operation, meaning any disruption within the line’s many assembly processes could have significant knock-on effects in the number of components produced that day.
The company set FANUC an ambitious target of improving throughput to more than 35 component parts per minute, equating approximately to a 15% yield increase in productivity. Specifically, the customer was looking for ways to enhance data collection in order to gain greater visibility over the components and improve predictive maintenance capabilities. This in turn would improve the reliability of the production cycle in order to give operators the ability to identify and remedy any potential hold-ups as early in the process as possible.
Working with Rockwell Automation, Oliver saw an opportunity to incorporate a new form of operating equipment into the facility; Independent Cart Technology (ICT). While a relatively nascent technology, ICT uses linear servo drives in order to move goods faster and more efficiently, with a lower risk of disruption. The technology is now being used by some of the world’s leading and most innovative companies.
Together, they identified Rockwell Automation’s iTRAK 5730 solution as the best-suited candidate for the customer’s purposes.
In addition, the control system used would give operators a greater command over the lines by virtue of being able to manage the full production from a single PLC. Using ‘smart object’ capabilities, the operators would be able to pull millisecond data sets on the quality and quantity of components, send the data to the cloud and analyse it in order to make fast, insightful decisions.
While a big departure from his customer’s status quo, Oliver was confident the technology could yield the desired results. “The move to an ICT-based solution was far removed from our customers’ existing production methods of using a rotary table. It has allowed a flexibility in the assembly process and most importantly is scalable, allowing operators to easily increase the length and number of carts in response to changing demands,” he said.
“The in-built function blocks within the control system allow a speed of integration that only adds value to the complete offer.”
A ‘Leap Into the Unknown’
While he was convinced of the transformational impact ICT would have on production, Oliver didn’t want his customers to just take his word for it. He wanted them to see the potential performance benefits themselves. Understanding how the new technology would fare in comparison with existing systems would help not only to put their minds at rest, but would help to generate greater enthusiasm and momentum based on a clearer vision of what’s possible.
To achieve this, Oliver called on Rockwell to provide simulations of the iTRAK throughput and determine that the solution was specified correctly. Using Emulate3D, Rockwell could use virtualised commissioning to show exactly what the new set up would look like, how it could be configured and – most importantly – what throughput capacity would be achievable.
“The support to prove out and de-risk the process challenges we experienced when developing this solution was key in providing confidence both internally and with the end customer. People can see numbers and they can see drawings, but being able to see a virtualised render of the line in operation is another level entirely,” he added.
Taking an ROI-based approach, Oliver was able to feed into the customers decision making process and directly show the customer that their investment in ICT will lead to the most flexible and efficient way forward using the latest technology. The simulation was key in aligning expectations, releasing the capital funds and moving on to the project’s development phase. Oliver believes that the capabilities Rockwell Automation was able to bring played an important role in this.
“The relationship with Rockwell Automation as we started to develop the solution for our customer was excellent. Engagement with our component suppliers at an early stage is critical to understand the technological developments that can help us win business.”
Flexibility for the Future
The new solution moved into its next phase in June 2021, and FANUC is confident that delivering a holistic solution for their customer will lay the groundwork for ongoing innovation. As the customer’s employees adapt to the new system and develop the expanded skill set that comes with digitalisation, the initiative could open the door to further innovation and the adoption of more modern capabilities in the facility.
“It's a very scalable solution. It's also modular in terms of hardware and modular in terms of software. So it's quite easy to build code within the PLC and then replicate that across other lines. Once you start working this way, it really opens your eyes to what the future of manufacturing will look like,” he added.
“With access to Emulate3D, we've added another weapon in our armoury to de-risk our automation provision in the early stages when engaging with customers. We can prove out in each individual process in terms of speed, accuracy and what it's going to deliver to the whole solution. It also allows us to bring virtual environments to our customers’ sites using its VR and AR functionality.”
“Overall the supplier/customer experience working with Rockwell Automation has been excellent, and should lead too many future collaborations that our customers will benefit from. I can see the relationship with Rockwell Automation becoming stronger and stronger as our respective products become more closely aligned and integrated,” he concluded.