Retrofit Revolution: How to Get the Most out of Your Existing Ceramic Process Equipment
From time and cost savings to additional capabilities, process equipment retrofits can provide a range of benefits for ceramic manufacturers.
When evaluating your ceramic processing equipment and its capabilities, do you ever wish that certain pieces were newer models with better features? Do you find yourself not bidding on certain jobs because your equipment just doesn’t measure up to the tighter tolerances required? Would you like to move some of your processes into the next generation of capability?
When you are up against these types of challenges, the natural tendency is to look toward newer equipment that has the advanced features needed to elevate your company to a true state-of-the-art operation with all of the tools necessary to meet the demanding requirements of today’s emerging technologies. If “new” is the only way you improve your processes, you are missing some key options that could make huge differences to the bottom line.
Consider for a moment the financial ramifications of a capital outlay of $150,000. Not only do you have to come up with the money, but you also incur significant costs associated with training, facilitation, rigging, shipping, insurance, process qualifications, documentation, etc. In truth, that $150,000 machine cost is really $400,000 or more by the time the machine is producing to a level higher than the older equipment.
If you are open to the idea of retrofitting your existing process equipment with new state-of-the-art controls and other features, however, the advantages can be quite extensive. Potential benefits include: improved capability with process controls tailored to your operation; expanded resolutions with newer, more accurate measuring components; self-correcting motions with the incorporation of certified standards; and higher performance with the latest technologies.
The big difference is that the retrofit option is not only cheaper (by far), it is usually quicker. The equipment is already in place in your facility, your people are very familiar with it, and most of the spare parts are on hand. Your training documentation is mostly complete, with just a few modifications needed to cover the new features.
In addition, the qualification will go faster because the existing process was already qualified. A retrofit usually does not change the root process; it simply improves accuracy, speed, and repeatability, and it gathers more data. Because it is tailored specifically to your operation, a retrofit usually has features that are not available in new equipment.
When considering equipment retrofits, several questions should be asked:
• Is the equipment/machine still viable in our process?
• Would improvements in the equipment improve our bottom line?
• Could improvements be achieved at a reasonable cost?
• Does the prospective rebuild/retrofit company have manufacturing experience?
• Does the rebuild/retrofit company have a track record for successfully adding new valuable features? Do they offer on-site training?
• Will the rebuild/retrofit company provide updated schematics and manuals, and do they offer warranty and service?
Case in Point
A ceramic tape via-punching machine that was built in 1996 provides a good example. The machine originally had the standard 4-punch head that was common to laboratory machines. I retrofit it back in 2000 with a gang punching head that was set up for the original customer’s step-and-repeat spacing so that it could punch 20 holes at a time on an 8 x 8-in. part. It was used as the first operation in the green tape process, so it did not need to be able to punch holes in relation to existing part features.
The machine was recently acquired by a local used equipment dealer that, in turn, found a customer who wanted to buy it if it could meet their requirements. The potential customer had 12 x 12-in. parts (vs. the original 8 x 8 in.), and the product was made of polymer (not ceramic tape). They also had no need for the gang punch head. They did, however, have parts with features that needed holes placed in relation to those features.
After some design layouts, it became obvious that we could transform this machine to do what the customer wanted. We retrofit the punch with all-new controls and made some mechanical modifications to allow the customer to use the punch to process the 12 x 12-in. parts with only 11.5 x 11.5 in. of XY motion. We also incorporated a camera system that allowed the customer to place the hole pattern in relation to the existing features of the part.
We wrote the new operator interface and added some handy features as well. For example, we added a file conversion and optimization program that not only allowed the re-sequencing of the coordinates to reduce motion time, but also automatically assigned the right-hand holes to the right-hand punches and the left-hand holes to the left-hand punches. This was done to gain more punching excursion than the X travel accommodated. We increased the Y axis by adding a translation stage that adds motion to the Y axis for loading of the part onto the tooling plate. We provided a complete manual and in-house training. The entire retrofit cost the customer about one-third of the cost of a new machine.
Ceramic manufacturers should also keep in mind that equipment like furnaces, kilns and tape casting equipment can be retrofit. Capabilities typically include adding zones, upgrading controllers, improving accuracy and resolution, etc.
A Viable Option
The need to meet tighter process requirements is increasing for ceramic manufacturers. Improved consistency, higher accuracy, automatic feedback, automatic data acquisition, auto-calibration and automatic SPC alarms are just some of the potential improvements that can be made to existing processes. Manufacturers that want to greatly improve their outdated process, and want to do it quickly and as economically as possible, should consider a custom retrofit of existing equipment.