Thursday, December 27, 2012

Servos vs. Pneumatics, or, Don’t Cry Over Spilled Soup

Canned soup is probably one of the most ubiquitous items found in supermarkets, cabinets, and pantries everywhere. When you think for a minute about how all that soup gets into all of those cans, though, it’s kind of amazing. After all, volume-wise, that packaging process has to occur extremely quickly in order to churn out enough to keep the shelves lined. And as any overeager stovetop cook knows, when you pour soup too fast from one container to another (like from a pot to a bowl), you get a big “Splash!” That’s sort of the problem that the company in this Packaging World article ran into, except on a much grander scale.

In the course of switching from traditional can packaging, to a more convenient pot-like package ready for the stove, the company discovered that splashing and spilling had become a much greater issue resulting in too much wasted product. Reducing packaging speed is simply not an option in the mass-produced packaged foods industry, so another solution was required. Air-powered pneumatic equipment did not help at all, remaining too erratic. Simple mechanical solutions were a stopgap, but the required flexibility for later modifications wasn’t there. The solution? Using servo control to bring electronic cylinders to hydraulic-like levels of smoothness, accuracy, and control in the operation. With indexing and rotary tables, the process was perfected, enabling the company to proceed with its innovative packaging concept. Another success story for servos.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Automation, Apple, and U.S. Manufacturing

With the news that Apple will be opening a full manufacturing factory in the United States – not just one for custom assemblies – the issue of bringing these types of jobs back to America is sure to remain under the spotlight, as it has been for months. As mentioned in the article, Apple’s expenditure will be a tiny percentage of its total manufacturing budget, and many Apple components are already manufactured in the United States, specialty or not. It’s tempting to call this a largely symbolic move, except that the effect it will have on the community in which it’s located is tangible and real, and the enormity of the symbolism is significant.

Why? Steve Jobs is quoted in the article as saying just a few years ago that “Those jobs aren’t coming back.” That was one (perhaps the only) prediction that the great visionary got wrong. The fact that a huge company with as much concern for their bottom line as for innovation and marketing made this change indicates several things. One, it is possible to work U.S. manufacturing into your business model. Processes like automation keep real people involved – in fact, they’re necessary, to develop control inputs and monitor the process – while providing the required efficiency for such large-scale runs. Second, it is a recognition that people are interested in buying “Made in the U.S.A.” And not just here. Chinese consumers have indicated that not only do they prefer the Made in the U.S.A. label, they’ll pay more for it.

Finally, it is a recognition that the innovations that make a move like this possible – and that make a company like Apple possible – are, and have always been, U.S.-based. We believe that this is only one wave in the continuing surge in American manufacturing.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

SPS Show Unveils First Sercos III and EtherNet/IP Blended Infrastructure

Continuing the Sercos trend from simply a set of specifications for motion control, to a full-system, integrated interface for all aspects of I/O and communication,  a major advance debuted at the SPS show held over the last week of November in Nuremberg, Germany. Harnessing the full ability of Sercos III to operate to the EtherNet standard (IEEE 802.3 and ISO/IEC 8802-3), this new blended infrastructure goes one step further, utilizing that specification to enable single-cable TCP/IP and Sercos III communication between controls, devices, and drives. Previously, intra-standard device communication was possible, but required additional wiring and setup.

The advent of this blended infrastructure means a continued increase in the freedom and flexibility afforded to manufacturers to integrate motion control and automation with their operations. As a very simplified explanation of how this infrastructure innovation is possible, think back to how we mentioned that Sercos III was designed according to the EtherNet standard – basically, to mimic it. In the integrated system, the TCP/IP (EtherNet) transmissions are essentially meeting Sercos III halfway, modifying their differences to match up with the cyclical nature of Sercos.

Sercos III, and the entire Sercos interface, are far too versatile and wide-ranging to explain full and simply in one blog, but are definitely worth learning more about. Continue to follow us as we explore the ways in which Sercos and automation are continuing to drive the manufacturing resurgence.