Major controls companies supplying brands like Barber-Colman, Allen-Bradley and GE Fanuc are targeting a big, but tough, market: injection press manufacturers that currently make their own controls.
The reason for the bullishness? It boils down to economics, technology and what controls executives claim is growing ``pull-through'' demand for their products by the people who buy molding machines — plastics processors.
``We are very serious in looking at very quick growth worldwide with [original equipment manufacturers],'' said John Simontacchi, vice president and general manager of Barber-Colman Co.'s Industrial Instruments Division.
At archrival Allen-Bradley Co. Inc., James Coburn said: ``We are more and more focused on acquiring OEM business. So it's a strategic direction of ours. We are actively interested in working with OEMs.''
Technological advances also are driving the change, as more molders link machine controls to other systems that let managers monitor an entire factory.
Coburn said machinery company attitudes are evolving.
``Essentially what they're saying is, `I can put this big, upfront loaded cost into my system, called my design department, or I can buy that same capability from somebody else and not have that loaded, permanent cost.' That is a decision that's ultimately made by financial people,'' he said. ``After all the kicking and screaming is done, the person who typically makes that decision is the president of the company who has shareholder equity in mind.''
Measured in terms of players that build injection molding machines in North America, the list is fairly small. But these machinery factories — Van Dorn Demag Corp. and HPM Corp. in Ohio and Engel North America in Ontario and Pennsylvania — are major, high-volume producers shipping machines around the globe.
Picking up that business is not going to be easy, however. While officials at Van Dorn Demag, Engel and HPM keep an open mind, they point out their companies had good reasons to bring controls in-house in the first place.
Barber-Colman scored a recent win. HPM picked Barber-Colman's Maco 4000 as the standard controller on two of its machines, the Universal toggle press and the Access tie-barless machine.
Now Barber-Colman wants to keep the ball rolling. ``Barber-Colman today is gaining market share from captive OEMs,'' said Bart Polizotto, product manager of automation systems products.
Polizotto was interviewed on the day of the HPM announcement, Feb. 18, at Barber-Colman in Loves Park, Ill. Polizotto — echoing other controls-supplier executives — said he is talking to machinery companies, but he declined to identify them.
Polizotto did throw out a tidbit from Western Plastics Expo, held in January in California. ``At WPE, I was talking to one of the larger injection OEMs and they invited me to work with their engineering group to come up with a next-generation controls system that would be a combination of a part of their own design, and a part of other people's designs.''
HPM's decision meant Barber-Colman actually regained business it lost a decade ago when Mount Gilead, Ohio-based HPM, decided to make its own controls. Barber-Colman had supplied HPM's first programmable logic controllers in the early 1980s.
PLCs arrived on the scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They changed plastics machines rapidly, and forever. First, simple one-bit microprocessors replaced the old relay switches. Next came controls with computer screens.
Back then, most machinery builders had little choice. They had to go with off-the-shelf controls from companies that knew PLCs — often, Barber-Colman. Allen-Bradley began targeting plastics equipment in the late 1980s.
But, in the case of Van Dorn and HPM, controls suppliers were not able to hang on to the business.
HPM's move to build its own Command controller began in the mid-1980s.
``The company brought in new, young engineers that brought the latest electronic technology,'' said Jeff Kolosky, manager of electrical engineering and advanced control systems. ``Together with some seasoned personnel, we were able to put together a system that we felt was leaps and bounds ahead of what was then available, because we knew the product, we knew our internal engineering capability and we knew what the customer wanted.''
Plastics machines were adding closed-loop control and complex features specific to injection molding, such as proportional valves and better temperature control. Off-the-shelf controls were deemed inadequate.
So why is HPM back with Barber-Colman?
``Our customers today demand a price-effective machine in small tonnage, and that led us to Barber-Colman,'' said Stephen Byrnes, HPM's vice president and general manager of injection molding.
While a Maco 4000 control is standard on the Universal and Access machines, HPM has not standardized on Maco controls for its entire line. Far from it. HPM still makes its own Command 9000 as standard on its hydraulic line, called the Modular.
Access machines sold in Europe have Moog/Buhl controllers. Siemens controls are standard on HPM's two-platen press, the Next Wave, which was developed in Germany by its operation in Schwerin.
While talks with Barber-Colman are ongoing, HPM will continue to meet special requests for controls from any supplier, Byrnes said. HPM also will keep making its Command 9000, which Byrnes said is popular.
``We are looking at Barber-Colman as an offering on all of our product lines. That is an absolutely correct statement,'' Byrnes said. ``However, our customers demand flexibility, and in all of our discussions with Barber-Colman, we have always alluded to the fact that we will meet our customer demand.''
For example, two 5,000 Next Wave presses HPM built for Saturn Corp. have GE Fanuc controls — at Saturn's request. GE Fanuc got the nod because Saturn's assembly plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., has standardized on that firm's industrial controls, according to Vince Tullo, vice president of global PLC business at GE Fanuc Automation North America Inc.
For years, Allen-Bradley has enjoyed a similar advantage, especially in automotive molding. The company won business as part of Rockwell Automation, North America's largest industrial automation supplier, with nearly $8 billion in 1997 sales.
Although Allen-Bradley is changing, traditionally its controls have been end-user specified. That means if Allen-Bradley/Rockwell controls ran the assembly line and the metal stamping machines, chances are that buyers wanted them on injection presses as well.
The reason, in controls-speak, is something called connectivity. Controls from Supplier A are easily linked to Supplier A's plantwide monitoring system. But that is changing, too. Automakers now want open systems, because that opens up a wider selection of vendors.
The move to open architecture systems, via personal computer-based controls and protocols such as Ethernet represent some of the strongest forces buffeting machine controls today. Ron Sparer, manager of controls and automation at Cincinnati Milacron Inc., said the emergence of PC-based controls is changing Milacron's core beliefs.
Sparer said Milacron actually has turned down business from customers that wanted another brand of controls on an injection press. Despite claims of interconnectivity, he said, ``to say that you can, in an instant, switch controllers and get the same performance out of the machine is just not accurate.''
But that is changing. PC-based controls can liberate molders to use different controllers and monitoring systems, he said. In the
future, machine performance will be based on software, not hardware.
``Now, with the PC-based control, it doesn't become an issue anymore,'' Sparer said.
At NPE 1997, Milacron demonstrated this concept on an early version of its Camac Xtreem. The futuristic controller runs on Windows NT. AT NPE, using NT, the Xtreem was linked to an Allen-Bradley remote input/output module using the DeviceNet protocol, and an I/O from Bernecker + Rainer using Canbus.
For Milacron, making controls in-house was part of a longtime corporate culture — a culture that changed in 1995 when Milacron sold off its Electronic Systems Division to Vickers Electronic Systems. Now Vickers makes the controllers and sells them back to Milacron.
Sparer said as the company moves to a totally PC-based control, Milacron now is looking at other suppliers, including Allen-Bradley and two Austrian companies, B+R and Sigmatek. Milacron's German-made Ferromatik presses use B+R controllers.
Allen-Bradley's NPE exhibit showed how Windows can simplify things. ``You can take an Excel package and literally in a couple of mouse clicks be reading constantly updated data right off the PLC on your machine,'' said Coburn, director of application programs and market and business development at Allen-Bradley's Automation Group in Mayfield Heights, Ohio.
Controls makers enthusiastically point to Milacron's sale of ESD as proof that, when it comes to controls, machinery companies don't have to own the means of production. Sparer agrees.
``The main reason that so many [machinery companies] had built their own controls is because they have such a huge investment in software and they did not want to be held captive to any particular venture, for price increases and things like that,'' Sparer said. ``But with the advent of the PC technology, our software is now portable between different vendors. So we do not have the exposure of being held captive by any particular vendor, because the cost of changing suppliers is minimal.''
Controls makers use the ``mass production'' argument. They make lots of controllers. They — not the machine makers — have large engineering staffs dedicated to new technology.
``Some of the larger suppliers of controllers, like Barber-Colman, have enough volume that in some cases the controller costs less than an in-house one,'' Polizotto said.
Those outlooks may be correct, but Van Dorn Demag will think long and hard before it outsources its controls again.
``We've used a number of people's controls throughout our history,'' said Tom Richards, manager of controls and electrical development. ``First was mostly SCI controls. Then Barber-Colman shortly after that, followed by Siemens.''
Van Dorn Demag of Strongsville, Ohio, switched from Barber-Colman to Siemens for its Pathfinder El controller — but ended up taking controls in-house about five years ago. Today, APSCO International of Perry, Ohio, manufactures the controller components according to Van Dorn Demag's design specifications. Van Dorn Demag technicians handle final assembly and wiring, and make the cabinets, at a facility in Brunswick, Ohio.
Van Dorn Demag's relationship with Siemens didn't work out. ``For us, the issues were performance, time and cost,'' said Patrice Aylward, Van Dorn marketing communications manager.
What about lower costs via mass production? ``We found no mass production benefit because, when they were designing software only for our industry, and for our machines only, there's no more mass benefit,'' Aylward said. Any time Van Dorn Demag wanted to make changes, that racked up costly charges and stretched out lead times.
``That cost benefit just didn't exist. Our charges were not what I would put into the cost-effective category,'' he said.
Even so, Richards said Van Dorn Demag will keep its options open, albeit cautiously.
``We're always looking at what the new offerings are out there. ... We're not so stubborn to say we have to provide our own controls, but so far, to this date, we couldn't find a cost-effective way of doing it'' by outsourcing, he said.
Heinz Felder, who handles business development at Siemens Energy & Automation Inc. in Alpharetta, Ga., said the cost problems centered around software changes. Siemens also created a dedicated operator interface for Van Dorn. But fast-forward to today, with PC-based controls, and those problems would disappear, he said.
Felder said Siemens' strategy now is to package its standard Simatic PLC with fully open, decentralized systems.
Machinery companies spend a lot of time designing operator interfaces — the touch-pad panel the machine operator uses to set up the machine — and that makes them loathe to change. But in the ever-more-open future, one company's interface could be paired with another company's controller.
Allen-Bradley talks a lot about openness as well.
``In the old PLC days, we were an end-user-oriented company that was absolutely bulletproof and had this real thick wall around it,'' Coburn said. ``Nobody could do anything without Allen-Bradley's absolute blessing. Well, as the markets moved more and more toward open controls, we've taken a much more open stance about integrating much more specific stuff into our controls. So it's not unreasonable to assume that, with a given OEM, their interface works with our PLC.''
Even if plug-and-play becomes a reality, machinery companies still will tend to standardize on a single controls supplier, according to controls officials.
In the case of HPM, that means GE Fanuc Automation North America will keep talking. GE Fanuc wants more business than just the two Saturn machines, said Tullo of GE Fanuc in Charlottesville, Va.
``We take a very, very aggressive approach to both the end-users specification and the OEM value added,'' Tullo said. ``We have to be able to provide solutions for HPM that are compelling enough to make them use our product.''
Processor demand for a given brand of controller can influence a machinery maker. Barber-Colman wants to win machinery OEM business through the retrofit market.
``We've gone in and updated their existing machinery,'' Polizotto said. ``They liked it and they wanted to stay with it, so they sent letters out to new OEMs saying, `We want to buy a new machine. We want it to be the same controller as the one we have in-house. Only quote us the machine if it has a Barber-Colman controller on it.'''
Barber-Colman also thinks it can gain business by selling its Windows NT-based plantwide supervisory software, Foxtraker.
Simontacchi said the company's strategy covers both retrofitting its Maco controllers onto existing machines and winning business from machine manufacturers.
Engel, an Austrian company that produces injection presses in Guelph, Ontario, and York, Pa., has followed a course similar to Van Dorn — designing its controls, then turning to a circuit board maker, Keba Automation of Linz, Austria.
``Engel had the first computer-controlled machine on the market, the CC-80'' in the early 1980s, said Mark Read, controls engineering manager at Engel North America.
``Keba basically packages it for us. They ship a package to us and we do the final configuration in Guelph and York,'' Read said.
Engel also offers its own plantwide monitoring system that gathers data from a number of machines and allows remote machine and robot setups.
Keba has been Engel's partner controls from day one, some 14 years. That consistency makes it hard to switch suppliers, or go to an off-the-shelf unit, he said.
``If you go back to a 1985 Engel machine and take a modern [Engel] machine, and look at a page, it's going to be similar on both of them,'' Read said.
Even in a plug-and-play world, changing controls is not as easy as people pitching the concept claim, Read cautioned.
``The control system, for it to work effectively and be optimized, it has to be tied to the hydraulic system,'' he said.
Milacron's Sparer said the machine is tied to its control.
``The analogy I always give is the computer on your car,'' he said. ``That's its controller. Expecting to go to a General Motors car and pull it out and put it in your Ford car and having it work — it won't.''