Engineering Key to Surviving the Downturn

Jan. 12, 2010
New products help machine builders lower costs and improve equipment performance.
Festo Corp.,

It’s no secret that the economic downturn has hit the automation sector hard, with revenues off about 40% from a year ago. And some segments, such as machine tools and textile machinery, are down more than 50% compared with 2008.

What’s interesting is how some companies are making gains despite the hard times. Festo AG, Esslingen, Germany, for instance, reports its market share is increasing four to six times faster than in prerecession times, depending on the geographic region.

Its secret? “Especially in times of crisis, OEMs need reliable suppliers and partners to help them innovate and make their machines more cost effective,” explains Ansgar Kirwet, a member of Festo’s Management Board. One important element is a financially strong base. As a traditional German, family owned company, Festo takes a long-term view that includes continued R&D investment despite difficult times, he says.

The most important reason for gains in market share, however, is that machine builders are seeking out Festo’s engineering expertise to upgrade their products and gain a competitive advantage, says Kirwet.

In fact, because of the dramatic decline in orders, engineering challenges are actually increasing, he explains. “Our customers are under a lot of pressure, and they need to react in two directions. First, they must improve machine performance through the latest technology and cutting-edge designs. Second is the cost pressure, as traditional machine builders increasingly must compete with low-cost suppliers.

“There are many ways to improve the cost structure of a machine,” he explains. One is to exchange older components with newer, more-efficient ones. Another is using smaller parts to reduce energy consumption without affecting performance. “But most important is to look at the total system and adapt pneumatic and electric-automation technologies to mechanical-engineering tasks. This is where the real savings are,” says Kirwet.

Energy efficiency is of growing importance, driven in part by a heightened ecological consciousness. “But a more-pressing demand is reducing energy costs for economic reasons,” says Kirwet. For instance, upgrading pneumatics and eliminating leaks on a typical machine normally reduces energy consumption by at least 30%, and sometimes 50% or more, he says.

Diagnostics are another important offering in the eyes of the customer, he adds. It helps improve the equipment’s operational efficiency, letting users quickly identify problems and reduce downtime.

Despite the challenging times, more than 200 R&D engineers at Festo are working on long-term, customer-specific projects, says Kirwet. “Our customers benefit from innovations which give their machines a decisive competitive edge, and it helps position these companies for rapid growth when the economy revives.”

One such example is the company’s new H-gantry, designed for high-speed handling and assembly in flat-panel, photovoltaic, and electronics manufacturing, as well as packaging and feeding operations. “It combines the dynamics of a linear motor with the cost of a tooth-belt handling system. In effect, it is 30% faster than conventional handling units,” says Kirwet.

The gantry has a low center of gravity and covers more working area than robots using delta kinematics, which only cover circular or kidney-shaped patterns. Delta robots are also expensive, weigh about 330 lb, and require ample installation space, Kirwet says.

The H-gantry has two stationary servomotors driving the X and Y axes – only one axis and the gripper move. In traditional gantries, one motor and gearbox move with the axis, and the extra weight limits dynamic behavior. Both axes reach speeds of 5 m/sec and acceleration rates of 50 m/sec² over the entire work zone. Two toothed-belt drives connect to a cross member with a rotating toothed belt around the driveshaft. The Z axis reaches speeds of 1.5 m/sec at acceleration rates of 20 m/sec², and it accommodates vacuum and mechanical grippers holding loads to 6.5 lb.

The standard unit has strokes of 2 and 1 m in the X and Y directions, respectively, with an accuracy of 0.2 mm. But the H-gantry can be scaled to any stroke.

The unit’s CMXR robotic controller coordinates 3D movements. For instance, it can interpolate and position axes for tracing contours along a centerline, as required for bonding, laser welding, and water-jet cutting. The CMXR connects to the master and servomotor controllers, and can incorporate cameras and image-processing units for tracking objects on conveyor systems.

The gantry can also be used with the company’s CPX valve terminals, another product seeing high demand, explains Kirwet. Valve terminals give engineers flexibility – in essence, making it easier to use valves in machines, he says. The compact, modular platform lets users stack valves of varying sizes to perform different tasks. The terminals can also integrate nonpneumatic functions such as motion control, I/O, safety, and diagnostics for both factory and process automation.

The CPX terminal is compatible with all common fieldbus and Internet systems. A choice of three installation set-ups — centralized, decentralized, and hybrid — can shorten machine cycle times by up to 30% and reduce air consumption by up to 50%, Kirwet explains. And letting users integrate pneumatic, electric, and motion-control components on a single platform can reduce system costs by 20% and installation time by up to 60%, he adds.

The CPX can also house proportional valves. A growing trend among machine builders, says Kirwet, is toward smoother and more-controlled movements, and that requires proportional technology. “In the past, that required analog cards in your PLC and shielded wires to connect separate proportional valves. But with the CPX, you just connect the proportional valve on the bus, you don’t have to worry about analog cards and installation costs. Again, it’s a real saver for the customer,” he says.

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