Triple attack brings R&D to market

One of the world’s leading fluid power companies focuses its R&D to increase market share and beat recessionary doldrums. Tom Shelley reports

One of the world’s leading fluid power companies focuses its R&D to increase market share and beat recessionary doldrums. Tom Shelley reports A major European automation company is greatly advancing its business by directing its R&D using a multi-pronged strategy. The firm’s main effort is devoted to sitting down with its biggest customers in order to both understand and meet their needs, while at the same time attacking ‘blue sky’ projects for the future, as well as keeping an eye on what’s coming up in its user groups. This is being brought together by a common solutions database, a serious attempt to reduce and rationalise its product range and an increasing use of IT to deliver optimum solutions to the full client base. Festo is justly proud of the fact that, despite problems in the world market, and even bigger problems in its home market, it maintained sales in 2001 and increased its market share from 15.1% to 17.1%. The company may be big but its approach is applicable to all. Efficient firms should find that they do these things already but, for the many who do not, we suggest this is an example they should learn from. Werner Reichelt, head of industry segment Automotive, told Eureka that he spent a lot of time at the DaimlerChrysler Mercedes factory in Sindelfingen, talking to their engineers about what they wanted, so his company could modify products to best fulfil future needs and aspirations. One example of such a development is a high speed picker, revealed to Eureka by Martin Beier, product management Drives Handling. The device, a combination of rotary actuator and cam slot, directs a suction cup backwards and forwards through an inverted ‘U’ shaped path. It requires only two sensors, one at each end of its traverse, and a single valve. It can, nonetheless, move from picking to placing and back again 120 to 140 times/min. None of the underlying technologies are new, but the way they have been put together solves a problem in a novel way, increasing speed and reducing complexity and cost. Developed for a particular customer, it will be commercially available in March. Another example is a tiny pneumatic gripper, 21mm across, which is able to exert a gripping force of 20 to 30N. It can pick and place electronic components weighing up to 50g at accelerations of 2 to 4g. Cost, weight and complexity are reduced making it single acting with no sensing. Muscles in the sky One example of a ‘blue sky’ project is the continued development of Fluidic Muscles – cylinders of rubber reinforced with two layers of aramid fibres which contract under inflation. The original idea, patented 50 years ago by a US inventor Mr McKibben, was developed in order to improve prosthetics. Applications currently exist in animatronics and automation but, says Steve Sands, of Festo UK, R&D is looking at making actuators down to 1mm across for micro robotics. In larger sizes, Dr Ansgar Kriwet, head of production management control, mentioned automotive projects involving the use of pyrotechnics to provide emergency seat belt retraction, with accelerations of up to 70g. Advantages include forces up to ten times greater than those possible with conventional cylinders of similar diameter, absence of stick slip and a completely sealed construction – making them suitable both for very clean and very dirty environments. The downsides are that movement is limited to 25% of total length, stiffness is dependent on temperature and they can only pull and not push. Sales are currently about 2,000/year as opposed to 100,000s of conventional cylinders. Users embrace web Ideas from the user groups include web-, PDA- and mobile phone-based diagnostics. Eberhard Klotz, product management Valve Terminals, told Eureka that Festo plans to continue the trend of putting more diagnostics into valve terminals and systems. The terminals presently include short-circuit protection on outputs and monitoring of quality of the power supply. If power is out of tolerance or below 10V, the electronics send out a warning signal. The firm is also implementing cycle counters to trigger preventive maintenance after a certain number of operations are undertaken and the monitoring of operating times to flag up signs of sticking. In future, diagnostics will monitor each and every valve input and output and indicate emerging problems to controlling PLCs via fieldbuses, along with indications as to exactly which valve is experiencing what kind of difficulty. At the Hannover Fair, the firm plans to announce a handheld monitor with an Ethernet interface. This will allow the monitoring of valve terminals and whatever is connected to them and will be able to communicate over the web. The idea has been around for a while in the drives arena (the Siemens T8, Eureka October 2002) but it’s pretty new in pneumatics. Added complexity may solve some problems, but it can also create others. The current Festo paper catalogue of 18,000 products runs to 4,500 pages in seven volumes, at a cost to the firm of eur100 per volume. Major customers will continue to demand and expect visits by qualified sales engineers to advise them on ordering, and to discuss new product designs. But for smaller clients, and for Festo itself, there’s a clear need to rationalise the product range and develop better software to help select optimum solutions. Dr Ekkehard Gericke, director of order fulfilment management told us: “We have to fight complexity. We have so many parts.” Tilman Schaeffer, of the Department of Integrated Business Platform Sales revealed that when setting up an automated system, 90% of the costs are taken up by design, including the correct selection of components, and commissioning. Only 10% actually goes on the hardware. The firm has an excellent online catalogue and selection tools, but senior management made it clear that two of their main goals are to rationalise and simplify the product range, and come up with better software tools to find answers to questions more quickly. A lot of time is now saved because a standardised SAP-powered infrastructure ensures world-wide access to all product developments through a central system. Standardised part numbers facilitate links for regional products. The central R&D headquarters in Esslingen, Technology Engineering Centres at home and abroad and Regional Engineering Centres in the NAFTA, ASEAN, Mercosur and Far Eastern Regions are all networked. In theory at least, it should never now be necessary to ‘reinvent the wheel’ if somebody has already done it before. TS