Plan to Learn about Automating Processes

Having a good partner company that is knowledgeable in all the automation and integration pitfalls can be a business saver.

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Most in manufacturing at this point are doing a good job automating machinery, such as adding robot workpiece loading or some other automatic material feed and part removal system. The next step for a lot of the customers we see is automating the entire workflow process, which includes material handling, machining, deburring, washing, inspection and more. 

All of these functions can be connected with sensors, measurements, feedback loops and so on. The main benefit of doing this gives owners and managers a more accurate reading of what’s happening in production. That’s why the drive toward shop connectivity and the provision of information—Industry 4.0 and IIoT in essence—is something that everyone in manufacturing should consider. Do you have a strategy to reach this goal and understand how it can help you and your company thrive?

Some companies in the high-volume part production niche may feel that these concepts of single part flow are lofty and don’t apply to them since they are already quite efficient by the very nature of speedy, bar-fed Swiss-types, mill-turns and the like. Perhaps you have even automated some of those secondary operations that aren’t quite finished on multitasking machines. But are all of the process steps connected, or do you have islands of automation?

The next step is about data connection, collection, monitoring and management. It’s about what you can learn from it to improve your process and become even more efficient than you already are. It’s about transitioning from batch production to single part flow.

If IMTS 2018 is on your schedule, it will be a terrific opportunity to ask questions about this transition to single part flow, IIoT and Industry 4.0. If you are visiting machine tool builders at the show, be sure to ask about how to connect their machinery to your existing, or yet to be established, information network. Relay to the sales folks in the booths that you need productivity numbers. You need OEE (overall equipment effectiveness) numbers that take into account the various sub-components of the manufacturing process—availability, performance and quality. Scrap rates should also be taken into account. In other words, you want to find out how you get the information that you really need from the machine to your holistic network. 

Before making any investment decisions, ensure that the technology will serve you for the next decade. The good news is that most OEMs and secondary process equipment providers have the means to connect in their new offerings. There’s a cautionary tale here. There’s a real concern right now for buying rebuilt machinery. It might make great parts, but does it tell you how many it made or if it was operating continuously through the night? Does it tell you that the horsepower is slowing or a cutting tool is wearing? Further, in the high volume production machining world, be sure to inquire about data integration with bar feeders, chillers, coolant distribution and the like so the data can be captured collectively from these manufacturing systems.

Likewise, in the software aspects of data collection, make sure that everything you might add into the mix can talk and play well with each other. Communication dead-ends are scary when realized too late, and they waste a lot of money. 

The benefits are many to begin or continue walking along the data acquisition road. More accurate quoting, learning about bottlenecks, taking corrective action, improving quality and lowering inventories are only a handful of the results that automation and data integration can provide, helping shops increase profitability. 

Be mindful that it’s good to have a buddy system when embarking along this road. Engage a smart, experienced and resourceful provider who knows how to navigate and plan for a shop-wide approach, avoiding data dead ends and islands of automation. A strategic approach is wise to undertake, and a good partner knowledgeable in all the automation and integration pitfalls can be a business saver. You don’t have to do a complete makeover in a few months. The plan can allow for connecting one system or one function at a time as your sensibilities and budget allow.

If you are at all concerned about competition, my advice is to stay ahead of it. Having a plan for automation and connectivity is a way to do that.   

 

Contributor: David Suica is the president of Fastems LLC. Its U.S. operation is headquartered in West Chester, Ohio. Learn More at fastems.com.

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