• April 24, 2024

Smooth operator

 Smooth operator

Soon, virtual reality glasses may be aiding operators in machine maintenance.

Advances in processes, materials and technologies are reducing requirements for spare parts.

By George Gay

Soon, virtual reality glasses may be aiding operators in machine maintenance.

In publishing a magazine such as Tobacco Reporter, certain subjects are covered regularly—in some cases, on an annual basis; in others, more frequently. But perhaps it will soon be time to pension off one of these regular features, the one we refer to internally as “spares,” by which we refer to tobacco machinery replacement and wear parts.

Why? Well the people at Aiger tell me that spare parts constitute a “nonsubject” these days. “In the past, there was clearly a spare parts dedicated activity that involved replacing wear-and-tear or standby parts,” said Arek Druzdzel, the company’s business development director. “Today, however, the quality of the parts has improved, thanks to new processes, materials and technologies. Reliability is much higher. Customers are willing to pay a bit more for machines that include advanced-technology, high-end, long-lifetime parts instead of having to manage inventory, machine shutdowns and spare parts replacement. In fact, today it is every supplier’s obligation to deliver products that are engineered in a way that guarantees low maintenance, reduced spare parts consumption and increased reliability.”

Courtland Macduff, Aiger’s sales director for Asia, used an automobile analogy to drive home this point. “People don’t want to hear about spare parts,” he said. “They want us to engineer a solution so that they don’t have to replace parts as previously—like in the case of cars, where these days they’re serviced after 20,000 km, not after 2,000 km.”

Interchangeability is one strategy that can be used to good effect in reducing the number of parts and the logistical issues that go hand in hand with them. “These days, machines use programmable drives rather than mechanical gearboxes to synchronize speeds and positions,” said Macduff. “And some special motors are driven by a programmable inverter. Now instead of having one dedicated inverter for each drive, it is possible to have an empty inverter that Aiger can, from a distance, load with a qualification logic that makes it functional for a particular part of the machine identified by the customer. We don’t have to deliver any spare parts; they don’t have to carry one of each.”

Parts will not disappear entirely, of course. They will be part of service contracts between the machine supplier and the machine user, of which there will be many forms to suit different customer needs. And such contracts and the relationships that they engender between the machinery supplier and machinery user will probably tend to reduce the use of locally made parts. “What I see is that clients don’t want to use local parts with the new-technology machines,” said Macduff. “They want the [original equipment manufacturer] to provide a very special service.”

Druzdzel acknowledged, however, that local manufacturing of machine parts was still happening and would probably happen in the future. But in the case of advanced-technology machines, this was not the way forward, he said. Aiger had invested in manufacturing parts so that they extended the service life and improved the performance of machines in a way that was beneficial to the customer. “To me, there is no way back from the progress that we have made into higher technologies and quality parts,” he said.


One service area Aiger is investigating covers a teleservice for distance diagnostics: troubleshooting by engineers based at Aiger’s plant in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, directly in a customer’s facility located almost anywhere in the world. Such a teleservice can embrace also distance training and maintenance supervision, for example, by webcam.

“As we use more drives and programmable inverters/PCs, we sell directly through the net upload programs, new-configuration production specifications and dedicated drive function programs,” said Macduff. “Soon, instead of supplying a spare part to our customer, we will sell the key lock to have the part duplicated at the customer’s facility on a 3-D printer.”

Such a system sounds like it manages to combine the advantages of quality spare parts and local manufacture, where there is no need for shipping and the delays involved in such activities. The question is, how far are we away from this? In theory, we’re there. In practice, there are still some matters to iron out. Firstly, the machine supplier and the machine user must be operating at similar advanced levels of technology.

Aiger, for its part, is almost there. Well over 90 percent of the parts used in the company’s machines have been fully digitalized, said Druzdzel, which means the company’s systems contain 3-D models of just about all parts. And the process of digitalization is expected to be completed later this year, which means Aiger is on the threshold of being able to apply 3-D printing technology across the board.

Of course, 3-D printing covers a range of technologies, and some technologies are more applicable to the tobacco machinery industry than are others. For instance, Druzdzel said, Advanced Manufacturing services included 3-D technology that allowed for printing hard, durable mechanical parts. It was at an early stage, but it was coming. And, as Macduff added, the advantages of machinery users not having to carry stocks of spare parts and of there being no handling issues were such that much pressure was likely to be applied to advancing the technology quickly.

Of course, matters of timing would still arise, and administrative issues, some of them new, would have to be tackled. 3-D printing would not be an almost instantaneous process as it is when printing a document. With today’s technology, printing could take a couple of hours or so, depending on the complexity of the part and the materials used. And once the technology was in place at both the supplier’s and user’s premises, contracts would have to be drawn up to cover issues such as whether single- or multiple-use was covered. In addition, arrangements would have to be in place to pay for tariffs in those countries where import duties applied. Security, it seems, would not be unduly worrisome. Key lock systems come from banking and refer to safe—as safe as anything can be—data-transmission protocols that allow for sending digitized data.

Developing relationships

I wondered, however, whether, despite the best intentions of machinery suppliers, tobacco manufacturers wouldn’t have to carry even more parts in the future as their product portfolios expanded to include new-generation products. But Druzdzel said Aiger’s intention was the opposite; it was to reduce its customers’ spare parts stock holding. “Some spares are vital and a customer will carry them anyway, or [they] will have in place a reliable and fast supply, as Aiger offers with its fast-track contract,” he said. “Aiger offers also a spares supply program: a one-year supply program under which spare parts manufactured by Aiger are supplied at pre-defined time slots.”

It is all about developing a service relationship that suits the customer. Under a fast-track contract, Aiger works very closely with customers’ maintenance teams. In this case, Aiger delivers parts according to an agreed schedule, and the customers’ engineers carry out the maintenance under the supervision of Aiger engineers “accessing” the machine through a webcam. This is said to be a way of ensuring that machines have the least possible downtime. When Aiger supervised a maintenance program by webcam, said Macduff, it guaranteed that on the day the customer stopped his machine, he would have a crate with everything needed to do the maintenance under supervision. This was where service came in and spare parts became integrated into a new area of business.

Meanwhile, Druzdzel said it was essential for machinery suppliers to become smarter because some customers simply didn’t want to do anything with their machines. And this meant it was necessary to offer a complete contract that delivered machines with long-life parts and included a teleservice for diagnostics, service and stock management. All of this was possible as part of Aiger’s package of services.

But this is not to say that the days of the peripatetic engineer are over. Druzdzel said that Aiger has a group of technicians who traveled around the world almost constantly. Sometimes visits were connected with normal installation services, sometimes with maintenance services.

It is necessary to keep in mind, though, that as we head into the future, nothing is really “normal” anymore—nothing is going to stay the same. One of the next steps is probably going to see virtual reality glasses used as an aid in maintaining machinery. “Aiger is not far away from offering that level of service,” said Macduff.