Thomas Butler Engineering Ltd. (TBE) was established in 1998 by husband and wife team Thomas and Joan Butler. Over the last 20 years the company has grown into a well-established manufacturer of wire forming machinery, with over 100 machines installed worldwide.
TBE’s Multiform machines are used to produce complicated wire forms, springs and assemblies for many industries including the automotive, agricultural, construction and medical sectors.
The company’s proprietary technology served extremely well in this time, but over the last few years, TBE knew that it needed to be updated to reflect the growing demands of ever more complex markets. For this reason, it recognised that a new approach was needed for its automation requirements. This is where Rockwell Automation stepped in, and the results have exceeded original expectations.
TBE’s capabilities in the wire-forming market are well documented; with its machines seeing action in countries all over the world, servicing a diverse array of markets. Its DeviceNet-driven architecture had served it well over the years, but increasing technological demands from its customers highlighted limitations in the set-up that the company needed to address, to allow it to take its machines to the next level. TBE also realised that further benefits were to be gained from working with a single automation supplier, not only for additional buying power, but also product synergy and the global supply of parts and service support.
TBE’s existing architecture, based on multi-axis DeviceNet, running software written and patented by TBE, was capable of controlling up to eight axes, but customers were demanding more. It was at this point that Rockwell Automation got involved and TBE’s journey towards the adoption of Integrated Architecture started.
“Our existing hardware was doing a great job,” explains Thomas Butler, Managing Director, “but we soon realised that it had limitations above and beyond the eight-axis count. It became clear that a new approach was needed and we had to go out there to find a supplier that could offer everything we needed.
“In this day and age, putting all your eggs in one basket, when it comes to specifying automation hardware is not as risky as the saying normally suggests,” Butler continues. “We needed to get away from our multiple-vendor approach; in short we needed a single supplier that could offer us plug and play, seamless product interaction, global support and a reliable worldwide supplier of parts. Rockwell Automation ticked all the boxes.”
The Rockwell Automation Integrated Architecture system addressed all of TBE’s concerns regarding its existing hardware, by providing unparalleled functionality, flexibility and scaleability. The system is based upon Allen-Bradley hardware including a ControlLogix PAC (Programmable Automation Controller) which provides sophisticated control, integrating Kinetix® 6000 Servo Drives, PowerFlex® Drives and PanelView™ Plus HMIs. These products are further complemented by safety components, MSR relays and SensaGuard switches and Low-Voltage components. The whole system communicates using EtherNet/IP – forming a superb example of Integrated Architecture in action.
“The way it all marries together is impressive,” exclaims Butler. “There was very little additional integration to be done. The PAC immediately plugs into the drive which, in turn, plugs into the motor with instant recognition on all counts – the same being true of the HMI and other components. This is just what we needed and something that is almost impossible with equipment from a variety of suppliers. Thanks to the hardware and the EtherNet/IP protocol, from Rockwell Automation we have recently developed a 16-axis machine, indeed the number of axes we can now define and control is almost limitless.”
TBE has seen a number of immediate benefits as a result of the new hardware approach, one of the most important being the time taken to develop new machines from the concept stage. “We took an order in May for a new machine,” says Butler, “and we were able to deliver it by the middle of September – cutting our development time to just four months – half the time it previously took. A lot of credit has to go to Rockwell Automation’s personnel, especially Kevin Wright, the OEM sales manager and Stuart Ashmore, the Global OEM Technical Consultant (GOTC) assigned to us.” Stuart is one of over 50 specialist OEM specialists strategically placed across the EMEA region. Their primary role is to help customers every step of the way to maximise the benefits of Rockwell Automation’s systems and hardware.
Increased productivity was another factor that reinforced TBE’s decision that it had chosen the correct supplier. “Our machines are now capable of offering a 17-20% performance increase over our previous solution. Indeed, we are now investigating retrofit opportunities with some of our existing customers so we can pass on these performance increases.”
Both of these factors go a long way towards enhancing the total cost of ownership for TBE’s end-users. Not only do they have more powerful, more productive machines, but they also benefit from the support of an internationally renowned supplier, with a worldwide parts and service base second to none. Thomas Butler is also keen to add the customer training angle. “It used to take one week to train a user to operate our machines, now it takes just three days. From a service angle, we have also seen the fruits of the relationship. We had a requirement for an extra software feature on a machine in Holland and one of the Dutch Rockwell Automation service engineers quickly went in to fix it after we had sent him the new code – we looked like heroes thanks to Rockwell Automation’s support function.”
Machinery safety was another important facet offered by the new automation hardware. “We sell a lot of machines to Canada, which has extremely demanding safety compliance legislation.” Butler elaborates. “In the past we have had to get machinery certified for the Canadian market, which demands three backups within the safety system. The certification process can be long and tedious but thanks to Rockwell Automation we no longer have to face the rigmarole of additional certification as the hardware is already CSA approved.” Commenting on the overall perspective, Butler adds: “Any issues are dealt with swiftly and efficiently, with after-hours and weekend work often being undertaken by Stuart Ashmore, we are always dealt with extremely effectively.”
TBE’s next step is to develop a common software platform for all of its machines. The shared development environment will offer even greater performance and functionality dividends to its customers.
From being close to capacity, TBE is now able to offer its customers an even more impressive line up of machines with commensurate increases in performance. “We really had reached the limits of our machine’s capabilities and the new hardware is allowing us to offer the increased performance and agility being demanded by our customers.”
Thomas Butler concludes. “Thanks to a very close relationship, we have had superb personal service, together Rockwell and Thomas Butler Engineering have generated a powerful proposition for our customers; faster project turnaround, increased productivity and enhanced safety compliance, key competitive advantages in the current challenging economic environment.
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