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Moving things forward – R&D in linear motion technology

Moving things forward – R&D in linear motion technology

We talk to Steve Rendall, design manager at HepcoMotion, a leading manufacturer in linear technology, about the role and future of research and development in linear motion systems.

From high-speed packaging applications, to pick and place gantry systems to automated production cells, linear motion technology plays a fundamental role in modern production. Working across a wide range of industries with an almost endless list of possible applications, working with linear motion means working at the forefront of technology. Steve Rendall, has been working in the area for over 20 years, so we were keen to get his perspective.

R&D is not necessarily a field most people would think of first when talking about linear motion systems. What role does R&D play in this area?

Fundamentally, we make products that move things from one place to another. However, the way in which we do this is constantly evolving. We need to keep pace with overall developments in production technology to be able to satisfy our customers’ needs. We need to understand what impact these developments have on the actual production line so that we can enable these changes with our products.

For instance, customers look for solutions that allow them to increase the speed of their production whilst maintaining absolute positional accuracy. Flexibility in the production line to make product changes on the fly is also an increasing requirement. These needs were at the origin of the development of our GFX Hepco Guidance system. The system was developed in close cooperation with Beckhoff to fit their eXtended Transport System (XTS) that allows movers to be controlled individually using linear servo motor technology.

Most ideas in R&D have their origin in feedback from our salesforce on the ground. A good example for that is our Precision Track System (PRT2) range which was first introduced in the early 1990s. However, over the years people wanted it one size bigger or smaller, with slight modifications, which led us to develop a modular based product range that was launched in 2009.

In your view, what is the key to being a successful R&D team?

We are always looking for something different that no one else has on offer. By identifying gaps in the market, we can offer new solutions, which give our customers a competitive advantage. In order to find a competitive advantage, you have to look at every single component of the product such as the manufacturing methods, the material or the type of lubricant that is used.

Lastly, there is nothing better than actually making the parts and testing them in real life circumstances, which is why we work very closely with the engineers on the shop floor, as well as within our test facility. When developing a new product, we spend roughly a quarter of the time testing it.

What is a typical day like working in R&D and how long on average does it take your team to complete a project?

Of course, we are constantly searching for new product ideas but much of our daily work is to find ways of improving our products’ ability to cope with variances in environment, changes in lubrication, accuracy in mounting and so on.

Overall, our work is split between desk based work and spending time on the shop floor. We have our own test facilities that we are constantly using. There, we may be testing our heavy-duty application to see how the offset load affects the performance of the bearings or we may test the impact of different lubricants within bearings or alternative materials for slide and ring components.

Our tests can run over several months. All this is designed to be able to provide the customer with more accurate assessments of the life span and performance of our products. As a result, the completion of a project can take anything from a few months to a couple of years when we develop an entirely new product.

Are you involved with customers directly?

Not on a regular basis, however, we do get directly involved at times when customers have a very specific challenge.

For instance, when Walter Maschinenbau, one of the world leading manufacturers of tool grinding machines and optical CNC measuring machines, wanted to develop a new CNC controlled Helitronic tool grinder, they needed a product that could link 12 or 24 x 254mm diameter grinding discs and traverse them around a circuit without them clashing. The challenge here was to find a solution that would fit in the extremely tight space that was available.

Other solutions on the market would not work, so we decided to trial our 1-Trak system that we were developing at the time. The advantage of this system is that it can be made into almost any conceivable 2D-shape and in doing so it can fit into areas where space is limited.

Can you tell me some other examples of product enhancements that your team has introduced?

We have recently been working on some enhancements to our core GV3 linear motion range. These include a new side-access adjustment (SAA) carriage which negates the need to remove mounted fixtures from the carriage plate when adjusting the bearings. This is particularly advantageous if the customer has complex components mounted to the carriage plate that would be time-consuming to remove and then re-attach. Engineers can simply adjust the bearings with the fixtures in place to remove any wear or play, to return the system to its original running condition.

There is a big push in the UK to attract more young people into engineering. What sort of background are you looking for when you search for people to join your R&D team?

Clearly, we are a mechanical engineering company and so you do need a solid mechanical engineering background to work in this area. I started in 1995 in technical sales and worked there for nine years before moving into R&D. In my view, this is a good way to progress because you get an in-depth understanding for what the clients need. Our team currently comprises of six people with a good mix of skills and industry experience – including two former apprentices.

What do you think has changed most since you first joined the company back in 1995?

When I first started at Hepco, we were selling mainly individual components. Now we see a growing interest in system-based products. Wherever possible, people want to buy a complete system that meets the requirements of the application, and so we are evolving in the same direction. We do more and more systems like our Driven Track System (DTS and DTS2) and full gantry systems. With the growing possibilities for automation, there is an increasing demand for solutions that reduce downtime and require very little maintenance. With our V guide technology, we are well positioned to do this.

Lastly, what is the part you enjoy most about your work?

Being able to design things that solve real application problems and see these ideas being realised is something that I find very satisfying. I also enjoy keeping abreast of all the latest developments in mechanical engineering and working with new processes and techniques to improve our product in ways that were not possible just a few years ago.

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