How Smart Manufacturing Changes Everything

Automation of processes that increase yield and raise productivity, is the core of what people think of when they speak of smart manufacturing. Smart is not limited to process change but opens the door to the use of new materials. Rather than stocking inventory 3-D printing capability allows custom built job-lots of one. Smart is certainly transforming manufacturing but it also transforms companies themselves. Witness Valin Corp. a San Jose supplier to the semiconductor that nearly perished in the wake of the dotcom bust of 2001.

Valin is a $200 million provider of automation, filtration products, and measurement systems that are used to help other companies make things more efficiently. Joe Nettemeyer, the second CEO in the company’s history previously worked at Emerson for 21 years under Chuck Knight, a tough-minded boss but one who elevated the St. Louis based company into a world class manufacturer. Since coming to Valin 12 years ago, Nettemeyer relates how smart manufacturing has forever changed everything about the manufacturing world he knew at Emerson, but also how it has transformed mid-size companies like Valin.

Initially Valin like many firms its size, were providers of component parts –essentially dumb parts—that were used in various manufacturing processes. Today, all dumb parts eventually become commoditized. The expansion of their product portfolio with the introduction of sensors and devices with network capabilities allowed Valin to enter the world where smart devices are integrated into larger centralized control systems that maximize product yield and increase productivity.

For example, Valin provides and services a robot to Shutterfly that stuffs envelopes with pictures. To do this manually Shutterfly had to pay people $10 an hour. All-in, the robot does the job for $4.50 an hour and does so for three shifts a day with no coffee breaks. Valin’s automated custody transfer measurement system is also used in the oil and gas fields to allow for remote collection of data on the amount of oil and gas being transferred from the well-site to a pipeline or tank. Remote monitoring reduces the number of field site visits and lowers support costs. Similar sensors are used to monitor wind turbines, which because of their remote locations used to require people to be sent out to monitor them at great costs. Today, process control technology allows owners to know when a system is likely to falter in advance of a breakdown, making repair visits to be both timely and cost-effective.

REC is a northwest U.S. company that manufactures poly-silicon which is used in the production of solar cells. The problem is that poly-silicon is a chemically highly aggressive material that attacks metals and equipment forcing periodic shut-downs of equipment for repair virtually every month. Upgrades in automated process heating systems with integrated controls provided by Valin reduced shut downs just once a year and increased yields to REC by 30 percent.


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