Custom Machines: A Cost-Effective Design and Build Process

Custom Machines: A Cost-Effective Design and Build Process

For many manufacturers, there comes a time when off-the-shelf machinery simply won’t do. Sometimes it’s a new product that requires new machinery custom designed and fabricated for a product manufacturing, processing or testing need. Other times, the existing machinery simply needs a modification such as

  • An instrumentation upgrade,
  • A new vision system added,
  • Additional robotic integration, or
  • Upgrades to improve safety.

Often, a manufacturer needs to produce a new product, increase their current production rate, decrease downtime, increase throughput or increase the machine’s accuracy. If the current (or nonexistent) machinery doesn’t have the functionality required or is not optimized for operation, then a custom machine build or retrofit may be necessary.

Traditionally, the process for exploring a custom machine build involves the client approaching a machine designer, explaining what they need, and receiving a quote for delivery of the finished product. However, that traditional approach mixes several key steps in a machine design-build project that tend to unnecessarily cost the client time and money.

Matrix Technologies’ Four-Phase ApproachMachine Design

For custom machine design and build projects, Matrix Technologies uses a four-phase approach for project implementation that provides continued open dialogue between Matrix and the client. This gives the client control over the expenditure of funds and project direction. By implementing this process, we minimize financial risk, ensure the project’s success and complete the project in a timely manner with a high level of service and customization.

Phase One: Project Definition

Phase One is the initial project-definition phase of the process. During this phase, Matrix Technologies’ engineers work together with the client to define the custom machine requirements, after which our team prepares conceptual layout drawings and a functional specification for the client to review. Once the client accepts a conceptual layout and functional specification, Matrix provides a budgetary cost estimate and preliminary project schedule for the complete project. The schedule provides a timeline for the design, fabrication and installation phases of the project. An estimate of the time required for start-up, commissioning and operator training is also included when necessary. In addition to providing the cost estimate, we also provide a proposal for the detailed mechanical and electrical engineering (Phase Two) based on the client-approved conceptual layout and functional specification.

By only expending a small investment for Phase One’s conceptual design, we give the client control of fund expenditure and the design itself, rather than being locked-in to a design and a firm bid price, which often includes overpaying for unnecessary contingency.

Phase Two: Engineering Design

Phase Two is the detailed engineering design phase of the process. Our engineers prepare the mechanical and electrical assemblies along with bills of material and detailed fabrication drawings based off of the approved conceptual layout and functional specification from Phase One of the process. Throughout the design process, we review the drawings and design with the client to ensure project alignment. Matrix will ensure the design is acceptable to the client prior to release for procurement and fabrication in order to minimize any changes and additional client expenditures during fabrication. During this phase, we also refine and update the functional specification based upon the mechanical and electrical designs, as well as input from the PLC and HMI programmers and most importantly, the client.

Upon completion of Phase Two of the process, a firm quote is provided to the client for the procurement, fabrication and programming of the custom machine along with a budgetary cost estimate for the installation and startup of the custom machine at the client’s site.

Phase Three: The BuildCustomer-Focused Process

Phase Three is the procurement, fabrication, and machine assembly of the custom machine based upon the mechanical and electrical designs developed in Phase Two. During this phase, we develop PLC and HMI application programs for controlling the custom machine using the mechanical and electrical designs and the revised functional specification prepared during Phase Two of the process. A machine runoff and factory acceptance test with the client is a requirement of the process. Upon acceptance of the custom machine, we provide the client a cost estimate for the installation, startup, and commissioning of the custom machine. Matrix can also provide an estimate for operator and maintenance personnel training.

Phase Four: Installation and Startup

Phase Four is the installation, startup, and commissioning phase of the process. Mechanical and electrical installation services can be provided by Matrix Technologies or by the client, allowing flexibility in scope and client costs. Matrix Technologies provides installation assistance as well as startup, commissioning, and training, if the client desires. A complete documentation package is provided upon acceptance of the machine by the client. The documentation package includes complete drawing packages in PDF and native format, PLC / HMI application programs, recommended spare parts lists and operator manuals.

Better Results

The unique aspect of this four-phased approach is the client’s ability to review the results upon completion of each phase and determine a path forward for the project. By involving the client in every step of the process, we are able to mitigate any problems that may arise, allow for design flexibility, minimize the cost of changes and adjust the specifications to the changing client needs. The result is a high-performance machine that is built exactly to the clients specifications.

At Matrix Technologies, we are focused on clients’ needs and providing solutions to their problems. This four-phased approach allows us to fulfill this commitment and ultimately create better, safer, and more efficient designs.

Robot with End of Arm Tooling

Matrix Technologies is one of the largest independent process design, industrial automation engineering, and manufacturing operations management companies in North America. To learn more about our machine design or machine modification solutions, contact Mark Kolkemeyer, Senior Engineer 2, Process & Electrical Design Department.

© Matrix Technologies, Inc.

How Automation Life Cycle Planning Reduces Costs, Improves Productivity and Reduces Risks

How Automation Life Cycle Planning Reduces Costs, Improves Productivity and Reduces Risks

Every manufacturer is under pressure to reduce manufacturing costs and maximize asset utilization. Automation life cycle planning is a continuous process involving several steps that can help reduce expenditures, downtime, and inventory, all while improving productivity. Automation life cycle planning also helps identify, mitigate and eliminate risks where possible.

Developing a roadmap is an important step in successful process automation engineering. Similar to how a roadmap can help you navigate your car to and from a destination, an automation life cycle plan will help you navigate from where you are to your ideal system. The roadmap is continuous in nature and helps uncover the design basis for your system.

This article is the first of a two-part series that will discuss how this roadmap can be successfully navigated to meet your goals. The first article will describe the planning process. The subsequent article will cover design and implementation.

Plan for Success

The planning process is where automation life cycle development begins. Different sized facilities and automation systems require different efforts and timeframes to complete transitions. Duration of planning can range from several weeks or months for smaller facilities to one to five years for larger ones. Proper planning is necessary to make major changes, such as switching entire control systems or implementing a site wide historian. The planning stages may present forks in the road that can lead into a dead end or produce a shortcut to your final destination. Often the planning team may need to retrace its steps by revisiting the process over again, or starting from a different perspective.

Planning Process
Planning Process

Existing System Audit and Analysis

Traditionally, the first step of the planning process is to perform an audit and analysis of existing systems. Performing an audit of existing systems starts with documenting all control system hardware and software. For older facilities, this may be challenging, as the same group of people have not consistently kept information over the years. Software licensing can also be hard to track down, as the facility may have changed personnel and ownership over its lifetime. Drawing research is also required in this stage, as many of the older drawings may be stored in an outdated medium or only available in hard prints. Reaching out to integrators, suppliers and equipment vendors may be necessary to track down all the information.

The installed base of equipment needs to be audited to determine what equipment is still actively supported by manufacturers. Often, vendors will develop staged replacements for equipment that is being phased out. The audit identifies where upgrades are required in facilities and helps develop a spare equipment plan based on information gathered from vendor. The audit should also include networking components cabling, and network topologies used by automation systems. The automation planning process should include a “future” state you are trying to achieve, so that information from the audit can be compared against it.

Another important piece of the audit and analysis of existing systems is to develop a project team consisting of key members of the facility where the automation systems reside and corporate stakeholders to become decision makers. These key members will help be the strategic developers of the life cycle plan. When developing the long-term plan, there can be conflicting opinions on the direction of the plan. This team will help determine the path and develop the need for upgrade. The team can review the existing system looking into the reliability rating, prioritizing facility needs, expected life, support capabilities, meantime to repair, downtime cost and much more.

Developing the Need for Upgrade

Cost for complete retrofits can be very expensive depending upon the age of the existing systems. Developing a staged or planned migration can help shift the costs over several fiscal years. By leveraging the audit of existing systems, control system upgrades can be planned so that they are complete ahead of the equipment being discontinued. Upgrading only for the sake of obsolescence is usually not enough justification for major upgrades. Instead, the planning team needs to consider new product development, safety, preventive maintenance costs, process improvements, and parts management/availability as other drivers. Uncovering these and developing plans for improvements help sell projects to stakeholders. Researching local, state or government requirements can also uncover grants or other programs of repayment for proceeding with upgrades. National programs can be found in various forms of project grants, direct loans, cooperative agreements and research grants. A listing of these can be found in the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance at

Once the major portions of the plans are developed, it is necessary to prepare high-level estimates for each area. Areas can be further split into individual projects that can be compared to determine which efforts can be handled internally versus those where outside partners may be needed for completion. All of the systems should be laid out in order of importance and cost. Once ordered, the funding approach for each can be determined by the team. Smaller upgrades may be able to be handled on pre-established budgets, whereas larger efforts may need to get higher corporate approval prior to beginning.

Define Design Basis

The next step is to define a design basis for the facility. Many industrial facilities develop installation standards throughout the years that need to be reviewed along with corporate standards prior to developing projects. These should be discussed and reviewed to become living documents during upgrades for control systems. Installation standards should address the physical installation means and methods. This could be using cable trays versus conduit, or utilizing quick connect cables versus hardwiring directly to instruments. These decisions can greatly impact the installation and engineering costs and need to be weighed to determine what is best for the project and facility. Additionally, these installation means should also look into what options will work best for the facility in the long run. The cost impact now may greatly reduce the maintenance or expansion capabilities for the future. Facility design also needs to be looked at for any type of hazardous area installations. There are different design methods such as explosion proof, intrinsically safe, or non-incendive that can impact installation and hardware costs. Engineering standards should also be looked at to help determine what level of detail is required, and what should be recorded on the drawing packages.

If no standards exist, outside firms such as integrators can be brought in to help develop them based on best engineering practices and national organizations such as the International Society of Automation (ISA). Since upgrades can often happen over many years, having set standards at the onset of the project will ensure consistency throughout all of the phases for the systems upgrades.

Identify Project Constraints and Migration Planning

The last step of the planning phase is to identify project constraints and develop migration planning. Project constraints for manufacturing facilities can be limited down time for production lines, seasonal production based on product life cycle, hazardous area classifications due to materials used, power requirements for new equipment, and physical real estate available at the facility to name a few. In addition, requirements from the local area having jurisdiction (AHJ) and changing national codes can push limits on a project. Proper planning and design can help navigate around these identified restraints. Unique migrations strategies, such as shadow input/output (IO), can help test and verify new systems while keeping old systems intact to reduce outage time needed for a changeover.

Life cycle planning does not end with a completely running system. The cycle is always continuous as technology is always improving. The cycle can start all over again feeding what you have learned back into future projects. Continuous planning will help ensure that the overall goals of the facility are being met now and into the future.

Matrix Technologies is one of the largest independent process design, industrial automation engineering, and manufacturing operations management companies in North America. To learn more about our manufacturing operations management capabilities and manufacturing process control solutions, contact Tony Ferguson, Senior Client Solutions Manager.

© Matrix Technologies, Inc.