Successful motion system implementation involves more than just the purchase of advanced positioning stages and control systems.
As a manufacturer of automation systems, motion control specialist Aerotech provides its customers with holistic support for high-precision and industry-specific automation processes. In the following interview, Aerotech managing director Norbert Ludwig and Brian O'Connor, vice president marketing, explain the choice customers have between a pure component solution, a customised motion subsystem and a fully integrated system.
How long has Aerotech been active in the market?
Norbert Ludwig (NL): We have been supplying standard product solutions such as motors, drives, controls and positioning tables since 1970. Our customised motion subsystems include positioning systems on granite structures with undercarriage and vibration isolation as well as external measuring systems.
And what characterises their integration solutions?
NL: Our integrated systems are near-turnkey machines designed with customers to run an automated process. They include not only Aerotech's own precision motion control components, but also full automation integration for such things as part handling, process instrumentation, safety features and custom software.
How does a component manufacturer achieve such integration competence?
NL: We have worked closely with customers from a wide range of industries over the past few years, moving further and further into the field of process automation. As a manufacturer of automation systems, we help manufacturing companies to optimally automate their process with the precision motion components we produce.
Brian O'Connor (BC): Aerotech Inc offers its customers a full range of integration options, from a low level integration, i.e. only motion components, to a turnkey automation machine. This differentiates us from a standard motion component supplier or a traditional integrator. Some customers want to build the machine themselves, while others are not entirely comfortable with this option. We are flexible in our approach and work closely with our customers to find the best solution for their needs.
When we develop a turnkey automation machine for a customer, we see it as a partnership. The customer knows the application and understands the process to produce their part, we are experts at taking the customer's process and building a machine based on it that performs that process with the highest accuracy and throughput possible.
And which customers do you have in your sights as a priority?
NL: Our integration know-how is particularly attractive for companies that are currently setting up, expanding or modernising production. Especially in the field of medical technology and precision manufacturing, many companies have neither the staff nor the vertical range of manufacture to develop mechanics and control systems in parallel. In addition, the solutions are becoming smarter and more complex, so that a single company can no longer master all the implementation steps. As a result, the know-how of the supplier is becoming increasingly important.
And this is where our actual work as a manufacturer of automation systems begins: We offer detailed integration consulting, at the end of which there is either the delivery of individual components, a subsystem that can be seamlessly integrated or a complete automation solution. Application training, courses and services round off our service portfolio.
Where do you see your biggest opportunities in the automation market?
NL: Aerotech has a high vertical range of manufacture, especially with regard to drive components and control elements. We have grown with our customers over the years and have gained application knowledge from many industrial sectors.
BC: Our philosophy of vertical integration allows us to be extremely flexible while ensuring quality and performance at all levels of the machine. Because we manufacture drives, motors, controls and positioning mechanics ourselves, we know exactly how they interact with each other and within an automation system. This allows our team to customise and optimise a machine with the highest possible output.
NL: If it's a laser welding process, for example, where the laser beam has to be deflected as quickly and precisely as possible, the experts know exactly which axes are suitable in combination with which galvo scanner. We can then prepare this accordingly, so that in the end the customer only has to couple and control his laser. He may also use our control platform, with which he can complete his laser welding system right away.
In addition, customer-specific specifications can be incorporated into the subsystem that go far beyond the component level at Aerotech. If the customer uses a control cabinet, for example, the Aerotech control electronics can be flexibly integrated there. Other elements that he needs, for example, to control his laser when measuring parts, can also be installed in the control cabinet.
On the mechanical side, for example, we also supply partially integrated systems that the customer only has to complete. If, for example, an adjustment system on granite is required for the machine, then our experts prepare this according to the customer's individual needs. Further additional applications such as laser beam guidance or sensor technology can then be integrated by the user as required. These are tasks that we are given every day. It is about offering the customer a freely expandable solution that is ready for use as quickly as possible without much effort and can also be flexibly adapted to the process requirements in the future.
How do you usually proceed with a system integration?
NL: The first step towards actual integration always starts with a detailed application consultation. During this consultation, customers learn that Aerotech control technology can be used to move much more than, for example, the 6 axes of a hexapod positioning system. If, for example, the laser needs to be triggered depending on the position of the hexapod and pulse fire at a certain point, then this can also be realised via the Automation1 control platform or the predecessor model A3200. In this way, the entire process can be operated from a central control unit.
Measuring processes can also be triggered via the Automation1 platform in such a way that measured values are processed and stored via analogue inputs so that the entire result is stored in a central control unit.
Our entire business strategy is designed for close cooperation and to give our clients a long-term competitive advantage in their respective market segments. That is why we ask intensively in advance what is to be achieved. In this way, we penetrate deeper and deeper into the actual application. Ideally, we can offer the customer a system where everything is already prepared so that he only has to configure his machine.
And what does something like this look like in concrete terms?
NL: A close collaboration has been established with a well-known Swiss manufacturer of ceramic dental implants. An Aerotech production system with integrated galvo scanner is used there for laser cutting of the micro grinding pins. The complete mechanical part with linear drive, axes and the A3200 control software came from Aerotech, while the housing and the remaining peripherals were assembled by the implant manufacturer's own team.
To process a workpiece, the manufacturing system is loaded by a handling robot. Both the robot and the measuring system used could be connected via Aerotech's control software. The medical device manufacturer had no experience with laser technology and how it could be integrated with a manufacturing system. They were also aware that there was no off-the-shelf system with an integrated laser; nevertheless, the company was looking for a supplier that could cover as wide a spectrum as possible.
With Aerotech, a suitable manufacturer of automation systems was found who was able to realise the idea of the desired production system. CNC control, linear drives, axes, galvo scanner for the laser: Aerotech was able to provide and integrate all components for the production system.
Do you also supply complete subsystems?
NL: Yes, of course. We also offer medical device manufacturers in particular a competitive advantage in the highly competitive medical device manufacturing market with our medical device laser welding systems, stent cutting systems and other motion systems and components. As two examples, I would like to mention our system solutions HermeSys and VascuLathe.
HermeSys is a motion subsystem for laser seam welding of implantable cardiac pacemakers, i.e. gas welding under high pressure. Due to its compact design, the HermeSys motion platform has high rigidity, which has been proven to improve the welding quality for laser seam welding. The compact HermeSys design with few protruding superstructures enables easy integration of handling systems for material supply and removal. An automated loading and unloading system is also integrated into the system so that the production of pacemakers can be operated fully automatically - with high throughput and constant quality.
With the VascuLathe, we have developed an innovative and compact laser cutting solution for stent production that has proven itself outstandingly in practice. The fully integrated motion system combines automated material handling functions with direct-driven linear and rotary movements. Due to the integrated linear-rotary design, throughput is increased by two to five times compared to conventional ball screw-based or other drive principles and also enables sub-micron manufacturing tolerances.
Where will you offer more integration solutions in the future?
NL: In our function as a manufacturer of automation systems, we want to act as a central point of contact for our customers. That is why we are increasingly looking for strategic partnerships with other suppliers, for example in the field of surface metrology. We have dedicated a separate application group to the topic of "Integration of measuring systems in positioning systems". We are able to supply customer-specific equipment if, for example, the user needs to measure large-area samples that go beyond the scope of standard measuring devices.
How far do you go with this?
NL: In the meantime, such forms of integration can be realised for complete testing machines. However, we are not limited to Keyence, but can also seamlessly integrate measuring systems from other manufacturers at any time. The required components are either delivered directly to the customer or all integration measures are already carried out in Fürth, so that the customer receives a turnkey measuring system.
BC: Aerotech uses the term ‘Integrated Automation Systems’ to refer to systems with precision motion control and automation at their core, where the customer has little to no integration to do once they receive the equipment. This means the machine is almost turnkey.
Where do you see yourself in the future, i.e. what system solutions do you want to offer your customers?
BC: We will continue to do what we do best while adapting to the future needs of a modern, technological society. We will continue to offer high-precision drive and automation solutions, ranging from components to complete turnkey automation solutions. However, we will do this by incorporating macro trends such as improved connectivity, smarter automation, predictive analytics and miniaturisation into these designs.
Figure1: Norbert Ludwig
Caption: Norbert Ludwig, managing director of Aerotech, Fürth: "As a manufacturer of automation systems, we support manufacturing companies in optimally automating their process recipe with the precision motion components we produce."