Conveyors simplify automatic meter reader manufacturing

In this installment of What Works, Itron marks 25 millionth meter reader.

For utility companies, taking meter readings can be an inconvenient task. Not only does it require frequent time-consuming on-site visits, but in inclement winter weather, the process also involves traversing across measurable snow in many areas of the country. Utilities are eliminating this task using automated meter reading (AMR) technology.

Itron is the world’s leading provider of solid-state meters (electricity, water, gas) and data collection/communication systems, including AMR and advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) technology.

“We make AMR modules, which attach to utility meters and provide consumption data remotely,” says Brian Fitzloff, manufacturing engineer at the Itron facility in Waseca, Minn. “The module sends consumption data wirelessly to the utility companies for automatic billing to their customers. Utility employees don’t need to walk through snow to gather meter readings on-site anymore.”

Fitzloff’s division manufactures water and gas AMR modules, and recently celebrated shipment of the 25 millionth gas module from the Waseca plant. It took 18 years, from 1986 to 2004, for Itron to ship the first 15 million gas AMR modules, but thanks to the accelerated growth of automation among gas utilities, it only has taken three years, from 2004 to 2007, to ship the next 10 million.

“In the past two-and-a half-years, we have taken production from 40,000 to more than 70,000 gas modules per week in Waseca,” says Bob Whitney, general manager of Itron manufacturing in Waseca. “Recent automation improvements, such as our automated optical inspection and computer-aided process enforcement tools, have enabled us to ramp up production capacity and efficiency while also assuring continuous improvement in quality. As a result, we are able to manufacture large volumes of world-class product at a very competitive cost, right here in the USA.”

To help handle the increased volume, Itron installed compact conveyors from MagStar Technologies (www.magstar.com), located in nearby Hopkins, Minn. “We purchased an MR Series Quickdraw conveyor with a clutched edge-roller design and an open center,” Fitzloff says. “The conveyor has a drive motor and small programmable logic controller every 60 inches, making it the ultimate in flexibility and modularity.”

The conveyors are designed for factory automation and robotic assembly, featuring an innovative slip-roller design for accumulation and precise product movement. They provide clean, quiet, electrostatic discharge-safe operation, and they offer fixed or adjustable widths, as well as two roller types, rail options and drives to suit a range of system requirements.

The only moving elements are sealed ball bearings, which eliminate the need to service or replace belts. The conveyor has a height of 2 7/8 in.and is only 1 1/2 inches wider than the transport tray. Integrated sensors provide a high degree of conveyor control within specific conveyor zones, and the flexible design allows variable speed, bidirectional transport, changeable layouts and precision stopping for tight tolerance processing.

Fitzloff says the conveyor’s modularity also contributed to Itron’s incremental capacity planning initiative by ordering the conveyors as sections. Quickdraw conveyors can incorporate elevators, lift-and-locate stations, diverters, cure buffers and more, so Itron engineers have the ability to expand their existing production line as needed to expedite the manufacturing process development.

“With a modular conveyor system, we can easily add more stations to our line if needed,” Fitzloff says. “We can rapidly change the way the line runs to accommodate new processes and products.”

In addition, the conveyor’s open-center design proves advantageous in the manufacturing process development by allowing processing from the underside without taking the pallet to an offline station.

Integrating the conveyors into Itron’s existing production line was simplified by assistance MagStar provided. The combination of dependable service and a cost-effective, modular conveyor system has allowed Itron to manufacture AMRs more efficiently and modify their production line when needed.

“MagStar’s engineers have been extremely helpful, offering us the flexibility to develop the conveyor solution we required,” Fitzloff says.

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