David Fowler follows the move towards provision of complete production lines from a single supplier

Manufacturers looking to install new production facilities increasingly want to deal with suppliers offering a systems approach with the ability to deliver the production line as a complete package.

This, at any rate, was the thinking behind Bosch’s decision just over a year ago to combine its industrial equipment, hydraulics and pneumatics divisions into a single new division, Bosch Automation Technology.

Bosch claims to be unique: although competitors offer systems integration capability, Bosch also manufactures all its own components, from pneumatics to programmable logic controllers to the supporting framework for the line.

`Customers can come with a problem. Our application and design groups will talk to them and propose a solution, in conjunction with their own staff if necessary. We will then install the system,’ says Jeff Blackman, national sales manager. Customers include Allied Signal, Motorola, Philips, TRW and several of the big car makers.

Bosch piloted the strategy in the UK before adopting it more widely. Blackman admits that it would have been less risky for the firm to stay in straight component production. But, he says, in the UK, unlike Germany for example, there is a lack of third party system integrators capable of handling costly or complex systems and Bosch was unable to find the right partner.

Speaking at the Hanover Industrial Trade Fair in April, Fred-Holger Gunther, executive management spokesman of the automation technology division, said the concept had succeeded in increasing market penetration and meeting customer demands by providing systems solutions. Though worldwide sales had only increased by 1%, the market position had been held `in a difficult economic environment’.

Its UK headquarters near Leicester houses the automation division’s design facilities where engineers use bespoke CAD packages to design production lines. A build room allows lines to be set up and tested before being shipped.

Now Bosch Automation Technology is promoting itself world-wide with the slogan `the ABC of manufacturing’, ABC denoting actuators, bus systems and controls.

Products include vehicle hydraulics, industrial hydraulics, pneumatics, control and drive technology, assembly technology, tightening and bolting systems (used for cylinder heads, for example), press-fit systems (for operations such as fitting bearing races into wheel hubs) and automated deburring technology. Control and drive technology includes electrical servo drives, numerical controls, programmable logic controllers, robots, and resistance welding controls.

For printed circuit board manufacture, the Edgepro conveyor system drives the PCB directly using a belt along each edge, eliminating the need for separate pallets. The modular Quickbuild system is a range of around a thousand components based on aluminium extrusion frames for building machine frames, workstations and conveyor systems.

Bosch’s own TS Soft 5.1, running under AutoCad, enables the designer to build up a line from modules such as a conveyor or a manual workstation where automated and manual operations take place side by side. `We can build up something on screen with the customer here, to see very quickly whether it meets their needs,’ says Mark Dash, system design engineer.

The system will calculate the most ergonomic position for grab bins and can allow for people of different build. It then produces a list of all the components needed. A related package, MGE Soft, allows frameworks to be modelled from scratch in Quickbuild.

Soon to be launched in the UK is the MTS 2 Modular Transfer System in which lines can be made up from modular units with mechanical components, control and electric and pneumatic systems already installed.

Though Bosch Automation Technology offers its own products, it will integrate other manufacturers’ equipment if the customer prefers. Allied Signal specifies Allen Bradley for its PLCs, for example. But many customers prefer to limit the number of suppliers they deal with, and Bosch says its new approach has enabled it to increase its market share.

Complete lines are assembled in the build room and tested to show that they can achieve the specified production rate over a shift before being partly dismantled into 6m long sections for transport to the customer.

Kevin Melody, Bosch divisional director, says: `Customers are demanding reduced lead times. We are being asked to deal with customers’ problems, to supply not just a component but knowhow and service at an equally high level.’ In future, he says, the market will demand a more comprehensive range of products, with more flexibility.

Peter Hewitt, sales and marketing manager for automation systems at Schenck, another supplier which acts as a systems integrator for production lines, says the trend of customers seeking a one-stop supplier is well established, but has a different view of the force driving it.

`Customers don’t have the project staff to handle integration themselves,’ he says. The problem is that they may have preferences, for one company’s PLCs, another’s pneumatics or conveyors, for example. Thus they want someone to integrate all these items and their communication links between them. `They don’t want a breakdown at the interface which everyone denies is their problem.’

Melody says Bosch has found a different approach is required when a customer enquiry first comes in. `We have to take a step back when a customer rings up and says: “I want a hydraulic system to do this”. We have to find what he wants it to do and consider whether a hydraulic system is actually the best solution.’

This approach has led to changing demands on the 39-strong group of engineers based at Leicester, with specialisms giving way to a multidisciplinary approach. But Melody says staff have been receptive to this. `Once engineers realise the possibility of the non-specialist way, they are far happier to work as a team towards the customer’s goal,’ he says. It also allows all aspects of an engineer’s experience to be fully used and takes away the risk of people specialising in an area for which demand suddenly disappears.

Instead of an employee being seen as just a servo engineer, says Melody, `we look at their education and experience and ask which industries does he have knowhow in. We found we had experience in areas we didn’t know about.’