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Intelligent Transport Technology – What Is It Good For?

Written by: Justin Nikila, Motion Control Specialist

Conveyor belts are a lot like trains:

  • You cannot move one part of a train without moving the whole thing.
  • The caboose isn’t going anywhere that the engine doesn’t take it
  • Precise and dynamic movements? Not likely.
  • They’re loud and dirty.

Okay, it’s an imperfect analogy—but does that sound a lot like your current product transport system?

  • Fixed pitch?
  • Inflexible?
  • Imprecise?
  • Lots of wear parts and maintenance?
  • Not very scalable?

To be fair, clever solutions have been developed for these problems: “race track” conveyors, pneumatic gates, and additional conveyors. One or two of these may be acceptable for a machine, but at some point you need to move on from Band-Aids and upgrade your industrial transport system.

If conveyor belts are trains, then Intelligent Transport Systems are autonomous vehicles—zooming about completely independently, planning their own routes, queueing patiently when necessary, ganging up when that’s more efficient, and performing the most seamless zipper-merges you’ve ever seen. Minneapolis drivers—you could learn a lot from these things.
Intelligent Transport Technology goes by a lot of names. Next-Gen Product Transport, Track Technology, and Long-Stator Linear Motors, if you want to get pedantic. All of these are terms for the same thing—a smarter way to move products during processing. And while there are a lot of varieties out there, I’ll be focusing on the fully electro-magnetic ones. These are the highest performance and typically consist of a stator (the coils)—which makes up the track or surface that the shuttles move on—and permanent magnets—affixed to a shuttle of some sort. Energize the coils, move the magnets. Pretty straightforward.

Now that we have a new approach to product transport, let’s look at that list again:

  • Fixed pitch? Fully independent shuttles, able to change pitch instantaneously.
  • Inflexible? Multi-directional, divert-able, hot swappable, synchronize-able, gang-able, anti-sloshing product movers.
  • Imprecise? Micron-level repeatability, sophisticated motion profiles, and able to be very tightly coupled to external axes for coordinated motion.
  • Lots of wear parts and maintenance? Other than the rollers, almost no wear parts or maintenance required.
  • Not very scalable? These systems are infinitely* scalable.

(*Not infinitely. That would be ridiculous.)

Let’s take a closer look at what sets Intelligent Transport Technology apart:

The manufacturing world is changing. Machines need to be more flexible, more adaptive, more dynamic.
Variety packs aren’t just for sugary cereals anymore. A quick Google search finds the following now available in variety packs:

  • Beer
  • Chips
  • Underwear
  • Seeds
  • Motivational Awards

Online consumers are demanding more customized products. The expectation is that if I want something, I’m going to go online and configure it to the exact specifications I need. My size (Medium), my color (Tuscan Sun), my trim package (Uber Gaudy), and maybe even my name emblazoned on the side. Today’s conventional product transport systems simply cannot handle this level of customization. And the changes they can handle often require significant change-over time. Intelligent transport systems can change their pitch on the fly. They can reroute their assembly paths. They can gang shuttles into a group of three for a slower process before singulating again for the faster processes downstream. They can divert every other (or every 3rd, or every 6th) product to another channel where the product can be flipped upside-down. They can skip stations entirely, or dwell twice as long to heat seal a thicker material. This flexibility is critical for adaptive machines.

The labor market is shrinking. OEMs and End Users alike are citing this as the primary driver for making machines smarter. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find, train, and retain operators to run the equipment. This means the equipment needs to get smarter and more self-sufficient.

  • Change-overs need to touchless (or close to it)
  • Maintenance needs to be minimal and predictive
  • Problems need to be self-diagnosed and personnel alerted
  • And all of it needs to be accessible remotely.

I addressed change-overs previously, but let’s look at maintenance. How many wear parts are in a traditional conveyance system? How many moving parts? How many belts that can stretch over time? And how much down-time is associated with all of this maintenance? What does that do to your OEE? The beauty of an electro-magnetic system is in its simplicity. Energized coils and passive magnets. With some rollers in between. Those rollers will wear over time—we’re talking about tens of thousands of kilometers of travel—and there are often a few other minor wear parts, like anti-static brushes and lubrication pads. But all of those wear parts are on the shuttle itself. This means that the vast majority of the maintenance you need to do on your product transport system can be done while your system is running. If a shuttle requires maintenance, simply remove it at an opportune time and let the system keep running and producing parts. What does that do to your OEE?

What happens when demand spikes and you need to get a lot more out of your machine than you did in the past? Will your machine grow cleanly? Can you quickly break it apart, extend it, and add a second heat seal station to expand the bottleneck? With intelligent transport systems you can. How about that rotary dial machine? Do you have a good way to parallelize that problematic process where you put the cap on the bottle—or do you need to completely redesign your system? With diversion in an intelligent transport system, it’s easy to add a parallel path with a second bottle-capping station. One bottle-capper goes down, reroute all bottles through the second bottle-capper. Your throughput may suffer a bit, but at least you’re producing parts.

Absolutely everything? Not by a long shot. I’ve told OEMs and End Users on multiple occasions that
Intelligent Transport Systems aren’t a good fit for their application. They didn’t need it. Sure, there may have been some benefits, but they were not cost justified.

Intelligent Transport Systems are most valuable in systems that require flexibility. Systems that, if flexible enough, can do the work of multiple traditional machines. KRONES shows a great example of this here. These are typically machines that need to produce products with many permutations and combinations—multiple bottle sizes, caps, labels, and flavors—and they need to produce them at rate. This Batch Size 1 manufacturing can only be achieved with truly flexible product transport.

This new approach to product transport is also a slam-dunk in systems where multiple conveyors are currently being used to accommodate different pitch requirements throughout the process. All of these conveyors can often be reduced to a single Intelligent Transport System with variable pitch. In addition to eliminating conveyors, the complex transport mechanisms that were previously required to move the products from one conveyor to the next can also be eliminated.

In addition to systems that need more flexibility or fewer conveyors, there’s a third type of system that can benefit greatly from Intelligent Transport Technology. This is a system that needs to produce 10,000 parts in the first year, possibly 25,000 in the second year, and God-only-knows-how-many in the third year. How do you design a system for an undefined throughput requirement? Easy. Build it on a scalable and future-proof foundation. Build it on a 4-meter oval track that can easily produce 10,000 parts in the first year. If the product doesn’t take off as expected, use the same system to produce 10,000 parts the next year. If it does take off, extend the oval by adding a 1-meter straight segment to each side and triple up the slow stations. Now it’s Year 3 and the world can’t live without your product? Add a few more straights. Double-up each of the slowest stations and run two shuttles through instead of one. Congratulations—you just doubled your throughput.

If I’ve done my job in this post, you’re at least a little intrigued and wondering how Intelligent Transport Technology could improve your machines. You’re also probably wondering where to start. That’s where we come in. Our engineers will work with you to evaluate your existing system and assess if and how this technology should be incorporated into your system.

You know your machine, your processes and your industry, and we know Intelligent Transport Technology. Together, we can take your machines to the next level of flexibility, adaptability and scalability. What are you waiting for?