TECH TIPS: Updating metalworking fluid management for Industry 4.0

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As manufacturing operations become more high-tech in Industry 4.0, cutting fluid management becomes increasingly important to reduce downtime. PHOTO courtesy Master Fluid Solutions

By William “Billy” Therrell

With the 2020s nearly halfway over, the manufacturing sector is rapidly advancing toward the high-tech, heavily automated paradigm of Industry 4.0. Once considered science fiction, innovations like the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and robotics are becoming increasingly part of every factory.

In the Industry 4.0 landscape, automation and advanced technology can impact every manufacturing operation — including metalworking fluid management. It’s critical to incorporate the basic protocols of coolant maintenance in your digital transformation strategy or risk losing out on the cost savings, efficiency, and productivity benefits automation is supposed to bring. 

The Critical Role of Metalworking Fluid in Industry 4.0

In metalworking, cutting fluid management is understood as one of the most important — though easy to neglect — protocols for controlling costs, minimizing waste, reducing downtime, and maintaining overall efficiency. Keeping coolant clean and at optimal concentration improves tool life and machine performance, and helps ensure parts are produced to the proper specs and quality. 

But as too many machine shop employees know, properly maintaining metalworking fluid can be time consuming, especially when workforces are already short staffed and stretched thin. Streamlining coolant management processes through automation, predictive maintenance, and data-driven solutions can alleviate the burden of fluid upkeep, allowing manufacturers to reap the full benefits of effective metalworking fluid management while freeing personnel to focus on higher level work. 

Beyond Robots: What It Takes to Automate Metalworking Fluid Maintenance

As manufacturing operations become more high-tech in Industry 4.0, cutting fluid management becomes increasingly important to reduce downtime. It is crucial to have a strategy for improving fluid management to stay ahead. These are steps you can implement in any type of metalworking operation:

Monitoring and Fill System: The Entry-Level Investment

For small and mid-sized metalworking operations, the best way to begin automating metalworking fluid management is to install a basic monitoring and fill system at individual machine sumps. These systems feature proportioning mixers with reliable water pressure or pump powered mixing and machine filling.

For most of these systems, employees must manually check fluid concentration and pH in the sump. However, after inputting data and adjusting the mixers, the fill system can add more coolant or pH boosters to optimize the concentration or pH in the sump. This time and labor savings can add up significantly over each machine in the shop and over a month — saving employees from dispensing thousands of gallons of cutting fluid on their own. 

Even basic monitoring systems allow users to start collecting valuable fluid performance data. Analyzing KPIs like top-up frequency and consumption rates can help identify where manual fluid management is falling short so you can prioritize how to implement partial automation to realize cost savings more quickly. 

Sensors and IoT Devices: The Next Level of Automation

To deepen the digital transformation of metalworking fluid management, manufacturers can implement the next level of automation: fluid concentration and pH sensors that autonomously monitor the concentration of the metalworking fluids in each individual sump. This investment saves even more time and energy by eliminating the need for employees to check fluid levels. 

However, for all of the time and effort these types of sensors and devices can save, they come with some drawbacks. These sensors can be expensive, so installing them in each machine sump requires a significant capital investment. Employees will also have to inspect and clean the sensors periodically to confirm they are reading fluid conditions correctly, which negates some of the benefits they’re supposed to provide. 

As a result, many manufacturers may choose to skip to the next level of cutting fluid management automation: 

Central Coolant Systems: Full Lights Out Manufacturing 

Fully automated, “lights out” manufacturing is the end goal for most digital transformation initiatives — one that actually can’t be achieved without some type of automating cutting fluid management. Central systems that automatically recycle and filter fluid through each machine are the only way to run operations continuously and reliably without staff present, and replaces managing many individual coolant sumps with managing one large system.

With one centralized system to monitor, it can be more cost effective to equip central tanks with concentration, pH, and other sensors to monitor conditions in real time and automatically adjust levels as needed. Advanced monitoring software can analyze real-time performance data and troubleshoot issues so that coolant functions at 100% optimal efficiency. This level of automation is not only capable of operating with minimal human oversight but can maintain fluid conditions far more effectively than people. However, the risk with this type of system is that if the coolant gets contaminated, it could take all machines out of commission while the coolant is changed. 

Metalworking Fluid Management for a New Era of Manufacturing

The manufacturing sector is moving quickly toward automation, helping operations achieve full efficiency and freeing human employees to focus only on the most critical and high-level work around the factory. Though metalworking fluid management is considered one of the most basic processes in metalworking, full digital transformation is only achievable by automating these processes. It’s not just a strategy for improving profit margins — it’s going to be a requirement for remaining competitive through the 2020s.

As a Senior Service Engineer with Master Fluid Solutions, William “Billy” Therrell services and onboards customers in a focused effort to make them more successful. With 24 years of industry experience, he uses his extensive knowledge to share best practices on recycling, waste stream reduction, fluid distribution, process optimization, and more to find solutions to the challenges facing manufacturing today.

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