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  • Writer's pictureJames Figy

PC Control Fills Innovation Gap in Lehnen’s Cosmetics Filling System

The ProFill SF machine harnesses ELM series compact servo drives and automation tech from Beckhoff to optimize performance and cut controls costs by 40%

The ProFill SF lip balm filler, an automated machine from Lehnen Industrial Services
The ProFill SF lip balm filler from Lehnen Industrial Services combines unscrambling, in-parallel filling, cooling, capping, labeling and coding into one compact system.

When Lehnen Industrial Services completed its first lip balm filling system, President Peter Lehnen figured it would be the company’s last. Sure, it combined a host of features – unscrambling, in-parallel filling, cooling, capping, labeling and coding – into one compact machine. And, yes, it worked well, optimized cleaning processes with a stainless steel design, and offered a fast ROI to the customer.


This initial iteration of the ProFill SF lip balm filler faced two main challenges. First, due to its robust design and associated price point, the machine didn’t fit into the existing categories.

“With this type of filling equipment, typically one class is low cost and low speed. Then, an industrial class offers high throughput but costs millions of dollars per installation,” Peter Lehnen says. “There are few options in that middle space.”


Industrial automation technology for packaging machines
While many operations have separate machines for filling and labeling, the ProFill system does both as well as adding serial codes.

However, when Lehnen posted a video of the ProFill SF system online, the company received inquiries right away from companies looking for solutions between ultra-low end and ultra-high end. As Lehnen decided to make the machine a standard product, the engineering team needed to answer the second challenge: how to optimize and future-proof the automation platform. The custom machine builder based in Keene, New Hampshire, was well prepared to tackle that task.


Founded in 2001, Lehnen primarily serves customers in life sciences, with additional focuses on web handling, printing, packaging, and test and measurement. “Our niche is purpose-built equipment for cleanroom environments with small footprints. That involves significant design optimization to condense extensive functionality into small spaces,” Peter Lehnen says. “Our strength is understanding customers’ needs and tailoring solutions in-house to meet them.”


In early 2024, Lehnen moved to a new 20,000-square-foot facility to add room for an innovation lab and manufacturing space. This allowed Lehnen to ramp up production of its two serial products: the ProCut AF tube cutter, an automated solution to slice medical tubing to exact lengths with zero alcohol, and the ProFill. Standardizing on PC-based control, compact servo solutions and EtherCAT technologies from Beckhoff proved to be a balm to soothe previous technology challenges.

 

Development gets chapped by legacy controls


The ProFill system brings all steps into a self-contained unit measuring just 11 feet 8 inches by 5 feet 5 inches (308 cm by 142 cm). Even with its sturdy stainless steel construction, the portable system can move on casters to work in any location with compressed air and 240-volt AC connections. In addition, the design simplifies filling head changes, whether for cleaning or product changeovers to accommodate various tube sizes.


Lip balm filling machine
The ProFill system fills, cools and caps eight lip balm tubes in parallel, which simplifies changeovers for different sized tubes and boosts throughput.

However, Lehnen felt locked into a legacy PLC platform that impeded innovation. Over the years, Chris Lehnen, Head Software Developer at Lehnen Industrial Services, observed the controls’ shortcomings. These included costly annual contracts, excessive space requirements, especially when using servo motion, and lack of memory on the controllers.


“At a time when memory is so inexpensive, it’s mindboggling that a $3,000 PLC has only 4 megabytes of storage. So many times, I’ve been forced to delete code comments from programs just to scrounge up enough bytes,” Chris Lehnen says. “That, as well as arbitrary caps on I/O and motion axis counts, is why we started looking at more modern options.”


The Lehnen team first encountered Beckhoff at a trade show in 2015 in New York City. At the time, they weren’t ready to navigate a platform shift with customers who are resistant to change in the documentation-heavy life sciences industry. Then in 2020, as many vendors struggled to supply components, they found Beckhoff had better availability on some key parts, and the scalable platform made it easier to make substitutions.



These factors allowed them to migrate some customer projects to Beckhoff – at the same time as they started considering manufacturing standard products. Beyond the technology benefits, the business case for using Beckhoff made more sense, according to Peter Lehnen.


“The legacy controls giants put you at a competitive disadvantage. They can charge you whatever they feel like, cut you off from the ability to support your customers and do development work, and they constantly need firmware upgrades that may be difficult to install based on support and service subscription limitations,” he explains. “So Beckhoff’s unique approach is just tremendously compelling from a risk mitigation perspective.”


Engineering experts at Lehnen Industrial Services
From custom solutions to standard production, building innovative solutions requires an all-hands-on-deck approach from the team at Lehnen Industrial Services, including (from left) Controls Engineer Rick Fuller, Head Software Developer Chris Lehnen, President Peter Lehnen, and Director of Business Development Kelly McKenney.

The Lehnen engineers worked to future-proof the lip balm filling system using hardware and software from Beckhoff. However, they wanted to ensure some things didn’t change. In particular, the ProFill needed to maintain its small footprint and high-precision filling to avoid dripping hard-to-clean, waxy liquid on conveyance equipment. Working with the local support team from Beckhoff USA, including Regional Sales Engineer Brian Buck and Applications Engineer Matt Kleven, Lehnen confidently began the redesign in January 2023.


ProFill fills up on New Automation Technology


Beckhoff PS2000 series Power Supplies
PS2000 series Power Supplies deliver consistent power with ideal integration into Beckhoff applications.

The ProFill system relies on a C6015 ultra-compact Industrial PC (IPC) as its sole machine controller. Beyond space-saving dimensions, the IPC’s memory options range from 40 to 320 gigabytes, removing any concerns about running out of hard disk/flash space.


“Since the C6015 uses a Windows operating system, it also simplifies data collection and files management without needing a separate PC,” Chris Lehnen says. “The Beckhoff controllers, on this machine and others, also enable us to run control logic and visualization in one place – rather than needing redundant hardware and software for PLC and HMI.”


A CP3918 multi-touch Control Panel from Beckhoff delivers an impressive operator interface. The 18.5-inch display brings intuitive smartphone-style operation to tough production environments.


Beckhoff HMI software and hardware
Lehnen leveraged the CP3918 multi-touch Control Panel to provide the ProFill system with an elegant and user-friendly operator interface.  

“The fit and finish of the Beckhoff Control Panel is very important. Unlike a plastic HMI that has to be installed in some kind of metal enclosure, the CP3918 enhances the elegance of the equipment, which also improves the overall user experience,” Peter Lehnen adds.


Programming of the HMI, PLC, motion control and more takes place in all-purpose TwinCAT 3 automation software. As an end-to-end engineering and runtime platform, TwinCAT incorporates all functionality needed for machine control with flexible options for writing code. TwinCAT’s integration into Microsoft Visual Studio® means engineers can leverage the programing language that best fits the application or their skillset, including:


  • IEC 61131-3 standards with object-oriented extensions

  • Custom function blocks or hundreds of built-in options in TwinCAT libraries

  • Computer science paradigms, such as C#, C++, Python, and HTML5 or JavaScript for HMI creation


“The Lehnen team really took advantage of numerous software and hardware solutions we offer, including the synchronization inherent in the EtherCAT industrial Ethernet system,” says Beckhoff’s Brian Buck. “For me, an aspect of this application that stands out is their use of the compact ELM7222 servo drives. Probably more than any other component they replaced, these saved a huge amount of space in the electrical cabinet while delivering precise, high-performance motion in the system.”


Beckhoff Automation IPC and servo drive technologies
In addition to EtherCAT I/O and the C6015 ultra-compact IPC, ELM7222 servo drive terminals saved space while offering high-precision, deterministic motion control with built-in safety functions.

The ELM7222 is a dual-channel, 48-volt DC servo amplifier that measures just 30 millimeters wide. Mounted directly on DIN rail, the compact motion terminals can be installed within the standard EtherCAT I/O segment, alongside wide-ranging terminals needed for the lip balm filler, such as high-density inputs and outputs, analog temperature measurement and thermocouple modules.

The ELM72xx series servo terminals also support One Cable Technology (OCT) to AM8100 servomotors from Beckhoff. These features further shrink space requirements and simplify commissioning, while ensuring incredibly high performance.


“When it comes to the ELM servo terminals on the ProFill system, we have not found anything else that compares in terms of size, efficiency and design,” Peter Lehnen says. “And we’ve only scratched the surface on how much is possible with the motion control capabilities in TwinCAT.”

 

PC-based control smooths out challenges


The ProFill SF lip balm filler maintained its high performance and compact footprint during the redesign. The system processes trays of eight tubes at a time with a throughput of 60 tubes per minute. So companies that run the machine continuously can fill, cap, label and serial code 30,000 sticks per day.


Beckhoff AM81000 servomotors
The ProFill system’s motion equipment includes AM8100 series servomotors from Beckhoff with One Cable Technology.

With space-saving controls, networking and servo drive hardware from Beckhoff, the machine also freed up space in the electrical cabinet for future functionality additions. “On top of having a better overall system, we reduced costs significantly,” Peter Lehnen says. “In terms of control hardware, we saved roughly 40% by standardizing on Beckhoff.”


The Lehnen team appreciates the ability to try software in the no-cost TwinCAT engineering environment before buying the specific package or library for implementation. The PC-based automation platform allows them to tie in databases easily while providing recipes and intuitive HMI.


“TwinCAT offers a proper implementation of the IEC standard and object-oriented programming, unlike other vendors’ platforms that are technically compliant but more restrictive. This allows us to truly embrace best practices in software development,” Chris Lehnen says. “Beyond that, TwinCAT simplifies source control through incorporation of Git. So our software team can work on the same program simultaneously to speed up development.”


Lehnen can stock preferred Beckhoff IPCs but also source options with more or less processing power depending on needs – without astronomical prices increases or software changes. The open technologies make it easier to source third-party components, such as barcode scanners that plug into a USB port, without needing specialized EtherNet/IP devices.


Industrial automation engineers from Beckhoff and Lehnen Industrial Services
Beckhoff Regional Sales Engineer Brian Buck (left) works closely with Peter Lehnen, President of Lehnen Industrial Services, and the rest of the team in Keene, New Hampshire, to automate success.

Most importantly for Lehnen, the engineers don’t have to worry about the legacy PLC platform’s cap on data storage, which disincentivized programmers from pushing limits. Now, in their standard products, custom applications and proof-of-concept projects in the innovation lab, they can rethink what’s possible. That ensures Lehnen and their customers remain as competitive as possible.


“Choosing industrial components is about more than cost or if you like the salesperson – although we do enjoy working with Brian,” adds Peter Lehnen. “Our customers have a lot riding on these capital investments, and Beckhoff technologies with free technical support serve us and our customers well from a performance and risk management perspective. That’s why we’re really championing Beckhoff technologies going forward.”

 

Ready to future-proof your machines with scalable, compact control and motion technologies? Contact your local Beckhoff sales engineer today.


 

James Figy of Beckhoff Automation USA

James Figy is the Marketing Content Leader at Beckhoff Automation LLC

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