Old Problems – New Solutions – Can digital advances teamed with existing machinery improve output?

Posted on 11 Jan 2021 by The Manufacturer

Can digital advances teamed with existing machinery improve output? Nikesh Mistry takes a look at a recent collaboration between Mitsubishi Electric and Horizon Instruments to prove how effective a turnkey solution on legacy equipment can be.

“The future of the future is the present” – Marshall McLuhan


This is an interesting quote I recently came across, and while it can be applied to many different scenarios, I would like to use it here to explain why this helps us understand the requirements of the UK manufacturing industry through the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The numerous different terms that are used to define the fourth industrial revolution can sometimes cause a misunderstanding of the concept, which in turn leads to an obstacle to adoption. Companies sometimes find it difficult to visualise the return on investment as many solutions are digital rather than physical in form.

In this movement towards the future, it’s important to realise that not every step towards digitalisation means investing thousands of pounds as it may have done in the past. Truth be told, many companies simply can’t afford to start from scratch with masses of brand new equipment.

Sometimes minute changes, such as adding a few new sensors or a variable speed drive to a piece of legacy equipment, can often not only increase a lifespan but also improve a product’s efficiency altogether.

Most digitalisation equipment can be retrofit onto existing machinery to enhance capabilities. What is necessary is for companies to make an assessment of what they already have and identify methods in which they can bring legacy equipment into the modern era. The business problem or goal must be identified before the technology solution can be assessed.

The digital world means sales are frequently turnkey solutions of both hardware and software, and due to the ability of digital data to provide real time results, companies are able to start achieving improvements much faster than before.

Many GAMBICA members face the challenge of assisting industry with reaching its potential within the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Here’s one example of how a turnkey solution on legacy equipment can significantly improve output…


The problem: Improve operations while reducing manual interventions

When a leading provider of immunoassays and In Vitro Diagnostic (IVD) devices was looking to improve its well plate filling machine, Mitsubishi Electric and Horizon Instruments, an expert in the design and manufacture of instrumentation and automation, provided a highly effective fully automated solution.

The IVD device manufacturer was experiencing a number of issues with its 15-year-old well plate filling machine. The system was particularly slow and couldn’t offer the level of accuracy, flexibility and automation required by the producer. In addition, the technology behind the machine was obsolete, leaving the factory exposed in case of equipment failure.

Well Plate Filling Machine Image Courtesy Horizon Instruments and Mitsubishi Electric

Well Plate Filling Machine Image Courtesy Horizon Instruments and Mitsubishi Electric

The solution: A fully automated well-plate filling machine using PLC-driven servos 

Mitsubishi Electric and Horizon Instruments developed an innovative solution that would address the IVD device manufacturer’s needs and challenges. The machine revolves around a MELSEC-L series PLC which ensures accurate speed and positioning of four MELSERVO-JE servo motors and their associated servo amplifiers, connected via a high-speed SSCNET III/H network.

The system loads empty well plates from an input station on to a walking beam transfer system, which moves towards the filling station. Once there each of the wells is connected with a filling nozzle that receives the necessary volume of liquid from a specific input bottle. Once liquid dispensing is complete, the plates are transported to the output station and stacked.

A HMI enables operators to select the correct recipes and the liquid volume that should be dispensed into the wells. This provides high flexibility in operations and the ability to monitor the process in real-time

This resulted in a substantial increase in productivity and reduction of waste. Being able to process between 4,000 and 5,000 plates per day, the installation had an immediate impact on production output. The new set-up is seven times more productive than the existing system, even when it was working at full capacity.

In addition, the seamless integration of PLC, servo motors and servo amplifiers ensures a fast filling speed, high accuracy, repeatability and precision, despite the low volumes being processed. As a result, the manufacturer was able to eliminate issues associated with overfilling and project waste generation was to be reduced by over 50%.

To ensure longevity, the set-up was created to be flexible enough to support future implementations such as the addition of robotic arms for loading and unloading  the well plates.