Starbucks Roastery

Starbucks Roastery, Seattle

A few weeks ago I made a trip to Seattle to visit my daughter Yuki and her family. She used to work at Starbucks’ corporate headquarters, and among other projects was involved in the design and startup of the Roastery, an immersive experience in coffee, from the unroasted bean to your cup.

Of course being involved in automation, I was interested in checking out the production side of things. I have done work for coffee roasters before, and much of the automation involves the usual disciplines: temperature control, material handling, packaging, and conversion (in this case, grinding of the beans). A big difference with the Roastery is that the environment is meant for an audience and the typical factory atmosphere has been enhanced with a lot of visual and auditory packaging.

An example is this beautiful brass covering over some of the mechanisms and material handling parts of the system. From a distance the immediate impression is that it is some king of giant tank, perhaps a huge vat of coffee :-). In actuality it is just a good central eyepiece that probably just covers up some of the less visually appealing piping, motors and valves in the central part of the space.


As you can see here, many of the control, structural and material handling elements of the system have been designed to be visually appealing. Because the area is built for an audience, the conveyors have been placed in clear tubes and the SCADA control is placed in an area where visitors can see what’s going on rather than in a control room or at the control enclosure. Great pains have been taken to ensure that the operations are not loud or annoying also.


It is unlikely that in a typical factory moving machinery like this would be exposed where debris could fall into the product or someone could put their hands into the mechanism, but it does make for an excellent display. The production area is not physically accessible to the public and I’m sure this is not part of the actual supply chain.


The packaging area shown above illustrates just how clean and visually appealing a factory environment can be made to appear. If production was the main purpose of the facility there would be coffee dust all over the surfaces and people would be moving around frantically and making a lot of ruckus.


Instead there is the atmosphere of a coffee shop with people sitting around the tasting bar and shopping for coffee-related paraphernalia.

When I visited Central America in early 2012 I had the privilege of touring a coffee plantation in Boquete, Panama. I was able to taste raw coffee beans and some of the world’s best brewed coffees presented by experts in the field. I realized back then that some coffees are quite expensive and vary a lot in taste, based on how/where they are grown and roasted. While the standard Starbucks coffee is not particularly to my liking, I did see a wide variety of coffees for sale at the Roastery. I’d advise anyone who is in the area to go check it out, it is near downtown Seattle at 1124 Pike Street.

By the way, the red ones are ripe and ready to be processed.

When you take the skin off, the bean looks like this and tastes quite sweet. If you ever get a chance I highly recommend a tour of a plantation. They are usually in pretty cool parts of the world!

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Posted in Manufacturing, Material Handling, Sales and Marketing Tagged with: , , ,

Automation Update December 2017

It’s been a while since I’ve posted. While things are going pretty well for me right now, I’ve had a really rough past few months. I think the longest I’ve gone before without posting was a couple of weeks maybe, this time it’s been more than two months.

I’ve done a little more work on my “Factory”; as you can see in the above picture I’ve got the escapements mounted. They still need some fine tuning, but as you can see they are ready to drop little balls into the boxes on the index conveyor.

I’ve also done some work on the process side. There is a lot of signal conditioning required in order to get the tank levels and flow signal done, I haven’t tested the load cells or flow transmitter yet, but I hope to get more done over the next few weeks. I just returned from Boston and Raleigh doing some ControlLogix and Siemens S7 classes for Automation Training, I also did some SLC and Micro classes here at my place for Automation NTH. They did a nice writeup on some of the things we’ve been working on here. I didn’t have any training equipment for the RSLogix 500 platform, so I made the trainers below. They are Micro 1100s and worked well for the basics.

I hope to get a fresh start on my programs and projects with the new year. Sometimes it takes a bit of a break to get motivated. On the plus side of my problems, I did manage to lose 15 pounds!

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Posted in Me, My Little Factory, Training Tagged with: , , ,

Loving Your Automation

This week’s post is not really on automation, or anything technical.

A couple of days ago I visited a local plant at the invitation of a consultant who is working with their management team to improve their processes. While this consultant is adept at efficiency, workflow and other Lean topics, he is not an expert at automation, so he came to me for some advice.

We discussed several possible simple projects to move material around, quite simple stuff really, but probably projects that this company couldn’t do in-house or even with the machine shop down the street. Anyway, when we were done they mentioned a couple of little sensor and control issues they had, and I said I’d like to take a look.

The first thing I noticed was that the sensors were quite old, as was much of the hardware on the control panel. When I opened the control panel I saw an image similar to that at the top of this post. There were wire nuts and loose wires everywhere, making the panel look like an afterthought. Upon discussing the history of some of this equipment I learned that a local integrator/controls type guy had been helping them for a long time, and he had put this equipment in years before. He was mostly retired now, and they were waiting for him to come in and advise them on how they could fix or replace the sensor. He didn’t seem to have much interest in coming in and helping them.

This brought back a lot of old memories from my past life as a controls integrator in East Tennessee. There are lots of older factories with equipment like this, and varying degrees of maintenance capability. There are also a lot of panels and wiring jobs just like this.

When I went outside to leave, I mentioned the state of the equipment to the consultant. I said that if they had a young maintenance guy that was new and just learning the plant, this would be a great opportunity to show some love to the equipment; rewire and document everything, label and organize the wiring. The response I got made me as sad as the face in the image above. He said “they won’t do that, they don’t see it as adding value”.

Unfortunately, I see this as a cultural problem. There doesn’t seem to be much pride taken in work any more in a lot of places. Nobody is even looking at the equipment unless it breaks down. Companies are out to squeeze every last dollar out of their processes, but aren’t taking care of their equipment or their people. There seems to be no motivation to love their jobs or their hardware as they would something that belonged to them.

I believe this attitude bleeds over into employee’s lives when they aren’t at work also. There are people who would do anything to have a job that gives them the opportunity to learn, practice and make money at the same time, but it seems that most people can’t wait to get out of work and kick back.

I love my job and the field I have chosen. I have passed through a lot of different phases of my career, from apprenticing to maintenance, to being a technician, then an engineer, to running a company with employees that depended on my decisions, and now finally to teaching others. I realize not everybody has the same opportunities and interest in what they are doing, but to me it is so important to take pride and responsibility for your job.

So show some love to your automation. It’s sad and waiting for some attention.

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Posted in Business, Philosophies, Thoughts Tagged with: , ,

My New Trainers!

Well, its official. I have my first actual PLC trainers, in addition to the ones on the wall in My Little Factory. I think they’re awesome! They did take 8 weeks to build, but as more are made I think some the logistics things will get worked out. In addition to fabrication time, there is also the time it takes to check out the I/O and get the firmware set up.

Now they aren’t cheap, and I won’t be shipping them to any customer sites, but they do have some excellent features that you won’t find in a typical suitcase-style trainer.

First, notice that there are input, output and power banana-plug jacks on the sides. This allows hardware to be connected for training as I described in last week’s post.

On the other side there are two Ethernet ports, one for programming and one for remote I/O. There is an M12 connector to provide power to dedicated devices, as well as the power switch and power socket. One of the pushbuttons is also wired normally closed, which is helpful when explaining certain programming concepts.

Automation NTH built them and has made two more of their own that we can use with the four laptops I have loaded with software. These will be very handy with the advanced custom classes I am teaching. They and several other trainers will soon be appearing for sale on my business website.

I am also working on some much less expensive trainers for the MicroLogix 1100, shown below.

I’m evaluating this Micro 1100…

These will be in a plastic box and have more limited I/O, though it will have two analog inputs. The reason I chose this platform is that the software is free, yet in most ways it matches the SLC500 platform well enough for training. This will be my attempt at the least expensive A-B demo I can come up with.

For those who have been wondering about the status of My Little Factory, it’s still coming along, though slowly.

The pick and places are mounted, but there are several small widgets that need to be installed before I can run them, not to mention that they aren’t plumbed and the valve banks aren’t mounted yet. Its hard to break off enough time to get everything done. The ball escapements are also still languishing.

In my defense, I have been making a lot of PLC training videos for a customer and am getting better at it. This means that the online PLC classes are much closer along with my next PLC book, which includes lots of advanced stuff.

Anyway, I’m excited to get to use these new demos. Come take a class and check them out!

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Posted in My Little Factory, PLCs, Trainers, Training Tagged with: , , , ,

Advanced PLC Training using Industrial Equipment

I just got back from teaching a class in California using the conveyor and training demo mentioned in my previous post on Automation NTH. I have discussed training quite a bit on this blog before, but I feel like this concept deserves special attention.


The class lasted a week and I had three students, all experienced engineers with little or no previous PLC experience. As those of you who follow this blog know, I regularly teach PLC and HMI classes for Automation Training. There are beginning and advanced classes in Allen-Bradley, Siemens PLCs and HMIs, as well as WonderWare, Industrial Communications, and other classes. When marketing classes to a broad variety of students from different backgrounds, it is necessary to standardize the training so that it applies to the widest range of companies and students.

For this class I had to create custom material specific to the customer. I have taught two similar classes using these demos previously for NTH, so some of the material has already been developed, but this is the first time we have tried it at a customer’s location. Since the goal was to create a self-guided course using this equipment it warranted the trip.

So what is the biggest difference between this and a standard PLC training class using pushbuttons and pilot lights? One of the biggest takeaways was just how complex the training could be with real hardware.. For instance, one of the first exercises I assigned was putting the system into Auto and Manual Modes along with the conditions described in my previous post on the System Routine. This is an ideal exercise for bit logic and I/O access since as you can see in the picture there is an HMI with Auto and Manual buttons as well as a selector switch, E-Stop, Power button and indicators reflecting a stack light. This provides a lot of material for discussion of system control and operation. It also segues well into the use of timers for blinking lights and pulsing a buzzer.

After doing several exercises familiarizing students with editing and basic instructions, the class got advanced pretty quickly. I had students create a system UDT and use it for control of their own program, then introduced them to a pre-written program with multiple subroutines, Add-On Instructions(AOIs), an auto sequence and all of the different program sections I have described in the PLC tab and series on this blog. After operating the conveyor demo and seeing how the system operated, I had them go through a series of operations repairing a copy of the program where I had removed rungs from each routine. After that I had them write their own auto sequence to simulate interfacing with an inspection system. We then did one full day on using the HMI software, Allen-Bradley’s FactoryTalk View ME.

Overall the class went well, but we covered a LOT of material in a very short period of time. While this may work for companies who are keeping the equipment for a while, it wouldn’t be very practical for a regional class like I do for Automation Training. The shipping and handling of the equipment alone wouldn’t warrant it. At the same time it was pretty awesome to be able to cover advanced topics like program structure, templates and sequences/state machines.

If you are interested in advanced training like this from NTH or standard PLC training through Automation Training, I would encourage you to contact either of them or hit me up if you have any questions. Of course I also teach my own custom classes in Lebanon, Tennessee, near Nashville.

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Posted in Training Tagged with: , , , , ,

Live Sensors Webcast for Control Engineering

Hey, this Frank Lamb from Automation Primer. I will be doing a webcast for Control Engineering magazine on Tuesday, August 22, 2017 at 2 p.m. EST (1 p.m. CST, 11 a.m. PST, I can’t tell you MST because it’s a secret). If you are in Europe or Asia you should probably be sleeping or drinking, but come check it out anyway if you can figure out the time!

To register click HERE

I will be presenting the first part on sensing for machine applications and Chris Thompson from Matrix Technologies will be doing the second half on process control sensing. For attending and answering the highly technical and devious questions we pose at the end you will receive 1 Certified Professional Development Hour (PDH). This can be traded on eBay or The Price Is Right for cool prizes I think… but don’t take my word for it. Anyway, come check it out and come stump the presenters with your sensor application questions!

Hosted by Mark Hoske and sponsored by Balluff and Carlo Gavazzi

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Posted in Me, Sensing, Vendors and Manufacturers Tagged with: , , , , ,

Ladder Logic 208: System Routine 2

Today’s post is a continuation of the series on PLC Ladder Logic I started several years ago; for more of these post click on the PLC tab at the top of the site.

In particular this continues my discussion of the System Routine. In Ladder Logic 205 I showed a method of starting an Auto Cycle state or mode, but left much to the imagination as far as how the system or machine might actually get to that state (notice the reference to the Auto Start Sequence). Today I am going to go into a bit more depth on machine starting and safety.

This post also shows a method of generating a pulse train with two timers.

Often it is important not to start machinery instantly, but rather to warn personnel around the machine that it is about to move. This is required for most machinery, with the exception of simpler machine such as test stations. The logic above shows a method of pulsing a horn to warn people that the system is starting. It requires the person starting the machine to hold the button to create the Cycle Start Request signal; the next logic shows how to use the signal to actually start the system.

This is by no means the only way to do this, but it gets across the general idea. A few things to note:
1. The operator must hold down the cycle start button for the entire time for the system to start, if he lets go the timer starts again.
2. The system won’t start unless in Auto Mode with no faults.
3. The system will not stop if in the middle of an auto sequence; this should be modified to taste. It should allow sequences to come to rest in a natural position; a specific sequence step or position can replace the sequence active bit.
4. A fault stops the Auto Cycle immediately. Again, this may not apply in every case.

The Auto Cycle bit or status is not really a mode in itself, it is more of a state within Auto Mode. Generally it is used to allow auto sequences to start or proceed, but not to disable output energization.

The techniques I have listed in these numbered series of Ladder Logic articles are things I teach in my PLC training classes. While most courses do a good job of explaining the instructions themselves, they don’t cover programming technique. If you are interested in learning more, come take a class!

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Posted in PLCs, Software & Programming Tagged with: , , , ,

Automation NTH


Over the past six years I’ve written posts about a lot of different companies; machine builders (Nalle Automation/NAS, Wright Industries/Doerfer, even my old company ACS), training companies (Automation Training and Udemy), and a whole bunch of controls manufacturers (check out the PLC tab). Today’s post is the first I think I’ve written on a systems integrator or “controls house” as they’re sometimes called.

Automation NTH is located in LaVergne, TN, close to Nashville. They do controls design and engineering, programming, system commissioning, contracting and have a large UL508A listed panel shop. They have been in operation since 1999 and like many controls companies and machine builders in the area, the principals (like myself) were at Wright Industries for a bit.

When I first moved here in 2006 to work for Wright, they were some of the first people I met, and my wife was hired into their panel shop, so I got to know them pretty well. After leaving Wright at the end of 2011 they were the first company I contracted for, doing programming and design work around the Southeast. I also got to know a lot of their engineers, many of whom also did a spell at Wright.

One thing that is a bit different about NTH is their emphasis on internal training. For several years they have had a program that takes local university engineering students on as interns. The four month program trains them in AutoCAD/electrical design, general controls and PLC programming, and working them in the panel shop. This allows Automation NTH to evaluate the interns and hire many of them when they graduate, ensuring that they are familiar with good controls practices and NTH’s way of doing things.

In addition they have expanded this into a “NTH University” program that provides ongoing training for employees, allowing them to gain experience in various disciplines.

This is a picture of their “PLC Trainer” wall. There are many different brands represented here, and most of the demo’s were built by the interns themselves as final projects. Platforms include Allen-Bradley, Siemens, Modicon, GE, Mitsubishi and more.

Interns and students have used several conveyors. machine vision and pneumatic components to do projects to enhance their skills. Recently Automation NTH has also expanded this program to allow customers from manufacturing facilities to take a one week “crash course” using the NTH University curriculum. Customers have given excellent reviews on this course since it allows technicians and engineers to use real world scenarios in their training.

I have been fortunate to become involved in this course myself recently as the course has been formalized. Both of my books are being used in the classes and new training equipment has been built for the conveyor labs.


A local university, Middle Tennessee State (MTSU) has also ordered 22 trainers for their engineering classes. They looked so good I simply had to order a couple for myself…


I will also be marketing these trainers and other similar ones on my website within the next few months. One thing that allows NTH to make trainers like this very economically is their CNC panel fab machine.

Oh, and did I mention they also have well-trained personnel, and interns? 😀

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Posted in Engineering, Machine Builders and Integrators, Training Tagged with: , , , ,

Are Things too Complicated?

Today’s post is inspired by an ongoing adventure I have been having in the design and fabrication of My Little Factory. For those who haven’t been following my post since the beginning of this year, a great deal of my time has been spent building out my training facility, the centerpiece of which is a tabletop demo that students will eventually be able to play around with. I started calling this “My Little Factory” after my April post of the same name.

Part of this little automation demo is a cleated conveyor that I am using to re-create an automation project I did about eleven years ago. Rather than using an indexer or servo to move the pockets consistently, the mechanical designer on the project decided to use a standard VFD (Variable Frequency Drive) and AC motor, along with some photoeyes to detect the position of the cleats. While this might have been a less expensive hardware option than a servo with encoder feedback, the amount of time that it took to make it work correctly more than ate up the savings. Anyway, one of the reasons I decided to re-create this method is that it illustrates some really good points and makes for a fun programming project for students. The basic concept is that the conveyor run signal is applied until the next cleat is detected with a sensor, the conveyor is stopped, and a second sensor is used to verify that the cleat (and therefore the pocket) is in the right position for operations.

When I started this tabletop project I purchased several different fiber-optic amplifiers both to use in this system as well as to help show students some of the wide range of features that photoeyes have. I bought a couple of Keyence amplifiers with all kinds of programmable windows and a set of (very expensive) convergent beam fibers, a couple of Banner’s newest amplifiers (shown above), and a variety of used stuff from EBay.

As I worked on different parts of this project I was always thinking about how I would mount the fiber heads to make them easily adjustable, which amplifiers I might use to illustrate which point, and various other details. Each section of this demo has its own purpose behind it, and once something has been done one way, it can be difficult and time consuming to change. So yesterday I finally got around to building the adjustable sensor mounts and testing the sensors. I decided to use the new Banner sensors partially because they looked really cool and partially because I didn’t have cables for the Keyence amplifiers (which look really cool too…)

The mechanical mounting took longer than I thought it would. I had to make a lot of little brackets and drill/tap little pieces of aluminum, and then make do with whatever 80-20 extrusion pieces I had. Anyway I finally got everything mounted and powered on, and that’s when I was inspired to write this post. The instructions for the fiber amp is about 12 pages long! There are ways to program detection windows and tweak the timing, dynamically teach while the machine is running and set error thresholds, and change the response speed of the signal. What there didn’t seem to be was a simple on-off response to the cleat. As you can see in the picture, there is a number for the magnitude of the light signal and another for the setpoint. In addition the numbers will alternate with warning messages as shown in the leftmost amplifier. After getting it to operate yesterday before I went home, I took this picture this morning. The message “thr Alrt” was blinking, apparently meaning there was too MUCH light entering the receiving fiber. I know this because my green readout read 4000, the maximum magnitude for the amplifier.

Notice also that the fiber next to it has a yellow light at the top showing that it is ON. Not only did the fiber amplifier tell me that there was too much light, it also stopped working as far as I am concerned. When I misaligned the fiber heads a little bit bringing the magnitude down the amplifier output started operating correctly again.

The end result of all of this fun was that I replaced the amplifiers with the two shown above. Though not as sexy looking, these are some of the used fiber amps that I bought on EBay. They have a simple bar graph showing how much light is being received and of course the same type of little yellow light showing that the output is energized. Instead of having six wires there are only four, and if you want it to operate Dark On instead of Light On you have to connect the white wire instead of the black one. It is however a much simpler device.

This picture shows my high-tech test device for checking the input to the PLC, blocking the beam with my finger. While there is no warning or remote teach wiring, this sensor will probably do the job. I say probably because the signal is apparently much faster on the newer amplifier.

When I started in the industrial automation field some twenty-odd years ago, systems were much simpler. Emergency Stop circuits were single channel affairs and PLCs were also much less complicated. Sensors were generally pretty basic also, although Omron used to have a really cool convergent beam sensor that actually physically changed the angle of the lenses. I haven’t seen anything like that for twenty years or so.

Anyway, my solution to the complexity of this new fiber amp was to replace it with one that took less time to set up and would still work even if I set it up wrong. I wonder how many other people have done the same thing when confronted with amazing new products.

What do you think? Are things getting too complicated?

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Posted in Automation Concepts, Conveyors, My Little Factory, Photoeyes, Sensors Tagged with: , , , ,

Super Vision!

As some of you may know, especially those of you who have known me since the 1990’s, machine vision used to be a major part of my career. I could conservatively say I was part of at least 40-50 vision projects with over 150 cameras and built many machines where vision was the core element of the system. While most of my projects used the now defunct DVT platform, I also used Cognex, Avalon, Keyence, Banner, Matrox and various others.

That being said, I have been out of it for a while. Other than a few integration projects and a sales call that turned into nothing, I really haven’t kept up with the technology and have mostly moved on to other endeavors.

About a month or so ago I received a call from someone who said they needed help with an issue that involved Allen-Bradley PLCs, and since that is something I know quite a bit about I said I would do what I could to help them. Usually I concentrate more on training and consulting, but I had a bit of time so I took this small job on short notice.

When we got to the plant after meeting with the technician Ross from MapVision, I was literally floored by what I saw. While I have integrated up to eight or ten cameras into a single machine, here was a self contained inspection station that literally created a 3D model of a complex part in real time that you could manipulate like you were using SolidWorks or ProE!

Beyond this door…

The part I was needed for is really not the point of this post. Yes, there was an Allen-Bradley PLC that controlled a servo that moved the part into the vision area, and yes, there was a problem, but this really had nothing to do with the vision system itself.

This system, the “Quality Gate”, has 35 cameras completely surrounding the part. The image can be rotated to any position and compared with any other image, including a hypothetical “Golden Part”. An algorithm even strobes between the two images, floating colored datum indicators over the part to show exactly where the problems may lie.

Control Screens

According to Ross, even if a camera or two were to be out of commission, there is quite a bit of overlap allowing full inspection to continue.

Now this system is in the range of a half million dollars, so it isn’t a lightly made decision to put one in, but wow! Things have really come a long way since my old ACS days.

Following are a few pictures from my trip. The basic layout is that an automotive part, in this case a welded dashboard assembly, is moved into a precise location and the system is triggered. One of the most important parts of a successful machine vision application is ensuring that the inspection area is completely under control as far as lighting and the visible environment. Because everything is inside of a dedicated vision enclosure, this is easy for the Quality Gate.

Cameras and Lighting

Datum Points

Part entering Quality Gate

As you can see, this isn’t just a few individual uncoordinated cameras looking at a specific small item, it is instead an overall inspection of the entire part. One of the things I learned very quickly is that this takes a tremendous amount of memory and processing horsepower. One of the reasons this wasn’t done when I was doing a lot of machine vision work is that the technology simply didn’t exist. In the last ten years the size and cost of available computer memory has changed immensely, and even the camera technology and resolution has evolved a lot.

Anyway, this is pretty much the most amazing machine vision system I have ever seen, and I attend at least one automation show with lots of machine vision vendors every year. Of course it would be difficult to justify setting up this full system for just a few days. I’m sure MapVision does have booths at trade shows, but they are probably either just showing videos or have a small demo with a few cameras. This would do no justice to what I saw. So if you are involved in automotive manufacturing and haven’t talked to MapVision, I would encourage to do so. You will be impressed!

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Posted in Applications, gauging, Vendors and Manufacturers, vision Tagged with: ,