AKRON—Much of the Western world is looking for a so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” and automated machinery can be a big part of that effort.
Different governments have different names for the initiatives, but they all revolve around the same objective: bringing manufacturing back to Western countries, according to Jan Grashuis, vice president of global research and development for VMI Holland B.V.
In Germany, it's called Industrie 4.0, in the U.S. the Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition and in the Netherlands, where VMI is based, the program is called Smart Industry. But whatever the name, the keys are flexibility in specification and volume, fine-tuning to customer needs, and improving efficiency as a way to reduce cost.
“The trend is where production comes back to the Western world and production is less dependent on the cost of labor,” Grashuis said.
He gave a presentation titled “Modernizing Production Machinery to Gain Efficiency, Quality and Reduce Waste,” during the International Tire Exhibition & Conference, held Sept. 9-11 in Akron.
For the tire industry—for which VMI is a major supplier of tire making machinery—the major needs include improving quality while cutting waste, all with the goal of reducing the cost of each tire. “And the steps you need to do that in China are different than they are in Japan or in Europe or in the U.S.,” he said.
VMI's R&D team developed a tire cost model to see what each step of the process added to the cost of a tire, including transportation and storage in between steps. “We want to understand if we change something to the machine or add something to the machine, what it does to the total cost of the tire,” the VMI official said. “We want to make machines that are helping customers to make money in their setting.”
The machinery maker, he said, aims to understand all parts of the process, including such items as mixing and calendering, and not just what VMI supplies.
Choosing the right machine
Factors that go into the tire cost model include such items as labor, capital costs, waste and scrap, transportation and logistics, energy consumption and floor space. Although raw materials are a major component in cost, Grashuis said it is assumed that those figures are more or less the same around the world.
Because some of the costs vary by region, VMI offers different machines to meet differing needs of customers.
Its Exxium line is a “hands off/eyes on” offering, he said. It builds tires without an operator, but has a person in place to inspect green tires and to keep an eye on the tire building process.
“For areas like China, where labor is cheap and capital high, you can invest a little bit less and add some more labor,” Grashuis said.
And some companies still want an operator in front of the machine. “For some people, that still feels safe when the operator is still there, but he's not touching the process,” he said in an interview after his talk.
VMI's Maxx machines, conversely, are “hands off/eyes off” equipment. “It's meant for the Western world. It builds tires without the operator doing anything,” Grashuis said. “A robot handles the beads and the green tires. Several inspection devices in the machine check and optimize the process to make sure the tire will be good when it comes out of the machine.”
It's vital the machines have the ability for high output, to have a high level of automation to reduce labor costs, and the flexibility to handle numerous specifications for different tire sizes, he said. It also must be integrated into the product process so that all steps connect to each other easily.
Inspection can be set up to match the plant's philosophy. Some still want every tire manually inspected, a costly endeavor.
It can be designed to sample a certain number of tires, or have no inspection at all and rely on the process and find possible faults after curing during a batch inspection. For that, VMI developed an overhead conveyor that automatically collects a specified number of tires.
“It can hold 35 to 40 tires and when an operator has time he will inspect all tires at once,” Grashuis said. “In between he will still have time to load spools and solve problems in the machine.”
Working with customers
Developing the fully automated Maxx machines, which have been on the market for about six years, wasn't something customers had asked VMI to develop. “We saw the technical possi-bilities and when we released that concept to the market it was accepted very well,” he said.
VMI has to be extremely careful with individual customers' proprietary information, and while it will do some customer-specific projects, it tries not to focus on those sorts of developments. “It's better for us to have something we can sell to everybody,” Grashuis said.
The firm's R&D work is focused not just on producing machines that are highly productive and produce high-quality tires, but also on ensuring that the equipment can be assimilated easily into a full manufacturing environment.
“One part of the success is what we call innovation excellence,” he said. “The other part is the operation excellence, where we are able to organize everything and put it in a design where the machine can be really tested and used. If it only works in a lab, it's not good enough.”
VMI likes to test one machine in the field first to ensure that it works, Grashuis said. “What we don't want is to bring it to a customer and then be there for half a year until it works.”