Conair Group – In Control

Conair is the largest plastics auxiliary equipment supplier in the world.

“We supply just about everything except the moulding or extrusion machine,” says Matt Shope, Director of Engineering for the company. “Conveying, drying, blending, grinding, storage, extrusion, and thermal control are our main product lines. We have an unparalleled range of equipment and product knowledge and we back that up with exceptional 24/7 customer support.”

The latest addition to Conair’s catalogue is a new common control platform developed, designed and invested in by the company. Conair Group are used to solving all kinds of technical issues with their products, but this time the challenge was something new. We learn how Conair’s new control platform will help bring the plastics sector into the age of Industry 4.0.

A Common Platform

“We were getting a lot of feedback from our customers that employee turnover was a major issue and because of that turnover the amount of training required to get employees up to speed on new equipment was really hampering them,” Shope recalls.

“Managing changing control technologies was a real challenge for everyone — including Conair — and moving to a common platform minimizes the risk and effort required.”

At the same time Conair’s customers, like a lot of businesses, were now readying themselves for the next big technological leap.

“Finally we’ve heard from a lot of our customers and industry partners that they’re ready to embrace Industry 4.0 and they’re looking for easier solutions,” Shope says.

Developing a common control platform for Conair’s products that could meet these needs was a major project for the engineering team and took the better part of two years to complete.

“There are two major components to the project,” Shope explains. “We have the HMI design, which is the user interface and then we have the hardware piece: the PLC, the touchscreen itself and all the associated I/O and communications.”

Where Human Meets Machine

With the new HMI, or “Human Machine Interface” Conair’s goal was to make it more intuitive for its users across all of Conair’s product lines.

“We wanted to have a common user experience to help our customers reduce training time and increase operator efficiency,” Shope says. “And we wanted to make the most important information and settings visible immediately, as the user walks up to a machine.”

To accomplish this Conair worked with Bally Design to create a new controls architecture from the ground up, and with no small amount of feedback to work from.

“We interviewed customers. We interviewed our salespeople, service, partners, engineering and all the other key stakeholders that we could identify,” Shope recounts. “After doing that and understanding their requirements and likes and dislikes, Bally Design helped us prototype many iterations to determine the final HMI design guide that we were going to use moving forward.”

This design necessitated the use of innovation, but also keeping in mind user-interface best practices such as minimum button size and text-size requirements across all the different display sizes on Conair’s equipment. These could range from as small as 4.3 inches to 7, 10 or even 15 inches.

“Blender controls, for instance, need to display way more information than the HMI on a temperature control unit,” Shope points out. “So, we had to make sure that the menu structure and navigation, setting entry, alarm notification, icons, colours, etc. remain essentially the same.”

Another challenge was prioritising information so that anything that the user needed to know was readily available, but without making the display cluttered or confusing. As an engineer, Shope understands the difficulty here.

“Engineers, in general, like lots of information on the screen and trying to get them to simplify is really hard,” he admits. “That’s where Bally Design and their expertise in industrial design were necessary.  They pushed the team to present only the most important information and designed an interface for us that is easy to use, and much cooler looking than what we could have done ourselves.”

Hardware for Industry 4.0

As well as designing a new user interface, Conair also had to design and build new hardware for the platform.

“We worked with B&R Automation to integrate their fully scalable flexible hardware portfolio,” says Shope. “What that means is that, really, the application, and the necessary performance of the machine, determine the exact hardware it needs.  All of the I/Os are interchangeable. It uses the same software platform to program and this minimizes the risk that comes when we need to implement new technologies and protocols moving forward.”

This approach streamlines service, spare parts, maintenance, and means Conair’s service people only have to learn one control platform to be able to solve any customer problems.

“We use the same I/O pieces so, if you have an I/O that goes bad, you can change it out at any time,” says Shope.

Indeed, a key aspect of the new platform is that it is designed to be future-proof, particularly with regard to Industry 4.0. From a communication standpoint, all of Conair’s new machines with touchscreen controls will support this initiative.

As Shope tells us, “You’ll be able to see and operate any machine control screen remotely via VNC. We will be able to integrate high-speed long-distance machine networking with plug-in fibre-optic modules where necessary. And it will be easier than ever to connect to Conair SmartServices, which enables powerful reporting, monitoring and remote control of our machines.”

Of course, Conair has produced and operates a vast number of machines, and so the sheer number of products and machines that had to be updated was a challenge.

“We wanted every machine with a touchscreen to use the same hardware and visual brand language and only had two years to get it done,” Shope says. “It was all hands on deck for the engineering team, Bally Design, and B&R our controls partner.”

A Pipeline for Performance

Conair is part of the IPEG Industrial Group, whose mission is to foster excellence and inspire confidence in its customers and employees. In that spirit, a big part of Shope’s goal is to build a first-class engineering team.

“I like to build high-performance engineering teams that can innovate, solve problems, and have fun working together,” Shope says. “Being positive, supporting each other, and being accountable are our core behaviours and we evaluate ourselves on them.  I feel like my main job is to provide the team with the best tools, like our world-class research and development lab, real useful training, and a focused strategy.  Then I try to stay out of the way and let them do their thing.  We also have an excellent co-op program through the University of Pittsburgh that has been hugely successful in finding and developing new engineering talent.”

From that team, Shope is looking forward to years to come of innovation and creative problem-solving.

We have a full pipeline of new product development projects – many of which involve the next steps of our new controls architecture,” Shope says. “Machine communication, automation, and remote management are really popular topics in the industry, but we feel like we are ahead of the curve with our new controls platform and Smart Services.  My goal is to push us way out in front in the coming years and give our customers the best experience possible.”

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