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  • Writer's pictureJames Figy

JR Automation® Helps Manufacturers Flex their Automation with Modular Assembly Platform

The FlexChassis™ system harnesses XTS intelligent transport technology from Beckhoff in high-speed, scalable system for life sciences and other industries

JR Automation® knows how to flex. From a small team and a pole barn in 1980 to more than 2,000 employees and 21 facilities worldwide in 2023, the machine builder and systems integrator has thrived by delivering custom automated solutions for numerous industries. The engineering pros understand there are often growing pains. But by remaining dedicated to the company’s motto of “think, solve, create,” there’s always a way to conquer customers’ toughest challenges.

“We want to be good stewards of automation. That means helping our customers figure out where they want to go and providing the best technology solutions to get them there,” says Shawn Smith, Director of Sales at JR Automation. “One way we’ve done this is through our scalable, modular automation platform, FlexChassis™, which speeds up customers’ time to market while cutting costs.”

The FlexChassis platform from JR Automation
FlexChassis™ helps customers focus on their IP rather than reengineer the automation aspects with flexible material handling using the Beckhoff XTS intelligent transport system.

With FlexChassis, JR Automation, a Hitachi Group Company, empowers manufacturers to start small with a system for product testing or proof of concept. Then they can rapidly scale for series production with built-in OEE monitoring and quality control functionality. Going forward, they have confidence in the ability to add capacity, customize processes or retool for new products.

Initially geared toward the life sciences market, FlexChassis extends a powerful tool with clean manufacturing capabilities to many other industries. These include semiconductor, automotive, battery and e-mobility, food and beverage, e-commerce and more. Here, adaptive automation via the eXtended Transport System (XTS) from Beckhoff Automation is key, according to Mick Trompen, Chief Engineer, Life Sciences at JR Automation.

“JR chose the Beckhoff XTS due to its speed and modular design that allows for multiple configurations,” Trompen says. “Plus, we had ample previous experience with the linear transport system, and our customers have been very impressed with the performance of XTS.”


Automation engineers start off on the right track

The last few years have been challenging for manufacturers. And as pressure mounted in critical projects, the JR Automation team noticed how frequently reengineering slowed projects. Having to redesign a machine’s base and material handling technologies often took the equipment end user’s attention away from optimizing their own processes and products.

XTS intelligent transport system from Beckhoff
Product inspection is just one possible tasks FlexChassis™ can automate alongside many others.

Now, they don’t even need to spec dimensions or fabricate a machine base. With modules measuring 1 meter by 1.5 meters wide and 2.44 meters tall, FlexChassis supports wide-ranging robotics and other bolt-on equipment. However, the JR Automation engineers didn’t want inflexible material handling to be a stumbling block to modularity, so they looked to adaptive linear transport tech that can accommodate constant change. That’s when they turned to Beckhoff to keep the nascent FlexChassis platform on the right track.

JR Automation is no stranger to Beckhoff technologies and is part of the Beckhoff Integrator Group (BIG). However, teams across the U.S. worked on the development of the FlexChassis, primarily in Nashville, Tennessee, as well as Greenville, South Carolina, and the company’s global headquarters in Holland, Michigan. So local Beckhoff sales and application engineers serving these locations combined forces to provide information, support and training.

“The development of the FlexChassis concept spanned three years, involving several design revisions aimed at enabling engineers to conceptualize systems more efficiently,” says Richard Smith, Regional Sales Engineer at Beckhoff, who worked closely with JR Automation’s Nashville group. “The end result is a truly impressive system that fully leverages the strengths of XTS, along with EtherCAT and PC-based control technologies. This offers unparalleled flexibility, which is a key differentiator for the equipment end user.”


FlexChassis assembles adaptive automation solutions

The Beckhoff XTS in JR Automation's FlexChassis system
Shawn Smith, Director of Sales, JR Automation: “XTS is a one-size-fits-all solution for high-speed assembly, and the ability to install tracks horizontally, vertically or on an angle enable our design teams’ amazing creativity to put together world-class solutions for many markets.”

XTS consists of linear motor modules, passive wireless movers and mechanical guide rails, all with multiple geometries to create any path imaginable. XTS motor modules integrate all power electronics, EtherCAT communication and position measurement into a compact form factor. Cabling is kept to a minimum by daisy chaining motor modules together via a direct connection.

“The motor modules’ simple configuration and track layout worked well for our concept,” explains David Shiles, Senior Controls Engineer at JR Automation. “The XTS allows us to achieve high OEE and high throughput with enhanced flexibility. We are taking on assemblies with more steps and at higher throughput rates than ever before.”

Unburdened by cables, electromagnetic forces propel the movers around the customizable track with very high dynamics, speeds reaching 4 m/s and accelerations up to 100 m/s2. Movers can operate individually or in groups, supporting true adaptive automation that:

  • raises throughput by increasing tooling to 2-up or more at the slowest process stations

  • allows engineers to easily add stations for high-mix, low-volume (HMLV) production

  • rejects defective product more efficiently by skipping stations after detecting flaws

  • offers rapid, software-based changeovers for new products or emergency orders

Space savings also appealed to the team. The XTS technology’s compact and integrated design eliminates outmoded mechanical components such as belts, chains, indexing tables, etc. This typically shrinks machine footprints by roughly 50%.

“The robust XTS helps us build high-speed assembly automation,” says Chris Moritz, Applications Engineer at JR Automation. “It allowed us to raise the ceiling for the throughput and complexity we can take on, particularly with the FlexChassis platform.” 

Powerful control and communication boosts flexibility

While XTS enables flexible product handling, many technologies come together in the FlexChassis to make a highly scalable solution. JR Automation sees possible process stations including everything from ultrasonic welding, snap fit and adhesive application to reagent fill/seal, drug handling and decorating. Such a broad selection of robots, end effectors, tooling and sensors requires rapid communication via various industrial protocols and fast cycle times.

The EtherCAT industrial Ethernet system delivered the necessary speed and flexibility, Shiles explains: “I prefer EtherCAT from a performance standpoint. In addition to real-time performance, it’s better at using the speeds of the medium the data is exchanged over.” Beyond that, EtherCAT offers flexible selection of topology without performance loss and an unmatched network size – that is, up to 65,535 nodes on one network, with zero managed switches.

Beckhoff EtherCAT coupler
The real-time, open communication of EtherCAT provided the necessary speed and ability to incorporate numerous other industrial protocols.

EtherCAT’s openness was critical, too. “We have many customers in North America, so being able to interface with different systems is paramount to winning some projects when the customer has existing systems that they know and would prefer not to change,” Shiles adds. As such, Beckhoff offers gateways and bus couplers to more than 30 other protocols, including EtherNet/IP, PROFINET, IO-Link, etc., along with an expansive portfolio of I/O terminals.

Real-time EtherCAT communication is necessary for XTS and to coordinate with robotics and other tooling at high speeds. Here, a CX2072 Embedded PC from Beckhoff offers extreme computing power with many-core Intel® Xeon® processors. “This is the only way to meet the necessary scan time of 250 microseconds to process the XTS data in addition to dedicating cores for PLC, servo control and machine vision,” Shiles says.

To program the wide-ranging functionality, JR Automation engineers relied on TwinCAT 3 automation software. TwinCAT offers an end-to-end engineering and runtime platform and supports a vast range of programming standards. These include all IEC 61131-3 languages and their object-oriented extensions, predefined or custom function blocks, and computer science standards in Microsoft Visual Studio®.

A Beckhoff CX2072 Embedded PC
A CX2072 Embedded PC delivers powerful many-core control for the XTS and ancillary tooling.

The FlexChassis project required transparent communication between the Beckhoff IPC and third-party PLCs for future extensibility. The high portability of code in TwinCAT also offered advantages to iterate faster.

“The software for this project was actually written for a previous project that is completely controlled by Beckhoff, but the goal was to write it in a way that it didn’t matter what type of PLC was also interfacing with the XTS-enabled FlexChassis,” Shiles says. “From the outset, our team created data communication structures and determined how to transmit data in a manner that easily scales as the system’s size or complexity grows.”


Dynamic automation platform delivers results

With a powerful technology base, FlexChassis offers customers faster time to market, high throughputs greater than 45 parts per minute and low footprint requirements. Its clean manufacturing capabilities include HEPA filtration, support for various ISO classes and a stainless steel construction for hygienic applications. And with the power and inherent connectivity offered by PC-based control, it’s possible to show the advantages to customers with intuitive dashboards, where they can set alarms, drill down in analytics and more.

“IoT and track and trace are very important functions that are native to the FlexChassis system for downtime management, quality management and OEE,” explains David Vitale, Chief Engineer, Digital Solutions at JR Automation. “Performance data is gathered from the system utilizing a local Beckhoff embedded PC through our Ignition-based MES functions. Currently, these are stored on local databases, but they can be hosted in the cloud or elsewhere as desired.”

Beckhoff and JR Automation engineering experts
Engineering experts at JR Automation HQ in Holland, Michigan (from left): Angela Farina, Regional Sales Engineer, Beckhoff; Shawn Smith, Director of Sales, JR Automation; and Graeme Peek, Application Engineer, Beckhoff.

TwinCAT empowered JR Automation engineers to rapidly commission the first FlexChassis system, which served as a demo for customer meetings and trade shows. The XTS platform sped this development through an intuitive configurator for hassle-free setup, a suite of powerful diagnostic tools and visualization tools for enabling rapid development, whether in simulation or on real hardware. The no-cost TwinCAT engineering environment was another huge benefit, according to Moritz.

“It’s amazing how Beckhoff handles TwinCAT licensing for development work,” he says. “I originally wrote the XTS software used for a project in 2020 when we had to work from home because of COVID. Because I could simulate substantial portions of the machine without needing to buy hardware or software, I hit the ground running once the components arrived with minimal debug time.”

The FlexChassis™ demo
The FlexChassis™ demo machine allows users to add an additional product, which is grasped by a robot gripper and added to the next free XTS mover, but then rejected when it fails inspection.

Just like FlexChassis provides a futureproof solution, the New Automation Technology portfolio from Beckhoff delivers a modular, scalable platform for JR Automation. The company’s involvement with BIG multiplies advantages in terms of support, pricing, exclusive webinars and an overall stronger relationship, according to David Emory, Director of Strategic Sales at Beckhoff USA.

“We’re highly engaged with JR on projects that feature exciting emerging technologies,” says Emory, who oversees the BIG program. “They’ve also explored XTS Track Management, which allows movers to switch between tracks for customization, inspection or reject removal, and implemented projects with the XPlanar with levitating movers for fully adaptive automation. Their incredible team is always ready to take on new technologies and ensure success for their clients.”

As technology and consumer demands evolve, Shawn Smith is excited to see how the collaboration between both companies will deliver even greater outcomes.

“JR Automation and Beckhoff both started in 1980. We’ve been able to evolve together over the years and develop our technologies to be the tip of the spear for our customers,” he says. “It's rewarding to have a partner like Beckhoff. We're really excited about what’s next and how we will stretch the limits of automation together.”


Increase speed and modularity, decrease footprint and downtime doesn't that sound interesting? Contact your local Beckhoff sales engineer today.


james figy of Beckhoff

James Figy is the Marketing Content Leader at Beckhoff Automation LLC.

A version of this article also appeared in Automation World.


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