Embracing Big

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by Kip Hanson

There’s a wealth of data sitting on the factory floor, information that can make your shop faster, smarter, and far more profitable. Are you capturing it? 


It used to be that the green, yellow, and red lights of the Andons perched atop the shop’s stamping presses and laser cutters were sufficient indicators of the current state of factory floor production. No longer. Today, the most successful manufacturers are those jumping onto the Industry 4.0 Express, turning on, tuning in, but definitely not dropping out as they pick the electronic brains of machine tools old and new for their as-yet untold secrets.  

Tru-ly Connected
But what exactly is Industry 4.0 and its trusty sidekick, the Industrial Internet of Things? And who among us has time to care about all this digital silliness, not when there’s a big shipment due this afternoon, the paint booth is on the fritz, and your best turret punch operator just put in its two-week notice?

Tobias Reuther, director of the TRUMPF Smart Factory in Chicago, offers plenty of reasons to care, no matter how busy the shop or hectic the day. “You really don’t want to tell your best customer you can’t deliver because the press brake just went down,” he says. “And no one wants to be blind to the shop floor, without any real visibility to their throughput and machine idle times, or how long a given job sat before someone touched it. Unfortunately, that’s the situation in many North American manufacturing companies today.”

Wondering how to improve your sheet metal operations? Stop by TRUMPF’s facility in Hoffman Estates for a chat.  Image: TRUMPFThere’s no reason for it. An Industry 4.0 initiative begins with the lowest hanging fruit of all: connecting machine tools to the corporate network. That’s because connectivity leads to transparency, and as Reuther points out, transparency is the thing all shops must work to improve upon. Without it, you can never hope to predict when that press brake motor is going to seize, and therefore avoid the “I have bad news” phone call to your customer. Nor will you know whether it will really pay to automate the tube cutter, or have more than an educated guess on the profit you’ll make on the big order you just accepted. As Reuther said, you’re quite simply blind. 

Predicting the future would be grand, but what about the now? Here too, Industry 4.0 brings unimaginable capabilities to the production floor. “Consider the following scenario,” he says. “The system knows there’s a job being cut on the laser, and that fifteen minutes from now the parts will be ready for bending. It sends a signal to the press brake, which sets up the tooling and loads the programs, and when the parts arrive on the conveyor, the robot gets immediately to work. But even without that level of automation, however, you might have humans scanning QR codes at discrete steps in order to update the system, initiate various setup activities, and provide real-time production data. Both are feasible with today’s technology.”

In the ByCockpit
Giving customers the ability to do all this and more is the vision behind the TRUMPF Smart Factory. 

Bystronic MES creates digital transparency throughout the sheet metal manufacturing process, from the incoming order to shipping of the completed product. Image: BystronicBystronic chief technical officer Dr. Christoph Rüttimann shares in that vision. Like most machine tool builders (and the industry overall, for that matter) the company is still in the development phase of its Industry 4.0 rollout, but plans to expand on its current lineup of automated, end-to-end manufacturing solutions with a suite of networked, builder-agnostic software tools and monitoring utilities.   

Rüttimann explains that it’s his and his team’s job to help customers collect relevant shop floor data, evaluate it, and display it in ways that are meaningful and concise (hopefully using one of his company’s monitoring solutions). “However the data is obtained, having it available in this manner gives customers greater ability to make decisions,” he says. “They are then in a better position to optimize their processes, and take preventive action as the need arises.” 

In all fairness, gaining decision-making ability based on available machine data requires more than good connectivity. Both experts agree that “wiring the floor” is a necessary part of the Industry 4.0 equation, but there’s far more to the story than that. Other aspects include:

Sensor-equipped machine tools—whether new or retrofitted—are surely a big step towards collecting big data, the holy grail of the Industrial Internet of Things.

A number of cloud services are available to securely
store this machine data, making it accessible to whomever or whatever needs it and has the appropriate credentials. More such services arrive every day. 

ByCockpit software monitors Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) and provides managers with a tool to measure machine performance and availability. Image: BystronicSimilarly, cloud-based “software as a service,” or SaaS, is making it easier and oftentimes less expensive to deploy CAD, ERP, MES, and other manufacturing tools that were once unaffordable to the masses, furthering the digital thread. 

Virtual and augmented reality systems are making manufacturing more efficient, safer, and easier to learn. 

RFID tagging of parts and tooling stretches the digital thread even farther, and of course automation in all its various forms—hardware, software, and otherwise—helps shops streamline operations. 

Rüttimann sees the rollout of these and other technologies—some still in their infancy—as a four-phase process, one that begins with automation and digital networking and culminates in a fully-automated smart factory solution. 

“In the near future, we plan to offer a service-based platform in which all the components are coordinated, the production flow is optimized, and machines from other suppliers can be integrated,” he says. 

Interested? Maybe not. Chances are good you can come up with a whole host of reasons why Industry 4.0 can wait: You’re up to your eyeballs in work. The shop down the road is kicking your butt on pricing. The production floor is filled with multiple brands of equipment, thus complicating any data collection initiatives. And you probably don’t have a fleet of IT geeks waiting around for the next big technology project. Whatever the case, many of the same arguments were made when air bending, CO2 lasers, and PC-based CAD/CAM systems first hit the scene. Now ask yourself—what happened to the shops that failed to adopt those technologies? The time to adopt Industry 4.0 is now. SMT

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