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Ryan E. Day

Quality Insider

Automation Cuts a Wide Swath From Industrial Waste

Improved hardware and software equals improved bottom line

Published: Wednesday, April 15, 2015 - 17:04

Have you heard the one about the robot that hops a train down to the brewery? It may not seem likely that robots, beer, and high-speed trains have much in common, but the industrial quest to coax more output from no more input (translate that to efficiency) can make for some unlikely bunkmates.

In the case of Kuka Robotics, Schlafly Bottleworks, and Siemens Rail Systems, that quest for efficiency led to automation.

‘Transforming’ with automation software

If you’re a Transformers movie fan, a Mark Wahlberg fan, or a fan of gratuitous explosions and general mayhem—and I’m guilty of all three—you absolutely positively must be a fan of automation. Without automation there are no robots, and without robots the extraordinary action scenes in Transformers: Age of Extinction would have been impossible.

Filmmaking has long been a hotbed of innovation, and the stunt teams constantly adapt and synthesize any technology that will help actualize the insane cinematic concepts that keep them awake at night. One such technology was a lightweight robot from KUKA Robotics.

The seven-axes robotic arm system from KUKA is integral to the camera motion control system (CMOCOS) that made many of the “impossible” scenes in Transformers possible.

... from inside out, and up to the front window.

Posted by CMOCOS on Sat., Dec. 20, 2014

Although Hollywood hacking makes for spectacular examples of applied robotics, it’s manufacturing that makes the most use of robotics technology. By combining robots with cutting-edge automation software, the manufacturing sector manages to cut waste and produce more for less.

For instance, with Run MyRobot technology, the CNC Sinumerik 840D sl package enables KUKA robots to perform handling tasks in conjunction with machine tools—in particular, loading and unloading machining cells. Interaction, such as operation, tool retraction, teach-in, and diagnostics of robots, can be performed through a single operator panel. “This simplifies several production steps, unburdens personnel, and is the assembly solution of tomorrow,” says Henning Borkeloh, department manager for Advanced Technology Solutions at KUKA Systems.

The little brewery that can

“God made yeast, as well as dough, and He loves fermentation just as dearly as he loves vegetation.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Whether literary enthusiasts or not, Dan Kopman and Tom Schlafly might have had Emerson’s quote on their minds when they founded the Saint Louis Brewery in 1989. Although successful as a microbrewery/pub and a contract-brewing company, their operations were somewhat stunted by limited brewing capacity and virtually no bottling capability of their own. In 2003, the brewery opened The Schlafly Bottleworks in a former Shop ’n Save supermarket building in the St. Louis suburb of Maplewood to address the problem.

Photo courtesy of Marcus Qwertyus

The Bottleworks was a great success, but with success comes challenges.

“We originally designed this facility in 2002 to reach 25,000 barrels of beer over 10 years,” says Brewmaster James “Otto” Ottolini, “That would have been 10-percent growth, compounded annually. In 2008, we hit 24,000 barrels. We expanded beyond what we intended, as a company and at this facility. That project we were going to do ‘in five years or so?’ Whoops, we’re doing that next year.”

Moving again wasn’t an option. Instead the company added a fifth brewing vessel and integrated automated control of the brewhouse with a BRAUMAT Compact system. Automating the brewhouse led to automating the fermentation cellar as well, all run through the BRAUMAT Compact.

The BRAUMAT took over the routine functions of opening and closing valves, turning on pumps, and switching the grain transport on and off. These processes happen on time, every time, shaving minutes off the average brew cycle and building consistency into the process. By optimizing the entire brewing cycle’s timing and sequencing, Schlafly Bottleworks was able to get one more brew per day—five altogether—and still be done at the same time.

Automation makes sense to Ottolini “We make more beer,” he says. “The BRAUMAT Compact has definitely made us more efficient. It has yielded a 30-percent gain in efficiency in terms of daily production. When we went from 18,000 to 24,000 barrels, we had to brew overnights. We’re still growing from the low 30s and haven’t had to brew overnights. It allows us to more accurately track quality issues and has pointed out some areas where we didn’t know what was happening until we could track and trend the data on the computer. In terms of profitability, we’re making more beer and have more money in the bank.”

Not your grandfather’s choo-choo train

Transport by railway has never been a simple proposition. The geographical and socioeconomic hurdles alone were monumental challenges during early rail systems development. We’re talking unforgiving weather, harsh climates, friction with native populations, friction with immigrant populations, logistics, and property rights. Not to mention all the supporting systems of equipment that seems to measure only in terms of “tons.”

Steam engines of old were engineering marvels in their heyday. I was certainly impressed by the retired locomotive on display at our city park in Salinas, California, but those cast-iron behemoths somehow seem quaint when compared to today’s high-speed rail systems.

To be sure, the old iron horses performed well and with panache, however, increasing urbanization and environmental concerns have created new criteria for mobility solutions. Although manufacturers face new criteria, new technology, and an ever-changing socioeconomic landscape, one thing seems to remain unchanged: Much of the sector is still dominated by sheer tonnage.

Sacramento, California, is home to the Siemens Rolling Stock, the only U.S manufacturer of light rail trains, as well as electric and diesel-electric locomotives. The company has its eyes set on winning bids on several high-speed rail systems in the United States. If they win, the company will be manufacturing the 220-mph Velaro trains at the Sacramento facility.

“Siemens’ Sacramento rail manufacturing plant can do it all from start to finish—design, engineering, testing, car shell, bogies, subassembly, and final assembly" notes Siemens on its website. "Also, as we’re committed to sustainable technology, we power our campus by two megawatts of solar energy, covering up to 80 percent of our manufacturing energy consumption.”

For Siemens, the rail business is still not a simple proposition. Gone are the days of, “If you build it, profits will come.” As with every other post-1970s manufacturing enterprise, Siemens must utilize every option available to operate profitably. In the case of the Sacramento plant, the company employs a successful blend of trade craftsmanship and automation.

With approximately 300,000 square feet and more than 800 employees, the facility is almost a city within a city. The automated part of the facility isn’t as obvious as it is in automobile manufacturing. The plant manufactures rail systems for customers in multiple countries, which requires a certain level of agility—that’s the high level craftsmanship part. Handling the inescapable tonnage as well as some key aspects of engineering—those are aided by a few subtle automation solutions.

Big bogies, small measurements
The bogie, or truck as it’s called in the United States, is the platform that carries the motors, brakes, and suspension systems of railway engines and cars. A light-rail power bogie weighs about 5,800 kg (6.39 tons), while a locomotive bogie weighs about 18,300 kg (9 tons). On modern high-speed trains, these massive components must conform to specs within 0.003-in. tolerances. No small feat with a part weighing more than 6 tons. With operating speeds up to 220 mph, and an ever-increasing demand for fuel efficiency, these tolerances are critical.

One of the tools the craftsmen at Siemens Sacramento use is an automated coordinate measuring machine (CMM) system to inspect and verify bogie dimensions. A process that used to take hours is accomplished in minutes. Pedro Sanchez, CMM operator at the plant demonstrates:

Software as automation
Software, like CNC machining, is one of those technologies that’s often overlooked as automation. The Siemens team has learned to leverage software as automation in several departments.

The design department, located onsite, uses inspect-to-CAD software and a FARO arm portable CMM with laser scanner to save time, eliminate 2-D paper drawings, and reduce errors. Robert Phillmore, the supplier quality specialist for fabricated parts at the plant, explains:

Catsweb, by AssurX, is a software solution that automates quality management, risk, and regulatory-compliance processes, from detection to corrective action to trend analysis. Siemens uses it to track supplier performance. Both Siemens and its suppliers use the web-based interface to track delivery, quality, nonconformance, and corrective action/preventive action (CAPA). At any point in time, anyone can pull up performance data or the status of a corrective action. Because it’s database-driven, users can to drill down into specific orders. Emails can also be automatically sent to appropriate personnel to flag problems or simply notify that a particular step or signoff is complete.

Realizing that scheduling affects all aspects of organizational behavior, the entire plant incorporates Primavera scheduling software to nail down everything from design to shipping and receiving to production to delivery.

Kevin McGrew, director of supplier quality management.

“We all work together on a common, agreed-to schedule, from development of a bid to design of a new vehicle, from ramp-up in production to when the last car completed enters revenue service at the customer end,” says Kevin McGrew, director of supplier quality management. “In a business as complex as this, we must all know and expect performance to schedule.”

When asked if working to a strict schedule felt constricting or liberating, McGrew answered wryly, “Does flying in close formation feel constricting or liberating to the Blue Angels pilots? You have to be able to know what to expect from all your partners, but it’s certainly a challenge.”

Half-empty, half-full, and full steam ahead

Not everyone embraces technical advancement and automation, however.

“It’s clear by now that the fruits of automation, computerization, and outsourcing are being reaped by the top 1 percent,” complains Richard Cohen, opinion writer for The Washington Post. “Something new and possibly awful is happening.”

Despite some well-thought-out objections to automation, there are distinct advantages. By employing judicious use of automation, Kuka, Schlafly, and Siemens Rolling Stock all demonstrate business models that provide permanent high-tech jobs and generate tax dollars for the community. Although automation in and of itself may not be a manufacturing panacea, the potential for increased efficiency is obvious. And efficiency can easily translate to more good-paying jobs.

Besides, as Phillip Sexton, the interpretive planner for the California State Railroad Museum, quips, “My mom and I used to argue about this: If Shakespeare had a word processor, would he use it? Heck yes he would!”


About The Author

Ryan E. Day’s picture

Ryan E. Day

Ryan E. Day is Quality Digest’s project manager and senior editor for solution-based reporting, which brings together those seeking business improvement solutions and solution providers. Day has spent the last decade researching and interviewing top business leaders and continuous improvement experts at companies like Sakor, Ford, Merchandize Liquidators, Olympus, 3D Systems, Hexagon, Intertek, InfinityQS, Johnson Controls, FARO, and Eckel Industries. Most of his reporting is done with the help of his 20 lb tabby cat at his side.