MCMA TechCon
MCMA TechCon panel

Motion Control Experts Plan for a New Normal

Nov. 17, 2020
Post-pandemic trends in motion control gleaned from an MCMA TechCon executive roundtable.

At a Glance:

  • A roundtable discussion at MCMA TechCon considers how automation technologies are transforming motion control applications.
  • The global motion control market is deemed mature, although notable trends impact future growth.
  • Why electric vehicle dynamics drive the recovery in the automotive industry.

No secret here: When it comes to the post-COVID era, analysts describe a mixed picture with different regions and industries recovering at different speeds.

The U.S. is expected to make a recovery despite record-setting levels of coronavirus infections, and analysts reckon a return to normality will in part be thanks to an unprecedented financial stimulus. Around the globe, some economies will likely surpass 2019 levels by 2024, according to one intelligence report.

Consistent with national and global forecasts, positive prospects for motion control markets were thwarted earlier this year when COVID-19 hit, and analysts’ forecasts remain reasonably optimistic as we head into 2021.

In a virtual roundtable at MCMA TechCon (Nov. 9-10) hosted by Robert Huschka, director of Education Strategies for the Association for Advancing Automation, a panel of motion control experts discussed how a recovery from the pandemic might play out in the year ahead and how technologies on the horizon can help steer growth.

The Shape of Recovery

Panelists agreed that there is no definitive response on how the market will hold after a year of hunkering down, buttressing cash flows and restructuring. There’s wide-ranging debate on whether the recovery will take on a V- or K-shaped curve, noted Patrick McDermott, president, B&R Industrial Automation for North America.

A V-shaped recovery denotes an optimistic forecast, whereas, a K-shaped recovery would mean an uneven recovery with mixed results in different industries. For example, the leisure and entertainment industries could experience a lag due to a resurgence of coronavirus infections tied to restaurants and businesses reopening.

While B&R Industrial Automation saw a steady comeback in Q4 across motion control segments, the industry, overall, is “treading water,” McDermott noted. Even though a few industries, including logistics, are holding up the pace of recovery, McDermott said he remained cautiously optimistic about a strong economic comeback in 2021. One observation stemming from the pandemic is the idea that “companies need to automate more because they can’t find skilled people” has shifted to “we need to minimize the people for safety reasons,” he said.

Similarly, John Payne, senior vice president of Motion for Yaskawa America Inc., a provider of motion automation for packaging and processing, has observed “unevenness across sectors.” One the one hand, said Payne, the electronics and semiconductor manufacturing sector stand out as having been strong all year, while on the other, many big American equipment suppliers are reporting record results.

“That’s primarily because we’re all on Zoom meetings—we’re stressing the infrastructure that exists,” Payne said. “At the same time, we’re rolling out this new technology platform, which is 5G. It has the potential to offer a lot of new services and benefits on the World Wide Web, and we’re all going to take advantage of that.”

Like McDermott, Payne acknowledged the disproportionate effects of a slowdown in specific markets. “The logistics of executing this year has been very difficult, but the industry as a whole is really poised to do well and is doing well,” he said. “Investments in medical sciences and pharmaceuticals in the production of protective equipment, as well as the equipment and components of testing, have expanded through the pandemic.”

Driving Recovery in the Automotive Industry

A key sector for automation, the automotive sector, is undergoing significant shift in transforming gas powered cars to electric cars, Huschka noted. “What are the opportunities for the motion control industry?” he prompted.

Whether it’s up or down the line, investments are being driven toward electrical vehicle production, responded McDermott. With this transformation in mind, B&R Industrial Automation, which specializes in machine and factory control systems, HMI and motion control, has been evaluating concepts and automation in consideration of manufacturing techniques on the whole line.   

Payne acknowledged that one notable consequence of moving away from manufacturing conventional vehicles with multi-geared transmissions toward electric vehicle (EV) production with single-speed transmissions is that, in addition to EVs requiring fewer parts, they also require different parts. As a result, the industry can expect to see many more production lines produced to accommodate new designs and technologies.

As Payne sees it, growth in the EV segment will not be comparable to the traditional internal combustion transmission. “You don’t have the complexity of building an engine and a transmission, and that’s one of the great benefits of EVs,” he said, also noting that suppliers will be adapting their production operations to meet the new designs and new goals.

Flexible Manufacturing, Smaller Batch Sizes

Manufacturers are evaluating their infrastructure for ways to meet customer expectations for more diverse product lines, McDermott said. The batch-size 1 mentality (or mixed pallets) affect many industries, from consumer-packaged goods (CPG) and sporting goods to medical and pharmaceutical industries, where customers may order a six-pack of drinks to the consumer specification.

“Those companies that are pushing for it are the ones that want to invite the consumer into their workflow, where they’re taking orders to delivery from some type of interface,” said McDermott. “And we’re seeing a lot of investments continue to push through the COVID times on that front…Even in the pharmaceutical space, there would be a lot of investments and a dedicated line.

“And if a certain drug doesn’t take off, they’ve made a really big investment that was a gamble,” he continued. “Reusable assets are definitely a topic there. All of that flows together, and that’s where the manufacturing concept discussions are extremely interesting right now.”

Trends to Watch

According to Ken Innami, vice president of Business Development at Mitsubishi Electric Automation Inc., a couple of trends in mobile robotics are worth noting. Firstly, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are replacing automated guided vehicles (AGVs), as they are more flexible and scalable.

Innami, who is responsible for executing the company’s vertical strategy for automotive, machine tool, electronics and ecommerce/logistics verticals, said the opportunity is that the industry will see DC servos mounted on AMRs, which will help the industry get into applications that were not possible with previous technologies.

Secondly, Innami pointed to predictive maintenance, which has been around for a while. Advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) embedded directly inside the motion controller, or the servo drives, enable true condition-based monitoring at the edge or in the cloud to prevent mechanical failure before they happen in ball screws, belts and gear systems. “This is a real example of Internet of Things (IoT) at work using data analytics and AI and machine learning to prevent real-life problems,” he said.

Also exciting for Innami is the fact that the enabling technology behind these advancements could be 5G manufacturing. “Broader bandwidth is very critical,” he said. “To realize some of this, remote service uses a lot of data and 5G could be a key factor. Today, we already have tablets, AR/VR devices that are compatible.

Next might be the AMRs, or even wireless controllers or robots, or maybe drones in the factory that are 5G compliant, taking overhead videos and looking at things that way,” Innami predicted. “There are still issues to be resolved—including standardization, more commercially available devices, cybersecurity, safety issues—but I think 5G could be a key enabler in the future.”

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