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OMAC’s evolution punctuated by small revolutions

On OMAC’s 25th year, notably coinciding with Packaging World’s 25th year, we speak to its key pioneers and current stewards to chronicle its history and future.

OMAC - the Organization for Machine Automation and Control
OMAC - the Organization for Machine Automation and Control

The cast of characters
Interviewed were players throughout much of the organization’s history, listing here who they were with during OMAC’s inception, and where they are now.

Andy McDonald, Unilever Keith Campbell, then of Hershey’s, adorns an inside front cover of Packaging World from the June 1998 issue.Keith Campbell, then of Hershey’s, adorns an inside front cover of Packaging World from the June 1998 issue.

Bryan Griffen, formerly Nestlé, currently PMMI

Dave Newcorn, Packaging World, now part of PMMI Media Group

Jack Aguero, formerly ProMach, currently Aguero Associates

Jerry Yen, formerly GM, currently Zoox

John Kowal, formerly ELAU, currently B&R

Keith Campbell, formerly Hershey’s, currently Campbell Management Services

Pat Reynolds, Packaging World, now part of PMMI Media Group

Rob Aleksa, formerly P&G, currently retired

OMAC is celebrating its 25th anniversary, and according to approximations listed in the recollections that follow, its 20th year in the packaging space. With that in mind, Packaging World spoke to some of the pioneers who were on the front lines from the beginning, shepherding the industry toward OMAC’s Packaging Work Group and PackML. The road toward adoption hasn’t always been easy, and some grey areas naturally persist, but the general trend seems to be toward greater participation according to OMAC officials and PackML adherents. What follows is a series of recollections—25 years’ worth, so forgive any minor inaccuracies—that chronicle the shifting tides of the packaging industry’s attitude toward OMAC.

PW: Describe OMAC’s automotive and aerospace genesis.

Kowal: The significance of the original OMAC lay in its signature white paper of November 1994. The original signers—General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford Powertrain groups [among them]—were decidedly metal-cutting guys and they lived in a world where 80% market share was dominated by just two suppliers of CNC controls. The white paper called for the opposite of proprietary and monolithic CNC or computer numerical controls, in favor of less expensive ones that were flexible and scalable.

PW: How did CPG packagers come to find OMAC?

Campbell: During Interpack 1996, Hershey’s Director of Engineering, Bob Woelfling, spoke at the U.S. press conference and issued a call of challenge and change to the packaging machinery industry. Among his remarks were thoughts about motion control, skills training, technology standards, object-oriented programming and similar ideas. … The vast majority of U.S. machine manufacturers were entrenched in a mechanical paradigm [vs. the electromechanical/servo new kid on the block] and were not employing these new technologies, a mistake that we believed would leave them at a competitive disadvantage in the future. We did not want U.S. OEMs to be disadvantaged relative to their European competitors. … The surprise was how these remarks were not understood or properly reported upon by the U.S. packaging press. … Stepping outside of its normal quiet conservative comfort zone, Hershey began working in conjunction with Indramat to publicize its use of the motion architecture with Packaging World magazine and other media partners. Hershey articles appeared as the cover article of Packaging World Controls Strategies in June 1998, had a feature article on SCADA in Packaging World in December of 1998, as well as other mentions by Dave Newcorn, and subsequently Pat Reynolds.

Reynolds: CPG companies began to realize how much time, effort, and money was being spent on integrators whose responsibility it was to make disparate packaging machines “talk” to each other. People started thinking it would be nice to have a cohesive and united organization like OMAC that could lobby for the adoption of standards that might lessen the need for integrators.

McDonald: I got involved with OMAC because of some work we were doing at Unilever about how to solve this perennial problem that we have every time we put a packing line together. We buy the best-of-breed packaging machinery from the best manufacturers—the best capper, the best lidder, the best filler, the best cartoner—and we’re buying from different companies all over the world. And what it meant was that we’d spend a huge amount of time and effort in engineering the interfaces between the different machines.

PW: A case had to be made for industry adoption, how did that process go?

Yen: If I remember correctly, and it has been a while, I believe the changes were driven by P&G, and [also] the PackML efforts. OMAC in the late ’90s wanted to expand into other industries in addition to automotive and aerospace. The PackML group, including Keith Campbell from Hershey and subsequently Rob Aleksa from P&G, decided to lead the PackML group to join the OMAC Users Group, and the OMAC focus was also to broaden beyond just Open Modular Architecture Controller [original acronym], and become the [current] Organization for Machine Automation and Control, which is much broader than just focusing on having openness for controller architecture, but covers the open, interoperable automation systems and standards.

Kowal: At the ARC Forum 1999, a P&G conference attendee asked OMAC co-chair Jerry Yen, “What’s in it for us, the CPGs? We don’t have CNCs.” Ah, but PLCs were rife with proprietary languages and libraries and techniques, and all it took was a straw poll of CPGs after that comment to determine that, indeed, the non-CNC world of discrete automation was ready for OMAC.

Campbell: Packaging World, ARC, and Indramat proposed to sponsor a meeting at PACK EXPO in Las Vegas. This meeting was held on October 19, 1999 and consisted of a panel of engineering managers from Hershey, Anheuser-Busch, General Mills, Nabisco, and Procter & Gamble presenting to an audience of over 100 individuals representing other consumer goods companies, 19 packaging machine OEMs, and 28 controls suppliers.

Kowal: It took two Packaging World insiders to set the stage for a great debate. Jim Chrzan laid the commercial groundwork and Dave Newcorn set the editorial stage, literally, at the Sands Hotel across from the PACK EXPO West show floor, for about a dozen end users armed with similar PowerPoint slides and another 80 or so members of the machine builder, user, and automation technology provider community waiting to hear what they had to say.

Campbell: Dialog was brisk with the notable silence of the OEMs.

PW: Why the silence?

Griffen: Many packaging machine builders develop similar equipment and the automation of that equipment is a differentiating factor. This leads to the misconception that using a standard framework somehow reduces differentiation.

Aleksa: Packaging equipment suppliers of PLC software create customized code no matter whose controller they used. A lot had very few internal code designers. Requiring them to change practices likely caused a “not-invented-here-syndrome,” feeling their software coding is proprietary, and unique.

Packaging is a very large and diverse industry. We did get a number of large end-users to participate. Why not more early on? Well, you’ve got to have a reasonably large company with a substantial central engineering organization to allow the sponsorship of someone in the organization to do “esoteric” work. Someone not immediately helping the bottom line.

PW: Why the thaw? At the unprecedented Oct. 19, 1999 meeting at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, engineers from major brand owners articulated their packaging controls needs to the more than 100 representatives from 28 controls suppliers and 19 packaging machine builders.At the unprecedented Oct. 19, 1999 meeting at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, engineers from major brand owners articulated their packaging controls needs to the more than 100 representatives from 28 controls suppliers and 19 packaging machine builders.

Kowal: That PMMI has done so much to help OMAC prosper is thanks to the foresight and hard work of Tom Egan who, in his role of VP Industry Services, saw the benefit of a technical council representing the increasing content of automation in packaging machinery to the industry and to PMMI members. The metalworking side of OMAC also benefits PMMI machine builder members, who tend to be net consumers of machine tools.

Newcorn: Part of it was simply time. Even as the message remained inscrutable at the end-user level for a number of years, save for a few obvious exceptions identified here, it did start to sink in with the packaging OEM community. Credit largely goes to Keith Campbell, whose end user bona fides and vision for the potential of the open architecture controls uniquely qualified him to lead the newly hatched OMAC Packaging Workgroup. He was the founding father of OMAC when it comes to packaging.

At the same time, a funny thing happened. The prices of those new-fangled servo controls started dropping, subject to the same relentless forces that governs all technology: More features, more robustness, at lower cost. Engineers at OEMs started quietly experimenting with these controls and started attending OMAC meetings, as did Tom Egan from PMMI.

I think some forward-thinking OEMs realized, ‘hey, not only is this stuff not witchcraft, I can actually see a business benefit and competitive advantage.’ Also, OMAC started slowly releasing deliverables. One of the first was the machine states guidelines, borrowed from the S88 batch standard. On the heels of the machine states, OMAC came out with PackML, which also made a lot of sense to everyone. That one took a few years to adopt but started to diffuse throughout the OEM community.

It’s funny, some of the very same OEMs who took us to task for spreading new ideas surrounding open architecture control and usage of servos have some of the most advanced and sophisticated machines today. In fact, I can’t think of anyone who hasn’t pivoted to digital motion control, though there may be a few stragglers.

PW: What were some initiatives of the newly formed OMAC Packaging Group, as distinct from the machine tool guys?

McDonald: [Adapted from a 2003 interview with Automation World magazine] The Plug-and-Pack initiative started in February 2000, and it took us a couple of years to get things established. There were some packaging machines on the market that were being developed according to the OMAC Packaging Work Group guidelines. And at Unilever, we were actually in the process of developing some packing lines where we were planning for the first time to apply the OMAC Packaging Workgroup guidelines, in their entirety. We were still looking at various options as to whether we’ll take lines out and replace them with brand new, high-speed lines or just upgrade certain parts of the plant. But the intent is that because we would be sourcing this machinery from different manufacturers, we would be putting in the OMAC Packaging Guidelines as part of our procurement specification.

PW: What were some early wins? This article was groundbreaking in that it represented the first major breakthrough in media coverage of Campbell’s and Hershey’s push toward electromechanical, instead of strictly mechanical, architecture.This article was groundbreaking in that it represented the first major breakthrough in media coverage of Campbell’s and Hershey’s push toward electromechanical, instead of strictly mechanical, architecture.

Yen: A lot of efforts were devoted to make new connections in these companies [wherein OMAC champions had moved on] and keep the momentum going. ARC was also supportive and created OMAC sessions during the annual ARC Forum in Orlando and keep the message alive. After the packaging companies joined OMAC, we also got a lot of support from PMMI.

Aguero: In 2005, I was part of the new management team brought in by the private equity owner. I learned of Make2Pack and OMAC from Joe Angel of then Summit Publications when he asked ProMach to host a webinar on Make2Pack. We were in the process of rolling out best practices within the operating units and I saw PackML as a best practice that we should endorse and champion with our engineering groups. In turn, those engineering groups that implemented PackML reported back reductions in engineering time because of the ability to reuse code, reduce debug testing time, and shorten product testing. All of these efficiencies lead to reductions in overall manufacturing time. ProMach began to support OMAC because of these best business practices and operating efficiency results.

Newcorn: Standardizing machine states, regardless of OEM or controls suppliers, was so non-threatening and removed such a needless layer of complexity, particularly when stringing machines together on a packaging line, each from a different manufacturer, that it became an early win for OMAC. Instead of each OEM randomly coming up with its own machine states, it just made sense for everyone to adopt a common model, even as the actual benefits of this remained elusive until everyone adopted this model.

PW: When did it feel like you were meeting a critical mass, or tipping point toward adoption?

Griffen: In 2010, at Interpak, Nestlé, P&G, and Pfizer held a joint press conference promoting PackML. This sent a clear message to the industry that PackML was here to stay. Then in 2012, Nestlé unveiled at PACK EXPO in Chicago the first public implementation of PackML using four separate control systems to manage a small packaging simulation. This demonstration showed that disparate controllers could indeed coordinate machines on a single communication protocol without the need for expensive, invasive integration.

Aleska: When I retired [from P&G], we were using/demanding PackML on machines that we often purchased from one or two suppliers (excluding common/non-complex/easy-to-maintain equipment), and complex machines that may be difficult to maintain. The PackML code outlined in P&G’s User Guide was implemented on many non-packaging machines (web and other continuous machines) as well. Goes to show that PackML can be used beyond the packaging industry.

PW: What are some remaining hurdles?

Kowal: Volunteerism was strong in the ’90s and turn of the century, and one will hope it makes a come-back coming into the ’20s, but recently it’s been a thin red line of volunteers keeping OMAC going. As Jack Welch’s mother so aptly advised the GE CEO in what became the title of one of his books, “Control your own destiny—or someone else will.”

OMAC is looking for its next generation of leadership. Today’s OMAC leaders can explain why the work is important, they can show what needs to be done next, but more end users need to step forward and join this vibrant community. There is a wind of insularity blowing through corporate halls of governance, and while that wind sounds like competitive advantage, it has just the opposite effect.

And insularity seems also to defy the return to cooperation and values that the millennial generation is bringing to business. It’s as simple as defining stop and go lights that work for the color blind—a win-win-win as Keith Campbell was fond of calling it. No one loses and everyone benefits from knowing how to comply with stop lights and adopting stop lights unilaterally.

PW: But OMAC remains extremely optimistic?

Griffen: PackML is gaining momentum more and more rapidly. We are regularly learning of new machine builders that are implementing PackML as their automation solution framework. We are also regularly hearing of additional end users that are specifying PackML as a requirement for new equipment. There is still work to be done, but adoption is on the rise.

PW: What’s next in the pipeline for OMAC?

Griffen: The OMAC Packaging Workgroup currently has three active subcommittees. The first committee is focusing on the development of a common HMI template. This template includes a navigation scheme to provide consistent navigation for operations personnel, as well as a defined light stack standard tied directly to the PackML state model. The second committee is defining OEE and machine efficiency calculations using PackTags. This will help standardize these calculations across the industry so that both OEMs and CPGs are speaking a consistent language. The third committee is working on the updates for the next release of PackML (targeted for 2020). As an ISA technical report on S88, OMAC updates the TR88 document each five years. Other work products are in discussion around communications, machine decomposition/modularization, and training.

Kowal: Today there is an exciting new opportunity to finally do what none of the field bus wars could resolve—development of a common, unified, IEEE and IEC compliant standard for industrial communications networks based on Ethernet, called Time Sensitive Networking (TSN). OMAC is at the forefront once again, contributing PackML to a complete solution based on OPC UA and TSN for which it has already developed a companion specification.

Advanced PackML programming sessions now available
OMAC is now offering advanced programming sessions in addition to its standard basic coding and training at its annual PackML Training Workshop. This will take place Thursday, May 16, at the Chicago Marriott O’Hare. The Workshop is co-located with and follows the Automation World Conference & Expo, May 14-15.

PackML experts from B&R Automation, Bosch Rexroth, Rockwell, and Siemens will lead the training sessions. Basic and advanced sessions will include multiple workstations for participants to learn and practice coding and implementing PackML. The goal is to provide attendees with practical experience by simulating a programming and installation environment.

The cost for Basic PackML Training is $250 for OMAC members and $350 for non-members. The cost for Advanced PackML training is $300 for OMAC members and $400 for non-members. Register at

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