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Greater choice needed as Britain automates

Greater choice needed as Britain automates
We ask the experts at HepcoMotion how they see the market for linear and rotary actuators changing, and how products are being developed to meet emerging requirements.

As British manufacturers seek to take advantage of the weak Euro to boost export sales they are steadily turning their attention to automation to increase cost competitiveness. Many are looking at bespoke systems that are dedicated to the needs of a specific application. And this is where there is a growing need for engineering component and sub-assembly suppliers to provide a wider choice of options.

"Companies are trying to improve their efficiency in different ways," explains HepcoMotion's Technical Manager (Sales) Jason Cox. "Some simply bolt-on a proprietary handling system but many others are building their own to enable the output of production machinery to be optimised. Special purpose machinery has always been a major market for HepcoMotion but demand is increasing and the onus is on companies such as ours to provide the spread of products that British industry now needs."

The requirement is not just for a range of different sizes, it's also for a wider choice of design options to suit the budget and the application. So in the case of the HepcoMotion precision ring track system PRT2, for example, the customer now has the option of double edge, single edge and ring discs. "The double edge ring is a 'jack of all trades' product giving customers the option to use either the inside or outside vee profile.  Rarely do they use both," Cox clarifies. "Single edge rings are more application specific, giving more drive capacity at a lower price. And ring discs provide a useful built-in mounting area along with improved accuracy."

Another important factor in production cost efficiency is best use of space. Clearly every manufacturer wants to get the very best return on every square metre of machine shop so here again the emphasis is on product choice so that the optimum configuration can be specified. For example, often a track system using two large diameter segments in an oval format is more space efficient than using four smaller segments in a rectangular layout.

There is also growing demand for more compact linear systems in the assembly of small items. The increasing miniaturisation of electronics has called for systems based on much smaller components with a far greater degree of precision. A good example of a product whose introduction has been driven by this need is the HepcoMotion SBD sealed belt drive. It was developed to be a compact and extremely clean linear solution and incorporates a flush, metal cover strip that runs the length of the unit and houses the ball guide. This prevents the ingress of dirt and debris, preserving the life of the product. Customer request prompted HepcoMotion to extend the SBD size options downwards to accommodate the demanding duty cycles that are common in micro-electronic assembly. Predictably, orders for this new addition initially came from the Far East but now the domestic market is following suit.

Clean room and fit-and-forget
This manufacturing sector has also been responsible for the introduction of new processes, several of which are performed in clean room conditions. Cox adds: "For these applications our SBD product has a different sealing method and contains more stainless steel components. We also provide extraction ports in the beam to enable the customer to add a partial vacuum system to remove any debris from inside the unit before it becomes airborne."

Along with automation comes the need to minimise downtime. There is also increasing call for machines to run 24/7 and in many of these cases maintenance is more difficult and the distance travelled by the linear system much higher.  

Build quality to ensure reliability is a key factor here but there are other elements too. Lubrication is one of them. To enhance its minimal maintenance credentials, for example, HepcoMotion has introduced bleed lubrication as an option on its systems. This continuously doses lubrication through holes, direct into the vee-profile contact faces to eliminate any need for servicing downtime. Systems' building has always been a strong element in areas which benefit from large R&D budgets. The pharmaceutical and nuclear industries are prime examples but others are also emerging such the renewable energy sector - wind, solar, tidal and wave power. Manufacturers in this field benefit from Government sponsorship and as a result there is a lot of innovative thinking going on.  

"It's impossible to predict any trend in this market, it's moving so fast and in different directions," Cox continues. "On my desk today, for example, I have an enquiry for a 9m diameter ring for wave power generation. And it's a system that will also need to be corrosion resistant."

Although this sector may have more development funds at its disposal it still wants to get the best value for money. So it is important that although this particular requirement clearly falls into the 'specials' category, it should be constructed from standard elements. This not only contains costs but also eliminates long lead times. "HepcoMotion has taken this need very seriously and invested a lot of R&D time in perfecting the art of manufacturing ring segments to ensure both concentricity and smooth running of the finished product, whatever its diameter. Ring systems greater than 8m are now eminently feasible for us," Cox explains.

He continues: "The trend is very clearly towards larger rings for indexing tables and medical scanners where a large diameter is an advantage. Another new market is suntracking, where solar cells and even large structures such as houses are optimally orientated towards the sun." 

The final area of consideration is materials choice. There is increasing demand for linear systems that can withstand all weathers or washdown and are destined for either hostile or ultra-hygienic environments. For them stainless steel and corrosion resistance are vital. Cox concludes: "HepcoMotion thinks it is important that these needs are accommodated within a standard product programme so the customer can specify the optimum system for the job without the cost and time penalties normally associated with specials."
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