The successful integration of a motion system is not limited to stacking positioning tables and controlling them by controllers. As a manufacturer of automation systems, Aerotech, a specialist in motion control, offers its customers comprehensive support for high-precision and/or industry-specific automation processes. In this interview, Norbert Ludwig, General Manager of Aerotech, and Brian O'Connor, Vice President of Marketing, explain the choice available to customers between a pure component solution, a custom motion subsystem, and a fully integrated system.
Mr. Ludwig, how long has Aerotech been active in the market?
NL: Since 1970, we have been providing standard product solutions such as motors, drives, controllers and positioning tables. Our custom-developed motion subsystems include positioning systems on granite structures with undercarriage and vibration isolation as well as external measurement systems.
And what characterizes their integration solutions?
NL: Our integrated systems are almost turnkey machines designed with our customers to execute an automated process. They include not only Aerotech's precision motion control components, but also full automation integration for things like part handling, process instrumentation, safety devices, and custom software.
How can a component manufacturer achieve such integration competence?
NL: Over the past few years, we have worked closely with customers from a wide range of industries, becoming increasingly involved in the field of process automation. As a manufacturer of automation systems, we help manufacturing companies automate their processes optimally with the precision motion components we produce.
BC: Aerotech Inc. offers its customers a full range of integration options, ranging from a low level of 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 to 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 production process of his part. We are experts in the art of understanding the customer's process and building a machine based on this process that executes it with the utmost precision and performance.
And which customers do you have in mind first?
NL: Our integration expertise is particularly interesting for companies that are in the process of setting up, expanding or modernizing their production. Especially in the field of medical technology and precision manufacturing, many companies do not have the personnel or the vertical range of manufacturing to develop mechanics and control in parallel. In addition, solutions are becoming smarter and more complex, so that a single company can no longer master all stages of implementation. Therefore, the know-how of the supplier is becoming increasingly important. And this is where our real work as a manufacturer of automation systems begins: We offer detailed integration advice, after which there is either the delivery of individual components, a subsystem that can be seamlessly integrated, or even a complete automation solution. Application training, courses and services complete our range of services.
Where do you see your biggest opportunities in the automation market?
NL: Aerotech has a high level of vertical integration, especially when it comes to drive components and control elements. We have grown with our customers over the years and have gained knowledge of applications in many industries.
BC: Our vertical integration philosophy allows us to be extremely flexible while ensuring quality and performance at all levels of the machine. Because we make the controllers, motors and positioning mechanisms ourselves, we know exactly how they interact with each other and within an automation system. This allows our team to customize and optimize a machine with the utmost efficiency.
NL: If it is a laser welding process, for example, where the laser beam needs to be deflected as quickly and accurately as possible, the experts know exactly which axes are suitable in combination with which galvo-scanner. We can then optimize accordingly, so that the customer ultimately only has to couple and control their laser. He can also use our control platform, with which he can immediately control his laser welding system. In addition, customer-specific specifications that go well beyond Aerotech's component level can be integrated into the subsystem. For example, if the customer already uses a control cabinet, Aerotech control electronics can be flexibly integrated into it. Other elements, such as control or measurement, can be integrated.
On the mechanical side, for example, we can also provide partially integrated systems that the customer wants to complete. If, for example, a granite adjustment system is required for the machine, our experts prepare it according to the customer's specific need. Other functions, such as laser beam guidance or certain sensor technologies, can then be integrated by the user himself according to his needs. These are tasks that are entrusted to us here every day. The aim is to offer the customer a freely scalable solution, ready to use as quickly as possible without much effort and that can be flexibly adapted to the requirements of the process in the future.
How do you usually proceed with system integration?
NL: The first step towards real integration always starts with a detailed consultation of the application. During this process, customers also learn that Aerotech control technology can be used to move much more than, say, the 6 axes of a hexapod positioning system. If, for example, the laser has to be triggered according to the position of the Hexapod and pulse at a specific point, it is also possible to use the Automation1 control platform or the previous model. In this way, the entire process can be controlled from a single central control. The measurement processes can also be entrusted to the Automation1 platform so that the measured values are also processed and stored via analogue inputs for example so that the entire result is stored in real time in a single control unit for perfect synchronization with the movements.
Our entire business strategy is designed for close cooperation and to give our customers a long-term competitive advantage in their respective market segments. That is why we are insistently investigating what needs to be done. In this way, we penetrate into the heart of the application to optimize it. 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 it look like concretely?
NL: For example, a close collaboration has been established with a well-known Swiss manufacturer of ceramic dental implants. An Aerotech manufacturing system with integrated galvo-scanner is used for laser grinding micro-tips. The complete mechanical part with the linear drive, the axes and the control software came from Aerotech, the housing and the rest of the periphery were built by the implant manufacturer's team itself. To process a part, the part to be treated is loaded by a handling robot. Both the robot and the measuring system used can be connected via Aerotech's control software. In this particular case, the medical device manufacturer had no experience with laser technology and how it could be integrated into a manufacturing system. They also knew that there was no ready-made system with an integrated laser; Nevertheless, the company was looking for a supplier that could cover as wide a spectrum as possible. Aerotech corresponded to this profile and was able to realize the idea of the production system desired by the customer, by mastering the CNC control, linear drives, axes, galvo scanner for the laser: Aerotech was able to supply and integrate all the components of the production system.
Do you also provide complete subsystems?
NL: Yes of course. We also offer medical technology manufacturers, in particular, a competitive advantage in a highly competitive medical device manufacturing market, through our medical device laser welding systems, stent cutting systems and other motion systems and components. As an example, I would like to mention our HermeSys and VascuLathe system solutions.
HermeSys is a motion subsystem for laser welding of implantable pacemakers, i.e. gas welding under high pressure. Thanks to its compact design, the HermeSys motion platform has high rigidity, which has been proven to improve the quality of laser joint welding. The HermeSys' compact design, with few surface-mounted superstructures, makes it easy to integrate material handling systems for feeding and evacuating. 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 productivity and consistent quality.
With the VascuLathe, we have developed an innovative and compact laser cutting solution for stent production that has proven itself in practice. The fully integrated motion system combines automated handling functions with direct drive linear and rotary movements. Thanks to the integrated linear-rotary design, the flow rate is multiplied by two to five times compared to a conventional ball screw or other drive principles, and also allows for sub-micron manufacturing tolerances.
Where will you offer more integration solutions in the future?
NL: In our role as a manufacturer of automation systems, we want to be a central point of contact for our customers. That is why we are also 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 the integration of measurement systems into positioning systems. We are able to provide customer-specific solutions 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 that?
NL: In the meantime, such forms of integration can be achieved for complete testing machines. However, we do not limit ourselves to Keyence, but can also seamlessly integrate measuring systems from other manufacturers at any time. The necessary components are either delivered directly to the customer or all integration measurements are already carried out in Fürth, so that the customer receives a turnkey measurement system.
BC: Aerotech uses the term "integrated automation systems" to refer to systems whose core is precision motion control and automation, where the customer has little or no integration to do once they receive the equipment. In other words, the machine is practically turnkey.
Where do you see yourself in the future, i.e. what system solutions do you want to offer your customers, Mr. O'Connor?
BC: We will continue to do what we do best while adapting to the future needs of a modern and technological society. We will continue to offer high-precision drive and automation solutions, ranging from components to complete and turnkey automation solutions. However, we will achieve this by incorporating macro trends such as improved connectivity, smarter automation, predictive analytics, and miniaturization into these designs.