With packaging end users becoming increasingly aware of the broader benefits of control technology, and OEMs more than ever using technology as the catalyst for innovation, ultimate machine reliability, flexibility and productivity seem within our grasp. Clearly technology will continue to develop, and expectations of packaging machine design continue to grow. But there is also a higher level expectation emerging with implications not just on the local machine scale, but also globally throughout a plant which force us to reassess our ambitions in terms of reliability, flexibility and productivity.
Our manufacturing heritage shows us many classic demonstrations of the elegance and power of good mechanical design, but the demise of such machines says much for their inflexibility and cost of maintenance. A few decades ago, control was almost entirely mechanical, and when change was required, the whole physical structure was required to change. Electronic control has changed all that, facilitating independent control of individual parameters.
Often the end user requirements for packaging machines are translated too simplistically by an outside world as speed and flexibility. These are no doubt important, but they don’t tell the whole story, and are broken down by packaging end users and OEMs into more specific issues. These include, for example, an emphasis on quality improvement and waste reduction. Many developments are driven by specific demands from the production area, requiring packaging machine OEMs to implement control strategies to optimise inspection, continuous improvement, TPM, fast changeovers, increased machine availability, and machine flexibility.
The focus for much of this is the human-machine interface – not simply in terms of operating a machine, but also in understanding and tracking the packaging process all the way from material infeed through to despatch. In that respect, comparing the traditional image of the HMI with what today’s systems must do is like comparing the TV screen on an airline seat with the windscreen of a car. One is a passive interface, while the other is an essential window into a dynamic process. Clearly the example is an extreme one, but the differentiation in plant operation is nonetheless important.
A key role for the HMI is to turn data into meaningful information, providing plant personnel with real insight into exactly what is happening in the process, and providing an environment in which plant personnel can interact with the process.
The big picture
In developing the machines to maximise the efficiency of the packaging hall, it becomes clear that there is a high level of interdependency between the OEM and the end user. But this interdependency takes on a new dimension when you consider the wider picture in plant design, and examine an entirely new – yet related – set of plant goals. The increases in machine flexibility that electronic control has enabled have been pronounced, but although we can change individual parameters to effect fast product changeovers, quality improvements or higher production levels, the basic structure of the plant as a whole remains largely fixed. And often, the very structure of the plant which was so effective when first designed becomes a liability when circumstances change.
The same tends to be true of organisations. Despite operational flexibility, reporting structures tend to remain fixed even when the business demands change.
We are entering an era where structure can no longer be fixed by a top down, long term planning process. Mirroring the software world, perhaps we should be looking instead to see both plants and organisations constructed from intelligent agents which can link to provide functionality as required.
If we take that trip back a few decades in time again for a moment, we can see that the various functions of the production cycle were largely isolated, and this was fine when you were designing a product that would have perhaps a 20 year lifespan before it was redesigned or replaced. But there is no place for that philosophy in modern manufacture. In a market that changes as quickly as the packaging sector, islands of manufacture – design, logistics, production – will not work. Rather than any (or every) separate department providing the driving force, there has to be a consistency. In effect, the overall `process’ of meeting customers’ needs must become the focus, and each department and local process must have the flexibility to be shaped – on an ongoing basis – by the requirements of the market, with all plant personnel having the responsibility, and correspondingly the enabling tools, to implement change. The relationship has to be dynamic, and it has to be global throughout an organisation.
The key change has to come within the organisation, since it is to market driven groups that we must look for the new paradigm of adaptive, task-driven control. Only people have the creative intelligence to solve the multidimensional problems that this entrepreneurial approach demands.
If that is the challenge for organisation, then the challenge at the plant level is in achieving the truly reconfigurable plant. This demands a more intimate relationship between plant and people, extending the notion of the HMI beyond that of the physical interface product to encompass the much wider issue of plant interaction. This new level of `personal automation’ can bring with it a transformation in manufacturing philosophy, giving real meaning to empowerment.
And what will drive these changes? Technology is steaming forward apace – we are fast reaching the point where the mechanical infrastructure has been all but replaced with modular systems using software synchronisation. Add to that decentralised computing power with objective driven rather than procedurally based software, and you have a powerful and flexible automation structure.
But for all that, technology is just an enabler – the real driving force is human motivation. Only people can provide the necessary impetus for machines, plants, and organisations to achieve ultimate reliability, flexibility and productivity. Which brings us back, as a start point to the interdependency of the end user and the OEM, for it is here where it must all begin.