Fallas Automation is a well-known producer of end-of-line packaging equipment, case packers in particular. Its machine designers have been aware for some time that customers today are struggling to find and retain personnel technically qualified to operate and maintain complex packaging machinery. So a key goal has been to design Fallas end-of-line packaging machines so that they are easier and less technical to operate and troubleshoot.
“We also want plant management to have real-time access to machine information and to increase Fallas’s role in predictive analytics,” says Dan Maeyaert, Vice President of Manufacturing Operations. Echoing him is Jacob Cox, Vice President of Electrical Controls: “There are many things that we can do to improve the operation of our end-of-line machines without having to jump across a wide technology gap. Everyone would have been much further along if we had had these early warning and simple-to-operate systems in place before the pandemic. There would have been a far higher assurance of faster issue resolution, especially during the lockdowns that limited travel and entry into plants. Machines that are easier to operate could mean fewer people in the plant and increased flexibility in assigning staff.”
Fallas was able to complete a number of installations during the pandemic without needing to send a tech into the plant. Phone support, obviously, played a key role. “But we also heavily prepared the customer with videos and pre-training on what to expect during installation,” says Maeyaert. “We also, on occasion, used augmented reality apps and video calling to aid in clarifying some problem areas. Because of the prep and phone assistance we were able to complete installs and start-ups with no on-site techs, saving time and money for our customers.”
Fallas’s ease-of-use initiative focuses on capturing data already in the machine and turning it into actionable information. In the area of pneumatics, for example, since the beginning of this year Fallas has standardized on the Festo MPA-L/CPX Valve Terminal, a “smart” design compared to previous machine design. “It’s Ethernet-based, whereas before we were just wiring it up with individual wires,” says Maeyaert. “This lets us get a lot more data out of it, like service-life data in the form of cycle counts that can be used to move toward predictive analytics and condition monitoring. For example, as a count indicates a component is nearing the end of its service life, the HMI can notify the operator that it’s time to replace that component and also pinpoint where the component is located on the machine and how to replace it. It also simplifies machine design and installation because countless hours of wiring connections are eliminated.”
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Other strategies Fallas is exploring include the use of vibration sensors in AC motors to monitor the condition of motor bearings. If vibrations trend higher, it’s usually a sign of trouble ahead, trouble that can be proactively avoided if the vibrations are monitored.
Rockwell Powerflex 525 variable frequency drives contain data that can be collected, too. “We can collect the current that’s being used, the amount of time it’s on, the alarm frequency and history—we can get all of that into the PLC via Ethernet.”At the end of the day, mining the data that is already there and then turning the data into usable information is at the heart of the Fallas initiative. “It’s kind of trial and error,” says Maeyaert. “We have to be careful about displaying so much information to the operators that it becomes something they don’t listen to anymore. So we look to display just the important info, the info that helps them keep the machine running and helps maintenance be able to see what they need so that they can maintain it predictively instead of when things break.”