Inhalt - Standards Just Work

  • junio 08, 2010

Standards Just Work

Interview with Rolf Rihs in the special interest magazine "Automation"

June 8, 2010. Boudry, As Chief Operating Officer, he has been managing Mikron Automation for eight years. Now, Rolf Rihs for the first time is providing deep insight into the development philosophy of the Swiss manufacturer of assembly systems.
Translation of the original article in German

Mr. Rihs, if we look at the different generations of the Mikron assembly platforms - Polyfactor 1976, Flexcell 1994, G05 2002, EcoLine 2009 -, which technological and conceptual development paths lie behind them?
The PLC-controlled assembly system Polyfactor was still based on the rotary indexing system. In comparison, the Flexcell as a linear assembly system was not only an absolute innovation in Europe, but its PC control brought an enormous boost in flexibility.
With the G05, we achieved another increase in performance, but above all a higher level of modularity and reusability. Modularity shortens our delivery lead time and the customer's start-up time, and thus the customer's time-to-market. On the other hand, modularity means that the G05, with its interchangeable and reusable manual workstations and semi-automated stations, can be adapted precisely to the customer's specific production needs. This reusability also has a positive effect on the investment for a conversion of the assembly system. Last but not least, the G05 was designed to be compliant with the cleanroom requirements of the medical industry right from the start, in contrast to the Flexcell, which would have needed additional modifications.
The EcoLine is a cost-efficient platform with slightly lower performance than the G05, conceived for users who are transferring their production to emerging markets or building a new business in them, therefore requiring such an assembly system for reasons of quality and effectiveness. On the other hand, the EcoLine is also appealing to companies in Europe or the U.S. which would never fully exploit the potential of a G05. The new G05 generation, which we are presenting at the Automatica this year, was developed in compliance with the requirements of the pharmaceutical industry. It abides by new machine regulations and shows some considerable improvements with regards to ergonomics and user friendliness.

To what extent have your customers' suggestions and wishes had an impact on the different platform concepts?
Let me point out something else first: In all these developments, we have increased the degree of standardization from one platform generation to the next, as we think that a high level of standardization leads to competitive advantages in the manufacturing of assembly systems. With the exception of standardization, a high share of customer feedback flows into each development step. This has been particularly important in the case of the new G05 generation. And the concept of the EcoLine has also been refined together with a reference customer in Asia.

Standardization is one thing. Another thing is the customer's desire for an assembly system that is highly flexible with respect to output and manufacturing of product variants, and thus more widely applicable and more "customized".
A high degree of standardization means reduced risk, high reusability, shorter delivery lead times, easy conversion and adaptation to new requirements, and last but not least, a considerably more professional documentation of the specific system. Standardization does not mean: a machine from a catalogue, fully parametrizable, completely reusable, available at low cost.
The customers in our target industries know that there are no standard solutions for their products nor for the process steps required of their automated manufacturing. However, we have standardized a large amount of customer-specific developments because they have proven useful for other projects, and we have added them to our "solution kit". These standards just work.

By further developing the platforms you have also been aiming at tapping into new customer circles for your company.
Yes, of course. At the beginning, we were almost exclusively limited to the automobile and electrical industries with our assembly machines. During the first half of the 1990s, we decided to develop a system design for the assembly of medical devices. Thus, Flexcell was born, though initially with some fierce setbacks. Today we know that this decision was the right one. In the medical industry, we are generating more than 50 percent of our annual sales, and in contrast to the other industries, it is crisis-proof.

Some of your competitors have now also discovered that the medical and pharmaceutical industries are relatively stable, and they are intending to acquire orders from these sectors. What is your reaction?
This is legitimate. However, wanting to carry out automation projects in the medical industry is one thing, and being able to do it is a completely different matter. These newcomers first will need to make pretty extensive investments in order to make their systems and system peripherals suitable for the specific requirements. Then they must pass all the applicable validations and certifications. And only then they can participate in bids.

However, money is currently scarce.

Sure, and we also need to save, and to specifically keep an eye on our expenses. But on the other hand, we have full support from our Supervisory Board to continue investing in all the innovation projects we have submitted. This is why I am convinced that we – in contrast to some of our competitors – will come out of the crisis stronger than we were before.

What type of innovation projects?
Among other things, we are currently working at a completely new control generation for the G05. I am profoundly convinced that this will set a benchmark.In general, we have invested a large portion of our development budget in control systems, NC and vision technology.

Mikron is practically considered the inventor of cam-driven assembly systems, made for the large-scale manufacturing of products through their entire lifecycle. How up-to-date are these "one-purpose machines" with regard to shortening product life cycles and an increasing number of variants?
In our opinion, the mechanical cam will still be relevant in the remote future. Whether it is a mechanical cam, an electronic cam, or an NC axis – at Mikron, the technology to be applied in an assembly cell will be defined by its efficiency, precision, performance, durability and price level; obviously always with an eye on the product to be manufactured or the specific process. This is why we also use mechanical cam in the case of G05, which is largely controlled by NC axes. Without them, reaching 100 cycles per minute would be impossible.

What are the customer requests that Mikron is currently confronted with?

Our approach of a modular platform with a high degree of standardization and the possibility of a progressive later extension of each system is convincing to an increasing number of customers. Their expectations regarding our process competency and – in the case of the medical industry – our validation and qualification procedures, have continually gone up in the past few years. And for us it is, of course, a big challenge to meet these expectations.
In this context, cost pressure is a factor that we must also consider. A fully automatic assembly system is a large investment for customers, one which they would rather avoid. Here our only argument is the high efficiency of our assembly solutions as well as the volume and quality of our pre-sales and after-sales services.With a critical eye we are observing that in contrast to the complexity of the systems and machines, the skill level of the operating staff as well as their willingness to work in three shifts are diminishing at many companies. The provider that develops a solution for this dilemma will have better cards than their competitors. In any case we are working on it.

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Source: Zeitschrift "Automation", issue Automatica 2010