Rapid deployment of automation requires cooperation

The best companies in all industries are constantly striving to improve the flexibility and responsiveness of their stakeholders. Often this requires some degree of professional support from outside the company, especially for specialist manufacturing departments.

With over 50 years of experience manufacturing products for a diverse group of customers and markets, Keytronics provides plastic injection molding, circuit board assembly, metal fabrication and complete product assembly services for nearly any volume and degree of complexity. The company and its team members strive to maintain an external focus on customers, using innovative practices and procedures to deliver superior performance. Most customers belong to the IT, telecommunications, medical, automotive, aerospace, consumer and industrial markets (Fig.1).

As a technical services company, Keytronic also faces its own manufacturing automation challenges, often through the efforts of internal personnel most familiar with the processes and level of performance required. To this end, the Keytronic team has identified and is gradually deploying a portfolio of off-the-shelf commercial automation products, updating and expanding systems across multiple sites to optimize production while saving money.

Constant change

Since Keytronic performs a wide variety of industrial manufacturing and assembly tasks, it uses an equally varied amount of machinery and material handling equipment. Various OEMs provide different automation platforms and technologies, and the business must integrate these systems upstream and downstream, coordinating the transfer of hardware between them. Legacy systems may be decades old and in need of a refresh, while new systems may arrive with some degree of automation or could be purchased as basic equipment requiring the addition of upgrade systems. automating.

The company produces many different products for unique customers and is constantly adding new designs to the mix. Production details and demands vary, sometimes quite quickly, and a production run can be as short as 400 pieces taking around 30 minutes. to produce, or a continuous long-term effort. Therefore, all production systems must be capable of rapid changes, and solutions must also be multilingual for best use by a diverse workforce.

Manufacturing success

Sometimes ongoing projects can be as small as adding a sensor to a machine to improve the reliability of its operation or upgrading a new controller to individual equipment to improve functionality. In some cases, the target equipment is not used for production but instead performs testing or quality control functions. Other times, the job encompasses more tasks, such as coordinating and integrating various systems to optimize throughput.

This means that there is great variability in the types of hardware and software needed. The products chosen for these tasks must obviously meet certain performance requirements, but other important factors for the technical team included specifying products that:

  • Are readily available.
  • Easy to configure.
  • Come with solid documentation and support.
  • Offer excellent reliability.
  • Provide a good price/performance ratio.

Since almost all the work is done in-house with a relatively small group of three people, keeping things simple and efficient is paramount. The group has three main facilities: a blow molding plant, a metal preforming plant and an assembly line. Successful execution of the immediate task at hand is vital, as is selecting solutions that can be extended and deployed in other systems, thus multiplying the value.

For these and other reasons, the team quickly standardized on a comprehensive AutomationDirect product portfolio as this vendor offers almost every conceivable element needed to create automation and data processing projects. Hardware and software invariably meet all project expectations, and it is especially important that the products are not complicated to use and program.

The first projects carried out by the team were based on classic automation elements such as PLCs and HMIs (Fig.2). Two examples are a resin loading system (to transport resin pellets from bulk sources to destination equipment) and a blower (which required multi-zone PID temperature control). The team developed the control logic to meet their specific conditions, and they configured the displays to provide exactly what their operators needed, with extensive help messages and multilingual capability. (Fig.3).

Team members found the hardware to be simple in terms of design and installation, and the software to be intuitive and quick to learn. In the rare event that questions remained, a quick call to customer support provided the necessary answers.

In practice, the automation products have provided a high level of reliability, and the positive results mean that the team will continue to develop new solutions using these devices.

Projects have become more ambitious, incorporating servo control, more modern controllers with extended communication capabilities and much more (Fig.4). Automation work can progress at a logical pace for the development team and for operations. For example, a servo drive system is used to feed a roll of metal plate into a high-speed die-cutting press, so material can be cut quickly but with thousandths of an inch precision. The short term plan is to monitor and tune this machine remotely. More elaborate strategies and abilities may be added in the future.

Agile Automation

Some manufacturing operations are designed, built, and then go into regular, consistent production for years. However, there are a growing number of facilities that require the ability to generate a wide variety of product lines, and sometimes to provide such individualized customization that a production batch size may amount to just a few items.

Manufacturing relies on the quality, efficiency and economy provided by automation in favor of purely manual processes. Creating effective automation systems is a specialty, which is why many manufacturers must rely on OEMs and outside companies to provide these services, making it difficult or expensive to make changes once the systems are Operating. To solve these and other problems, Keytronic creates, installs and supports automation systems in-house.

Comprehensive vendors like AutomationDirect make it easier for manufacturers to control their own destiny by doing some or most of the work themselves, meeting the exact needs of internal operators and external customers. Keytronic has had great success using this approach to perform in-house automation work in an agile way. By standardizing across the entire portfolio, Keytronic is constantly automating with new technologies to maintain and increase productivity, safety and on-time deliveries to customers while carefully controlling costs.

Jose Luis Rodriguez Persona is Senior Maintenance and Integration Supervisor at Keytronic. He designs automation for new equipment and to improve existing machines to solve specific challenges, providing personalized production support to customers and increasing worker safety. He has nearly 30 years of experience in the industry of automatic control of material handling systems, servos, robotics and heavy machinery automation.

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