In recent years, the coatings industry has been inundated with announcements such as “we are currently facing a tough situation”, “dramatic rise in costs”, “raw material shortages”, and “more price increases”. Since the economy began to recover from the recession, companies are now troubled by their operating costs. At the same time, there is more competition, quality requirements have increased and the development time for new products needs to be reduced to meet market demands.


HTR for coatings applications

Innovative products and cost-effective operations have never been more important. Since companies cannot influence raw material prices, they strive to create innovative products and streamline their processes. Automation can help in both areas: in developing more and better innovations, and also cutting costs for such developments.

Automation Advantages

Companies need to know which of their processes should or can be designed differently to meet market demands. This requires analysis of operations and processes. After analyzing and evaluating the process, it can be redesigned to improve certain key performance indicators (KPIs). Examples of such KPIs are innovation rate, error rate, overall process costs, etc. Certain processes can be automated with huge benefits for process performance. Which processes should be automated first? In general, highly repetitive tasks in which work steps are repeated in the same way every time. Repetitive tasks are time-consuming, boring and tend to be affected by human error. To work, the automated processes need to be well understood, standardized, robust and repeatable.

 Manufacturers and laboratories are under pressure to reduce their true cost for testing and analyzing while meeting the accelerated and increased number of test schedules in order to drive innovation. Therefore, laboratories need to use equipment that minimizes total cost of ownership and maximizes process efficiency.  Laboratory processes are suited for robotic automation since there are numerous repetitive movements involved, such as picking, cleaning, loading, heating, and so on. Process cost can be assigned to each process step. Process cost is defined as the total cost of the process divided by the number of repetitions. From a sheer cost perspective, lowering the cost of each process step can be achieved with automation. Return on investment calculations will also help the decision-making process towards automation.

When the laboratory needs to replace outdated analyzers to meet the need for increased throughput, this is the time to consider a move toward automation. These demands for increased throughput may arise from a need to validate product performance, obtain more research data, and do more test runs to find the most suitable product. Many product innovations were developed due to ‘intelligent errors’. If the lab has the ability to run more test cycles, the likelihood of breakthrough products due to such intelligent errors will increase.

Many Benefits

If people undertake a large number of repetitive tasks, errors can easily occur. Automated solutions never forget, mix up samples, or get distracted by other occurrences. They never have a ‘bad day’. As they work independent of an operator, they deliver consistent reproducibility. In laboratories there are so many tasks in which highly skilled staff simply move samples from one station to the other or wait until measurements are completed. Laboratories are facing a severe labor shortage of skilled lab staff, and this is made worse if such highly qualified personnel are tied up with routine work. Automated solutions can be used to free skilled personnel from repetitive tasks so they can concentrate on innovation and research. Robots can easily take over these repetitive tasks and procedures. The secret to automation is that it should support staff in the best possible way to deal with the increased workload of today’s complex research. Freeing staff from routine work can substantially increase innovation and set companies apart. In addition, it becomes easier to recruit research staff due to the use of cutting-edge technology and the focus on core activities. Also, robots do not need to be motivated and there is no downtime due to sickness, vacation or loss of workers.

Technicians and scientists need data to verify test outcomes and validate their research. As the need for additional testing increases, more data will be generated. Therefore, the data information system becomes increasingly important. Data created from testing or other process steps needs to be integrated into the existing information management system.

Automation Solution for Rheology

Being a global market leader in the fields of density and rheology measurements, Anton Paar has seen the increased need for lab automation and the benefits it brings. Together with key customers, we have implemented automated rheological measurement solutions. The HTR (High Throughput Rheometer) is a customized solution that fits company individual processes. For an HTR project, the existing procedures are analyzed and adequate automation solutions provided. A cooperative approach and the customized solution to an existing need are key factors for successful automation.

The HTR automates the process of sample preparation, measurement, measurement device cleaning and measurement data storage. The first step in such a project with the HTR is to analyze the rheological measurement processes. Typically, this shows that there are more routine processes than customers often think of. Rheological measurements on a small number of samples can take more than half a day, leaving less time for analysis and interpretation of the data. Subsequently, there is a lack of motivation for increased testing due to the large amount of work involved.

Existing HTR customers say that they can build more complex analysis due to the high throughput offered by the HTR solution. A further major advantage is that measurements will be analyzed during the night or weekend. Management consulting companies these days send their draft to India overnight and get a well-prepared analysis the next day. In the case of rheological measurement, an automated solution is capable of doing the same. Customers have the data needed in their data file the next day and can start right away with important research.

 Successful automation can increase throughput, help drive innovation faster and reduce cost. Once installed, fast return on investment and other benefits can be easily achieved. A key factor in the successful implementation of automated solutions is the choice of the partner or automation company. The combination of application knowledge with automation knowledge is an essential step towards successful automation.

An Important Factor in Technological Leadership

According to Markus Bodlos, Head of Automation & Robotics, “Demand has increased since the recession because companies are willing to invest to set themselves apart from the intense competition within the coatings industry.” In the coming years, many companies worldwide will invest in various automation solutions. The decision for automation will not just be made for cost savings and increase in efficiency, but also to have the capability of additional testing, one important factor in technological leadership. 

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