Monday, April 20, 2015

In Memory of Ziggy: A Cautionary Tale for Smart Manufacturing


By Patrick Weber, MESA International Technical and Education Committee member

The late 90’s were heady times in the battery industry.  The Sony Walkman cassette players that had been all the rage were giving way to CD and other digital technologies. Digital cameras were supplanting 35mm as the consumer choice for photography. New and innovative battery-driven products were appearing daily.  Energizer and Duracell were in a continuous battle for who could produce the longest-lasting portable power solutions to keep these devices going.  The long-term prospects for the battery industry were for constant growth – and constant change.

One of the many challenges manufacturers face in such market conditions is designing manufacturing equipment capable of adapting quickly to change: how can you make continuous improvements to product on machines that were designed over a decade earlier?  To solve this problem, Energizer worked with local universities and NASA contractors to develop an advanced manufacturing platform called Ziggy. (The origin of the name is rooted in Energizer culture, and would be difficult to explain to outsiders.)  The concept we developed was a modular design based on SMED principles; as new product designs were developed, new “process modules” could be developed in parallel for the common transport backbone and could be dropped in place quickly as the process changes were released to manufacturing.  (Those interested in the details of this platform can see the patent here: http://www.google.com/patents/US6325198.)
In addition to a novel approach to manufacturing equipment, this concept required the development of a next-generation control platform as well.  Energizer had long before chosen to bypass the PLC industry in favor of internally developed controls based on the Z80 and Intel x86 architectures.  But Ziggy would require something different; modular components would need to communicate with each other over a network to form a collaborative system.  The selection of TCP/IP over standard Ethernet was a bold choice for time period, as was the use of C++ and intelligent agents. (See http://www.google.com/patents/US6615091 for details on the control system.)
Between 1997 and 2000, a team of mechanical, electrical, and software engineers designed and built this new manufacturing concept (see the first two batteries being produced using this equipment on YouTube: https://youtu.be/NGieCKghakk).  A full three-chassis line was then built and implemented in Energizer’s North Carolina battery facility, where it produced millions of double-A batteries.
But Ziggy died.  The reasons were not technological, although there were still technology issues to overcome.  By 2003, Energizer had been spun off from parent Ralston Purina to form a stand-alone company.  Management perspectives were changing, and principle champions of Ziggy had left the organization.  The competitive environment was changing as well; digital devices did not require as much power as the older analog technology, blunting the “longer-lasting” competition and nearly eliminating the need for major product changes.  Additionally, many of these devices incorporated rechargeable technology, reducing the long-term outlook for growth in the primary battery market.  Ziggy was seen as overly complex in comparison to the available alternatives, and was abandoned.  The production line sat idle in the plant until it was finally written off the books and dismantled.
In many ways, Ziggy presaged the current “internet of things” and smart manufacturing principles being espoused by groups such as SMLC and Europe’sIndustrie 4.0.  The lesson here is that smart manufacturing is about more than just technology; there must be real business drivers and organizational commitment for smart manufacturing to find long-term success.  Without these, the current, familiar technologies used every day will not give way to the new challengers.
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