Practical monitoring of semi-automatic machines and equipmentDecember 27, 2022
Technology exists to monitor individual pieces of equipment, but the ability to monitor an entire laboratory or factory floor can only be purchased or designed by the largest corporations. Until every machine is highly automated or run by robots (as the visionaries tell us will happen eventually), solutions are needed to monitor equipment that is becoming more and more automated with the trend accelerated by labor shortages due to the 2020 pandemic and the ongoing retirement of baby-boomers.
One proven solution to monitor large semi-automated machines that has been used for a number of years is adding a Stacklight (AKA Tower Light) on top of the machine. At a glance (or by sound), anyone in the area of the machine can tell if it is stopped (red), paused (yellow), running (green), or in need of maintenance(audible warning sound). This increases efficiency by making sure that the operator or technician is quickly aware when the machine needs to be attended to.
While Stacklights have worked well for big equipment like a pick-n-place machine that deposits small electronic components on printed circuit boards (PCBs), will it work well (and is it affordable) for smaller semi-automatic machines such as 3D printers, small robots or even a medical ventilator? The good news is that the answer is, yes. While large machines may use a 60 mm to 70 mm diameter Stacklight mounted on a 12 inch metal pole, 30 mm Stacklights that are shorter and lighter are available for medium sized or smaller machines.
So, why are not all these medium and smaller machines using 30 mm Stacklights now? One reason is that these increasingly complex machines didn’t need monitoring when they were less automated, so the designers just do not think about the need for a Stacklight as they improve the machine’s capability. Another reason that they are not used more is because the company selling the machine does not realize how much value is lost by a machine that irritates customers, and costs them time, which can affect subsequent reviews and customer loyalty. Finally, there is a lack of awareness of how cost has come down over time for smaller Stacklights. The first generation of 30 mm Stacklights introduced many years ago were just smaller versions of the 60 mm Stacklights. The problem with this strategy is that making a smaller version of a larger Stacklight doesn’t have any significant material savings, but labor costs will actually increase due to the increased difficulty in assembling the smaller device. More recently, new platforms for 30 mm Stacklights have been introduced that are designed from the ground up rather than just making a big Stacklight design smaller. These new platforms offer much lower cost, lighter weight and even increased functionality.
However, even a lower cost 30 mm Stacklight mounted on a machine will add to the final cost, so the question is whether the Stacklight will add more value than the material and labor cost to install it.
There are several considerations for this. First, how semi-automatic is the machine? If the machine needs an operator to attend to it all or nearly all the time, a Stacklight is probably not needed unless there are others nearby who need to know the status of the machine at a glance. If the machine is left alone for periods of time and is only using an audible warning to indicate when the machine needs attention, it is likely that the audible device should be substituted for a Stacklight, which has its own audible warning sound. This is because not all situations call for an audible alert, and too much audible noise can cause irritation to those nearby and it can lead to alarm fatigue, which results in the audible warning sound being inadvertently ignored. Another consideration on whether a Stacklight is warranted is the cost of the machine’s down-time because a fault is not being addressed quickly enough. An example is a PCB router. These machines route out circuits from a sheet of copper that is mounted to a fiberglass substrate. PCB routers are typically used by engineers to quickly make prototype circuit boards, so if the engineer comes back to a PCB router that has stopped early due to a fault, which is a waste of the engineer’s time, the machine should have a Stacklight.
As shown in the example above for the PCB router, it is not only factory machines that can benefit from using smaller Stacklights. Other applications and industries can benefit including pharmaceuticals, packaging, robotics, scientific, medical, testing, engineering and others.
30 mm Stacklight designers are working to make their products more functional, lighter and smaller, and feature a cost point that is easily offset by the value added to the machine. Until everything is automated or robots take over the world, Stacklights offer a simple high value solution to monitoring semi-automated equipment.