Pack Expo Reflections on PackML – an interview with Chris Thomas


Axon’s PackML champion, Chris Thomas, took a break from booth duties at Pack Expo 2014 to share some of his thoughts on the PackML programming standard.

Hi, this is Steve Sterling, Packaging World Magazine.  I’m here at Pack Expo with Chris Thomas, Senior Software Engineer for Axon, and we’re going to talk today about PackML.  I’ve been talking to Christ before this interview a lot about PackML. Let’s start with the internal focus. 

Steve: What does it mean to have a strong PackML background for the whole company?

Chris: For us, when we program a machine, if you were to start the basics of a machine, you have a mode that it runs in and a state, is it operating, is it faulted, is it an alarm?  PackML does a lot of the hard work for us, as a programmer, to find all that.  So instead of starting from a blank sheet of paper, it takes the boring parts of the program and automates it for us.  Then, we get to focus on what makes the machine work.  Things like alarm handling and how a code is structured is standardized, so my programmers and people in the company, we all can look at each other’s code and see exactly where we need to go for troubleshooting, where that person was working at.  If I was to come behind someone with that program, I could much more quickly look at their code and find out what the problem was than something that was not written in PackML.  For me, it just makes sense from a programmer.

Steve:  Chris, what would it mean to the industry, let’s say, 70-80% of all using PackML, what would that do to the industry?  Would it be faster time to market?  What do you think would happen at that level of acceptance? 

Chris: That’s a good question.  I feel like our communication from machine to machine would be a lot more standardized.  One of the big advantages with PackML is the Pack Tag Set, which is, to me, like having a USB cable in all of our machines.  Instead of arguing with each other and with line control about what data we’re going to send and what does that data mean, we basically, are all agreeing on that data set and how we’re going to use it.  So, we take that problem out of the way and we get to focus on making our machines runs better and now they can talk to each other.  I think, at the end of the day, we get a better system.

Steve: A lot that I’ve read about PackML is that you’re going to get faster integration in the plant, you’re going to get better communication between the machines.  Have you found that in reality and the systems you’ve been working with?

Chris: We have had some success in the plant that was fully PackML and I could share a really good story with you, where I was asked if I could write down all of the alarms my machine had and what they meant.  I said, “well you realize with Pack Tags, that’s already there.”  I said, “Just go to this data structure.” And the guy said, “really?”  And I said, “absolutely.”  Five minutes later he came back and he said, “Press E-Stop on your machine.”  I pressed E-Stop and on this big screen, it had the default that I defined.  And I said, “that is PackML right there.”  And the guy loved it.  I would say we’re not being asked by a lot of customers to implement PackML, but when I show them what we’re doing, they all agree that it’s a good idea.  And they say we’re looking into it.  I’m starting to get more and more people ask me about it.  So I think the acceptance is going up.  We are approaching a peak, where we’ll start seeing a lot more people move to it. 

Steve: Is there a cost for an end-user to get PackML or is this going to be a pull from the customer or a push from the LEM?

Chris:  From the LEM standpoint, I would say if you’re going to do a full PackML implementation, meaning program from the state machine up versus doing Pack Tags.  The initial upfront cost is higher because you might have to redesign your machine, but the idea is that you’re creating reusable blocks of code that are tested.  So, as we have found at Axon, two years into doing this, we could go and take a machine and take two pieces that work really well and combine them.  And, now, we are able to see a huge benefit of being able to reuse our code.  And, again, that was the point of the modularity in PackML.

From the end-users side, they would have to specify it, so it would be selecting OEM that were supporting PackML or pushing those OEM’s to develop on it.  There could be pushback there, but, if I was an end-user, I would want to use PackML because then, at least, I know all of my machines are going to talk in one way.  And instead of having to ask you to implement in different protocols, all my different communication, I could say, just support Pack Tags and we’re going to be good to go.

Steve: Chris, Axon is introducing the Lanzara, a new sleeve applicator—phenomenal, fast motion control and I know it’s just full of PackML.  What was the impact, in terms of time-to-market for you and for getting the new machine to the show and ready for primetime?

Chris: Honestly, the impact of implementing PackML in our new machine was zero.  The control system we used was from Sneider Electric and it inherently had a PackML library and a PackML graphics state machine already implemented in it.  I essentially dropped in a library and created my states for me and went with it.  When you work with a technology that supports that, it makes life a lot easier than you having to read a specification from the ground up and develop functioning blocks and libraries and test it all out.  I started with a PackML that was already done and went with it. 

Steve:  So you were kind of the end-user in that and Sneider was the OEM for the PackML and it worked out well.

Chris:  Oh, it was great.  I advise people to look for technology providers that support PackML.  They are definitely out there.  It makes, for you as the programmer, an OEM, a lot easier than starting from scratch. 

Steve: Listen, there’s a lot of concern in the industry about the work force of the future, the number of employees, technical ability five, ten, fifteen, twenty years from now.  Is PackML going to have any impact on that?

Chris:  I would like to think so.  By standardizing the way programs are structured and the communication between them, you don’t have to have an operator that’s versed in twenty different ways that something works.  So if a new piece of equipment comes on, there’s a whole new thing he has to learn. If he leaves, a new person has to relearn all of that.  So, if we all agree to use PackML and Pack Tags at some level, there’s a base level of communication of understandability that comes with our machines.  So, we can have our operators understand the machines more instead of worrying about how they work and what they’re going to do and possibly breaking the machine when they think they’re fixing it. 

Steve: Well listen, thank you, Chris, for your time.  I know you’re really busy at the show.  From Packaging World Magazine, this is Steve Sterling.