How Technology and Software Facilitate Complete Automation

By Jordan Scott

Automation can make a glass fabricator’s operation quicker, safer and more cost effective. Those benefits coupled with the ongoing skilled labor shortage have made increased plant automation an attractive investment. To meet fabricators’ needs, machinery manufacturers have integrated advanced glass fabrication technology with the latest in software, making it possible to create a fully automated facility.

Beginning to End

Achieving a fully automated glass fabrication facility is possible, but it requires money and planning.

“For float glass, the automation level is very high already. Inspection, marking, cutting, snapping, conveying, scrapping and stacking are already automated. The personnel on site are there in case of troubleshooting, maintenance and for making non-automated adjustments to the line,” says Markus Gruber, senior vice president of Germany-based Grenzebach Maschinenbau’s glass business unit. “These non-automated adjustments, such as manual setting edge trim or cutting equipment, are areas that could be automated. But the question is whether that is commercially feasible.”

Joseph Gates, vice president of Lattuada North America of Northwood, Ohio, says several companies in the U.S. are trying to create an automated line from beginning to end. Some companies in Europe have already achieved this; one is running two completely automated lines with only four employees on the floor.

“They’re basically there to keep an eye out and if an emergency appears someone can intervene and take care of the problem,” he says, but he doesn’t believe a line could operate without any employees since someone needs to ensure the line doesn’t break down.

A facility’s layout can be one of the biggest obstacles to achieving full automation, says Thomas Bechill, sales manager at German company Hegla Corp. in Stockbridge, Ga. A plant has to have the space and layout to support the production flow, which makes it difficult for existing plants to move toward a fully automated line.

“You’ve got your plant running production and you can’t shut down for three months so you can move all your equipment around. It’s difficult to do a full automation solution in an existing facility unless it’s planned for in advanced,” he says.

Advances in Automation

“An overlooked aspect is how much time companies are spending moving a product from one process to the next,” says Bechill, adding that he’s seen increased demand for automated guided vehicles, which transport storage racks between the cutting and individual processing stations.

Tempering furnaces have also seen growth in automation. In the past, tempering furnaces were considered an offline machine, according to Nancy Mammaro, CEO of Mappi, based in Cisterna di Latina, Italy. She explains that only large companies with special product production were able to have an online furnace.

“Today, thanks to more flexible tempering furnaces that include more integrated software, it is easily automated,” she says. “We have [been involved in] several installations worldwide where the plant is fully automated.”

Mappi’s furnaces include Siemens MindSphere, which collects data from connected machinery to optimize operations. Mammaro’s company adopted the technology because it easily exports large amounts of data.

“In the past, automation was related to a large production series. Today there is a trend toward a higher level of personalization,” she says. “In order to avoid humans’ potential for mistakes due to the high level of variations, companies rely on automation that is well-integrated with software from enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems to customer relationship management (CRM) programs.”

Bechill says Hegla’s furnaces have an automation system that fills the bed to use as much of the space as it can without overfilling it so the lites still are heated evenly.

“There are hundreds of heating zones so we can precisely control where the heat goes on the glass. This lets us maximize density,” he says.

Thermal couples tell the facility operator the actual temperature of the glass in hundreds of positions so they know where to add or reduce heat to get an even profile across the glass.

Software Solutions

Software does more than just tell the machines what to do or how to interact with each other, it also helps to optimize production through tracking and by exporting data. Software advancement, virtual labeling and Internet of Things (IoT) platforms are helping companies to further automate their facilities, says Mammaro.

“Software today is the brain and heart of almost every aspect of our lives, including machinery,” she says.

“Software is one of the fields that will show tremendous development in the future. Although all machines communicate with a central control unit, generally this communication currently is often limited to signals that are needed for a proper execution of all process steps,” says Gruber. “In the future, the amount of data exchange between each machine will increase dramatically and this will allow companies to analyze the data provided in order to draw conclusions that will improve the quality and quantity of the line and, at the same time, reduce the resources needed.”

Gates says that software allows for better glass tracking throughout the production process so someone doesn’t have to watch or input data for each glass lite manually. He explains that once the data for a glass lite is entered, the software will keep track of which services it needs as it moves down the line.

“Some people use scanners with labels so they know the glass lite’s information throughout the process whereas some people set it all up at the beginning so there’s no interruption,” he says.

With Industry 4.0, many machines can talk to any other advanced machine, even if it comes from a different company. For example, Lattuada’s equipment can be integrated into a line with other machines, though older machines may require an electrical upgrade to make automation possible.

Bechill says Hegla uses an open format to make integration possible.

“We can sell you software but we’re happy to interface because it creates more opportunities. The majority of our machines are interfaced with what the customer is using already,” he says. “… In some cases we’re interfacing with a Lisec seaming line that’s feeding into our printing line that’s then feeding into a Glaston tempering furnace … It’s
pretty normal and the way it’s supposed to be … It’s not realistic that you’re going to sell a customer an entire package.”

While a good software program may cost more upfront, Gates says it can increase productivity and reduce downtime, which creates savings for a company.

Jordan Scott is an assistant editor for USGlass magazine. She can be reached at jscott@glass.com.

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