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Unified Machine Design Enables the Next Normal

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Reimagining machine flexibility and digitalization helps take unpredictable demand out of the equation.

The explosion of SKU counts. Era of ecommerce. Mass customization as a norm. For the last decade, machine builders and producers have been seeking agility, efficiency and balance in their operations to meet market demands.

Now we’re in the midst of a global pandemic. Historically, crises of this magnitude have led to permanent change, and this will be no different. Consumers will get used to a new way of life. Industry will operate differently. Machine builds will come with new expectations.

To achieve the complex, we must simplify

Traditionally, to get a machine or line to do more, you add or reconfigure equipment. This adds unnecessary engineering time and floor space while compounding maintenance and slowing time to market. Today, we’re tackling the need for flexibility by linking technology together in a way people haven’t done before.

We used to talk about robotics, intelligent cart technology (ICT), servo motion control and digitalization as separate entities. Thanks to advances in mechatronics, they’re now nearly indistinguishable. With any combination of intelligent conveying and robots, you can virtually replace any machine. And by layering the latest in IIoT, like emulation for testing and analytics for decision making, you create new value for manufacturers.

This is the concept of unified machine design, collapsing multiple processes into one – mechanically, electronically and programmatically. It bringing us from the days of programming line shaft driven mechanics, to configuring simple, safe, secure and flexible solutions that enable design, collaboration and optimization. In addition, we gain:

  • Only one solution for machine builders to support.
  • Only one interface for operators to learn.
  • Only one system for workers to maintain.
  • All with minimal capital cost and labor.

Reimagine what’s possible

The biggest hurdle to implementation is thinking differently, and bigger, about the entire process. New equipment configurations may satisfy an immediate need, but won’t set your customers up for the future, or even the best solution for today. As an OEM, it starts by looking at the business challenge, not the project request.

This new lens is advancing countless industries. From lot-of-one prescription eye glasses and contacts, to hands-free blood tests and biotech sampling, to fully-automated assembly of CPG multipacks – flexibility and speed are made possible by simplifying the complex. Here are just a few other examples:

  • Packaging machine builder CAMA Group built carton forming, packing and sealing into one compact framework. With only three robots and ICT, they meet demand for higher speeds, greater flexibility and faster changeover.
  • Drug discovery labs are automating in ways more like air traffic control than medical research. The Lilly Life Sciences Studio compresses a two to three week process into only two to three days, and samples now move via ICT to the robots instead of robots moving to the samples.
  • Our own contactor production line was built on unified machine design. It can accommodate up to 6,000 SKUs on a single machine, producing small lot size orders on demand, fed by automatic scheduling.

Unifying equipment and teams

For companies struggling with changeovers, thousands of SKUs, or not knowing what’s coming down next from the ERP system, the offer of infinite flexibility and simplified operation is a welcome alternative. This kind of variability screams for a unified machine approach. And those tasked with these seemingly impossible demands will take notice.

But it’s not just the manufacturers who need to think differently about their process. For robotics, information and ICT to work as one, engineering, sales, suppliers and the end user need to work as one as well. The best outcomes result from a collaborative approach:

  • OEMs bring product handling and machine engineering expertise.
  • End users articulate the business challenge and champion the vision.
  • Technology consultants like Rockwell Automation unify motion, control and other advanced technology to make the vision a reality.

One thing is for sure. The market is changing too fast for built-to-purpose machines to deliver the ROI needed. But the possibilities of a flex-to-purpose machine are just getting started. Contact us and let’s explore solutions for the next normal together.

Mike Wagner
Mike Wagner
Global OEM Business Manager, Rockwell Automation

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