Established in 1975, Sinflex, based in São João da Madeira in Portugal, is a specialist in the production of springs, wire forms and welded assemblies for multiple industries, including many customers in the automotive arena. The company is very active in its research and development efforts and always looks to exploit contemporary technology to help it address the demands of its customers.
For automotive and other industries – especially for medium-batch production runs – manufacturing solutions have to offer accuracy and repeatability, in order to produce identical parts time after time and to the exact same specification. But these production solutions also need to flexible enough to cater for multiple batch formats without overly long or expensive re-engineering.
It is for these reasons that many leading OEMs, including Sinflex, are adopting servo-based solutions – as part of smart machine evolutions – which can be modified in just minutes to create a completely different batch of products.
To help address these industry pressures, Sinflex has formed a long-established commercial relationship with T. Butler Engineering Ltd. (TBE), based in Piltown in the Republic of Ireland. TBE develops, designs and builds machines that are used to produce complicated wire forms, springs, assemblies and specialised components, for industries such as automotive, appliances, agricultural, construction, medical and more.
T Butler’s machines have seen almost constant evolution over the years, with the perfection of simple, fast and accurate transfer systems, which allow total automation of complicated parts such as double-body brake springs, rake tines, seating wires or 3-D wire forms. With the addition of connectivity solutions, the company is also taking its machines in to the smart-machine realm, where greater connectivity delivers broader capabilities and deeper and more seamless interactions with internal and external systems.
According to Ricardo Correia, Engineering Manager at Sinflex: “We have to keep pace with the automotive industry in terms of quality, design variety, scheduling and order quantities and this can be very demanding. We have seen some crazy orders in the past.
“Our production solutions have to be flexible,” he adds, “we simply cannot afford any downtime either long set-up times between batches or through machine issues. We have to ensure that we have the greatest flexibility coupled to maximum uptime and deeper connectivity.”
T.Butler Engineering has an ethic to deploy the best possible technology it can, which has seen its machines evolve from highly mechanical infrastructures to the modern servo-driven solutions it now produces.
Part of this evolution included the introduction of touchscreen programming in 1988 and the subsequent addition of servo drives, high-speed feed systems, coiling heads and rotating wire.
Today, there are many TBE Multiform models, all with CNC feeding, multiple axes, servo winding, servo forming, press attachments, rotating wire, integrated welding, roll thread attachment, chamfer heads, dual feeds and multi-part capabilities.
TBE has standardised on Allen-Bradley® products from Rockwell Automation for the automation aspects of all of its machines, with the TBE Multibend X series being an excellent example of these solutions in action. Applications for this range include its use at Sinflex where it is used to produce complex-geometry support wires for the car seating industry. Indeed, Thomas Butler, Managing Director of TBE, estimates that 65% of cars in the western world contain components built on TBE machines.
The Multibend machine has an Allen-Bradley CompactLogix™ programmable automation controller (PAC) at the centre of the automation solution, which works in conjunction with multiple Allen-Bradley Kinetix® 5700 servo drives controlling Allen-Bradley MP-Series™ servo motors for the bending and feeding operations. An Allen-Bradley PanelView™ 7 Plus Performance HMI handles operator interactions and ‘recipe’ control, while a Stratix™ switch manages connectivity to the EtherNet/IP™ network on the machine, with the added ability to deliver data to the wider enterprise for Industrie 4.0 operations. Various Rockwell Automation safety components – including an Allen-Bradley Guardmaster® 440C-CR30 Software Configurable Safety Relay – complete the installation.
By deploying a fully integrated suite of components, with clear data paths and connectivity to internal and external sources, TBE is now developing smart machines, which offer the Industry 4.0 capabilities demanded by leading contemporary manufacturing operations.
Parts normally requiring three or more secondary operations, are now completed in one operation on TBE machines, as are secondary operations, such as trimming, looping, coining, threading, upsetting, chamfering and welding. High-speed feed rates, accurate transfer systems and – most importantly – the vision required to integrate the process, enables TBE to consistently satisfy its customers.
“The way it all marries together is impressive,” exclaims Butler. “There is very little additional integration to be done. The PAC immediately plugs into the drive which, in turn, plugs into the motor with instant recognition on all counts – the same being true of the HMI and other components. This is just what we need and something that is almost impossible with equipment from some other suppliers. We are also trying to increase the machine’s performance, by a factor of two using the latest/fastest technologies from Rockwell Automation.
Ricardo Correia agrees: “TBE produces machines that are custom made for our exact needs. This makes them stand out against other suppliers. We challenge them with strange geometries, complex wire forms, varying capacities and high speeds and they deliver. We did not specifically request Rockwell Automation, but its automation solutions proved to match our needs in terms of flexibility, agility and uptime.”
“Our philosophy is to partner with our customers and then give them total ownership of the machine,” Butler adds. “We don’t tie them into bespoke and often costly servicing or programming contracts; they take all diagrams, tooling and programming assets so they can be self-sufficient. Of course we are always on call to help them out, as is Rockwell Automation with its worldwide support network. In fact this support network has come to our aid a few times – and very quickly – thanks to local agents and suppliers all over the world.
“This global reach was another factor in our decision to go with Rockwell Automation,” he continues. “40% of our business is in the USA and they certainly helped us to break down some barriers. We have also created and patented our own code, to which we can offer controlled access. The benefit of this approach is that there are thousands of engineers around the world who can work on our coding.”
Butler is enthusiastic about the quality and reliability levels on offer. “We have a customer in Canada that produces several million pieces per year, working 362 days 24/7, with just a few scheduled days for proactive maintenance, and not one single automation or machine component has failed – and this is one of the world’s biggest automotive suppliers!”
From an engineering perspective, Butler explains the benefits. “We have streamlined our design efforts and the capabilities of the programming solution mean we are light years ahead of what we were just a few years ago. Troubleshooting is also easier as is testing and validation. The increased flexibility and openness of the solution, also means the doors are wide open for future machine developments and enhancement.
“Our customers benefit from a multi-lingual interface, reduced energy consumption, reduced changeovers times, faster installation, start-up & maintenance and increased reliability,” he concludes, “with the multilingual option being incredibly useful as our customers can move machines from one country to another and simply switch languages.”
Correia concludes: “Another huge advantage is the ability to hot swap automation components in case of any issues. If we have an issue with a drive that is on a critical-path machine, we can simply replace with a drive from another and be up and running in a matter of minutes. In the past, if a drive from our previous supplier failed, we had to reconfigure it to work with the other machine’s motor and PLC, which could take hours or days. We see very few issues on these machines, which, as a result means we have a great relationship with our customers. Based on the fact that 80 % of our production run goes to automotive, if you don’t have issues from the automotive guys, you won’t have issues from anyone else.”