Automation for higher quality
By Raghav Varma:
Automation by means of robotization and vision systems greatly reduces human involvement and guarantees a more consistent product quality and secured output, says Harm Voortman, CEO of VMI Group, the company that has pole position in innovative machine making industry
What are the trends that VMI is witnessing in the tyre machinery building globally?
Within the global tyre manufacturing industry we basically see the following trends. There is a continuous need for further automation given the increasing labor cost and difficulties in finding skilled and knowledgeable workers. This drives the need to take out the influence of the operator on output and quality of production. Further automation by means of robotization and vision systems greatly reduces human involvement and guarantees a more consistent product quality and secured output. Also, there is an increasing need to connect production machines in an intelligent way. This implies not only a connection to an overall MES system, but it also implies that the production machines have to be capable of making autonomous decisions within their own operating cycle. These requirements are also recognized in the principles of Industry 4.0 and the connected factory. We are committed to assist our customers in the transition that follows adaption of new technologies to fit in these trends. Our R&D program and technology roadmap is based on creating possibilities for our customers to fully utilize the benefits that come with these trends.
Total Cost of Ownership becomes more and more important and within the increasingly competitive market it becomes essential to have your complete process under control. This not only include the costs for capital investment, but more importantly also the cost for maintenance and utility requirements. In the end all these costs together define the potential profitability of our customer.
Another major influencer of our industry is sustainability. Driving a car is a considerable contributor to the CO2 emissions and therefore it is essential to continuously work on reducing emission levels. The industry has a large responsibility in this and thus also we as equipment manufacturer. Our company’s environmental policy is designed to achieve continuous improvements in minimizing the burden on the environment by taking measures to save energy and reduce waste. In all our actions, both in our own production as well as in the development and delivery of solutions to our customers, we take this very seriously and work according a clearly defined CSR policy. We feel the responsibility to make sure our children inherit a healthy and prosperous environment to live in.
As a constant innovator in machinery building what are the challenges VMI faces when tyre design technology itself is changing fast?
The continuous changes in tyre design require a large form of flexibility in the design of tyre building machinery. In order to have the solutions ready for our customers when they require these, we monitor the trends, discuss with leading automotive companies, key suppliers to the industry and adapt where possible our technology roadmap. With our customers we regularly discuss these identified new trends and check our vision on the implications for production equipment. We see this as true partnership. Our people have an extensive knowledge and experience within the industry and they constantly learn and develop new skills to help our customers meet the current and future manufacturing demands. In the end, flexibility is key as both existing tyre designs as well as new designs need to be produced simultaneously in factories that are now in operation.
Furthermore, the industry wide standard process of tyre production is highly inflexible and mainly focused on high output of standard products. This needs to change dramatically in the coming years. However, the technology needed for new kinds of production methods and related production equipment still needs development. As an innovative partner for our customers, we feel the responsibility to develop these barrier breaking technologies and come up with new solutions for manufacturing in the coming years.
How is your shift from “hands off-eyes on” technology to “hands off-eyes off” technology evolving?
We continuously work at further automating the tyre building process. Recently, we launched VMI PIXXEL, our new platform for vision technology in all our products. The reason that we had to develop our own hard- and software for vision technology is based on the fact that existing camera technology could not meet the standards we feel to be necessary for high quality production. In order to achieve the highest possible uniformity levels for tyres, we make sure that we use low skive angles in cutting and splicing material. This has proven to be imperative, but creates a challenge on automated splice checking devices. High resolutions in combination with high speed image processing required the development of a revolutionary hardware and software platform that we now have rolled out throughout our product portfolio. This has resulted in unparalleled production quality and productivity combined with a simple to handle and operator friendly user interface to maximize intuitive use of our MAXX technology in hands-off eyes-off production.
Also for truck tyre building we see this shift with the introduction of the MILEXX last year. This revolutionary machine also has dramatically reduced operator influence by means of further automated handlings supported by vision technology.
Since your automation and robotic products involve a high degree of operative sophistication, do you provide training to your customers on how to use them? Please elaborate on your after-sales services
Training is part of our VMI Services offerings. Our training programs, either at the VMI Academy in Holland or on site, are customer focused and based on the customer’s needs and wishes. Training in combination with preventative maintenance programs, ensure an effective plant operation with the lowest possible downtime, the highest yield and product quality and last but not least skilled and motivated staff. With VMI Services we ensure that our customers not only have the best equipment available, but that it also continues to be the best solution. The VMI Services products are all aimed at optimizing the performance of the equipment against predictable cost and range from regular equipment check-ups and recommendations to complete services packages that include overhauls, upgrades, training and more.
What are currently the main focus areas of your R&D set up?
We spend much more than five percent of our annual turnover on R&D, which is twice as much as the industry norm in new technology and solutions. We continuously focus on developing technology that leads to much higher rates of productivity together with greatly improved and more consistent quality. We develop breakthrough technology that gives our customers the power to compete and stay ahead in the increasingly competitive and ever-evolving market. Our vision is translated in a technology roadmap and an R&D programme consisting of specific projects for the various fields our machinery is used in. Obviously, we have to be careful not to share our roadmap and programme, but in general we can say that we are running a number of projects focused on further developing our existing solutions like MAXX, EXXIUM and MILEXX. At the same time, we are running a considerable number of projects aimed at developing new solutions by either combining several production process steps in one machine or by introducing revolutionary new production methods. Main focus in all these projects is to minimize waste, downtime, non-moving inventory and inefficiencies, while at the same time we maximize consistent quality and output.
How does VMI achieve enhanced integration between different production systems?
At VMI, we are committed to the principles of Industry 4.0 through our aim of creating much greater connectivity and a wider use of machine intelligence to drive speed, agility and production integration across the industry. A much-needed change because the tyre industry is, at this moment, still based on “islands of automation” within a broader production landscape. Different process steps are not joined up and human intervention is still mandatory at many stages. It is important to first have a real vision on an integrated solution for automation. Once formulated, implementation in all development projects need to be consistent. At VMI Global R&D, we have set-up a dedicated R&D team with specific knowledge to ensure solutions in our complete portfolio are in-line and “connected”. The technology to make this possible is developing rapidly and keeping your own knowledge and skills up-to-date is crucial for VMI. We are pleased that the close cooperation we have with key suppliers allows us to anticipate on new technology not yet available in the market. This is important for VMI, specifically for our long-term development projects that will not come to market in the next three years.
What are distinct features of VMI products that provide them the competitive edge in the market?
It is very complex to develop machinery that ensures high production levels with very high CpK values and only a very small variation in quality. Usually, a higher output is based on higher application speeds, which easily influences accuracies. Our customers are not so much interested in the technology we have developed, they are only interested in the resulting quality levels of their products and the achieved capacity. In a way, it makes us proud that all our products are regarded best in class and are characterized by the innovative technology applied in them as our customers recognize best quality end product with unrivalled capacity.
Another distinct feature is that maintenance and operation are made easy by means of VMI CORTEXX, our unique user friendly HMI.
Finally, we are able to offer our products at very competitive pricing. Keeping our cost under control is the major driver behind our production improvement projects and our lean manufacturing principles. We also maximize use of our production sites globally and spread the production of individual modules of the various machines according to cost, technology, occupancy and final destination. Our new production site in Poland will help us in this process. The additional capacity is much needed as our business is growing rapidly, but the location itself will be instrumental for cost control and shortening lead times.
In tyre retreading what are the machines that you manufacture where you enjoy competitive advantage?
VMI delivers a complete range of retreading machines. Our portfolio starts with small cushion gum extruders perfect for use by smaller retreaders, extending to extruders able to handle larger quantities and to systems for cushion gum extrusion-smearing, manual pre-cured tread application & stitching, as well as to automatic procured tread application and stitching.
Each RETRAX machine can optionally be delivered with a stitcher for manual tread application or with both a stitcher and an automatic tread applicator. The completely new tread applicator is especially designed to deliver the highest quality and highest productivity. It features automatic alignment of the tread on the casing and automatic and balanced stretching to provide a perfectly matching splice.
How do you see the growth of emerging markets in Asia impacting your sales strategies?
We see the growth of emerging markets in Asia, and consequently the maturing and expansion of key tyre manufacturers in these markets as highly significant to VMI and our overall business strategy.
Naturally the growth of tyre demand in emerging markets has resulted in significant investment in manufacturing capacity in Asia, as has the penetration of radial tyre technology in markets like India. From a business perspective this has meant expansion and smarter utilization of our global manufacturing base. From a support point of view it has meant expansion of our service centers in the region, both in terms of the number of skilled engineers employed, and the services we offer – such as advanced training, drum service and overhaul facilities etc., and from a commercial point of view it has meant expansion in our project management team, as well as strengthening our local sales presence.
Furthermore, we see a trend for Asian tyre manufacturers to expand outside their own countries into Europe, USA and other parts of Asia. This requires a special approach from the manufacturers to eliminate unexpected surprises and to manage complex projects in foreign countries. VMI is proud to be seen to be a reliable partner, who is uniquely positioned to bring a vast amount of global manufacturing experience to the table to ensure the smooth execution of the project. We form special teams of experienced engineers, project managers and financial experts to help customers minimize the risks involved in such a large and complex investment.