PLC machines to support production

Challenge

Increased market pressure from Chinese producers, amongst others, has made it necessary for Becromal to focus both on lowering production costs and increasing product quality.

Solutions

Around half of the machines in the production line in Iceland have been replaced by PLC systems (Programmable Logic Controller). The PLCs allows full control and possible adjustment of all inputs and processes in real time, including increased quality control.

Costs

PLC machines are relatively costly and is considered a long-term investment.

Result

Today, Becromal is able to produce faster and at a higher and much more homogenous quality than before. According to Becromal, this makes them able to compete with producers from low cost countries and to enter highly competitive markets in Asia. 

Introduction

Becromal is one of the world’s largest producers of aluminium foils for electrolytic capacitors. The foil is used for the construction of aluminium electrolytic capacitors, ensuring the functionality of almost all electronic circuits and electrical appliances.

At Becromal, the raw aluminium foil undergoes a multiphase electrochemical process that modifies the surface structure of the foil at a microscopic level in order to increase its electrical capacity.

Becromal was founded in 1955 in Italy and is headquartered near Milan. In 2008, the company was bought by EPCOS – a German manufacturer of electronic components, modules and systems. In 2008, Becromal also established production facilities in Akureyri in Northern Iceland. Aluminium processing is energy intensive, making Iceland’s reasonable energy prices and abundance of renewable energy very attractive. The Icelandic plant was established in partnership with the Icelandic investment group Strokkur Energy ehf.

Tough international competition

There is a highly competitive global market for aluminium foils and during the last decade, Becromal has experienced increased competition from low cost countries. At the same time, the production of aluminium foil is a very complex electrochemical process, where just slight irregularities in production processes will result in defects in the finished foil and lead to unsatisfied customers and increased waste generation.

With this in mind, Becromal saw the construction of a completely new facility in Iceland as an opportunity to design a modern plant using the newest automation technology and digital control systems, enabling better and more precise control of production processes.

Upgrading production lines with PLC machines

According to Christopher Tucker, Chief Operating Officer at Becromal Iceland, one of the most important features of the new plant in Iceland is the shift from traditional analogue control systems to modern PLC machines. PLCs (Programmable Logic Controller) are digital computers used for controlling and monitoring automation processes in advanced manufacturing. PLCs are relatively costly but have many advantages compared to old analogue relay based controllers. First of all, PLCs allow full control and very precise adjustment of all inputs and processes in production, in real time. Furthermore, all input data can be stored and is retrievable, making it possible to use it for the optimisation of production processes as well as to identify the exact reasons for eventual errors or defects in finished foils.

“PLCs allow us to produce faster and at a much higher and more homogenous quality. This is essential for us in order to compete in the highly competitive global market for electrolytic aluminium foils, where both price and quality are strong parameters”.

- Christopher Tucker,
Chief Operating Officer, Becromal Iceland ehf.

What are PLCs

PLCs (Programmable Logic Controller) are digital computers used for controlling automation processes typically in industrial electromechanical manufacturing, assembly lines or amusement rides. PLCs are designed for multiple arrangements of digital and analogue inputs and outputs, extended temperature ranges, immunity to electrical noise, and resistance to vibration and impact. Programs to control machine operation are typically stored in battery-backed-up or non-volatile memory. Advantages of PLCs compared to more traditional analogue controlled machines, include full control and possible adjustment of all inputs and processes in real time, including increased quality control possibilities and access to detailed and retrievable production data. Each PLC is equipped with a digital screen giving technicians an exact overview of all inputs and processes as well as possible errors or problems in the production line.

Lastly, due to their digital system, PLCs are much easier and faster to troubleshoot, making it possible to avoid long and costly break-downs in production. Whereas errors are identified manually on the old analogue machines, PLCs are equipped with software that automatically helps identify errors and problems. Today, around half of the machines in Becromal’s production line in Iceland are advanced PLC systems. The plan is to shift the remaining analogue systems in the Icelandic plant to PLC systems within the next 5-10 years. Having worked with advanced automation for decades, Becromal holds significant electromechanical knowledge and engineering competencies in-house, Christopher Tucker states. However, shifting to PLC machines is a complex and technically challenging task. Therefore, in setting up the new advanced facility in Iceland, Becromal teamed up with RAFTAKN - a local Icelandic company with specialist competencies related to PLC machines. According to Christopher Tucker, COO at Becromal Iceland, cooperation with RAFTAKN has been very valuable for Becromal. Today RAFTAKN also plays a key role in the maintenance of the PLC machines at Becromal. 

“Though we internally at Becromal have strong engineering competencies and years of experiences with automation, it has been of outmost importance for us to have a strong local partner here in Iceland. RAFTAKN has played a key role in the entire development and set-up of our plant here in Iceland. And they are still helping us maintain and adjust our PLCs.”

- Christopher Tucker,
Chief Operating Officer, Becromal Iceland ehf.

Results: Higher quality, less waste, more satisfied customers

The introduction of PLCs has made it possible for Becromal to produce faster and at a higher and much more homogenous quality. As Christopher Tucker underlines, higher quality and fewer errors naturally lead to more satisfied customers, and today, Becromal experiences fewer complaints from customers than before the introduction of PLC machines. Furthermore, high precision in production has led to less generation of scrap, as less finished foil now needs to be discarded. Becromal also stores all data from their production machines. The data is used for statistic production control and evaluation of production processes for possible improvements and adjustments of production - this is done in cooperation with RAFTAKN. Most days, RAFTKAN has personnel placed at Becromal’s facilities helping Becromals own engineers and technicians with the monitoring, control and adjustment of the production line. The constant adjusting and optimizing of production lines is essential for the Icelandic plant to stay efficient and competitive.

Christopher Tucker states, that the ability to produce high quality aluminium foils in a cost efficient manner has enabled Becromal to enter new markets in Asia, which are highly competitive, and it would have been impossible for Becromal without the advantages of PLC machines.

“Without automation this would be a total different workplace. It is hard to imagine how we could run this factory without the things we take for granted today – like the automatic adjustment of process parameters and the vast amount of data available with the click of a mouse. If asked we would highly recommend companies to follow the path of automation as it paves the way for better utilisation of human resources, higher processing capabilities and a better and more consistent product.”

- Christopher Tucker,
Chief Operating Officer, Becromal Iceland ehf.