A Smart Way to Manage Manufacturing

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Shop Metalworking Technology speaks with Paul Hogendoorn, president of FreePoint Technologies in London, ON, which develops machine monitoring software and systems for old and new machines


Machine monitoring software, coupled with an intelligent system for assessing overall equipment effectiveness (OEE), is one of the fundamental building blocks for Industry 4.0. But as essential as technology is in Industry 4.0, Hogendoorn explains that it’s at least as important not to forget the human element. People who have spent their working lives on the shop floor have built up a huge amount of intuition and experience about how to make things work better. This human knowledge and experience should be captured and used, not automated out of the process. 

Everyone seems to be discussing Industry 4.0 and related smart manufacturing systems. How does this type of manufacturing software benefit a small to medium sized manufacturer or a job shop in Canada? 
In Canada, our advantage is often our proximity to the customer. To leverage that, we need to be nimble, quick to adapt to changes and quick to deliver a quality product. Industry 4.0 is more than just ‘new machine technology’ —it is better technology to make better decisions faster. 

The first thing is to make sure all the jobs that are scheduled for production are actually ready – that any problems are detected beforehand and are resolved before the job hits the machine.

Number two: quite often paperwork and the administration process required to move a job through the shop is more difficult than actually moving the job through the shop. The key for small and medium manufacturers and job shops is to be able to make decisions faster and get work through their shops faster. People think a plant’s success can be associated with machine efficiency, but it’s really associated more with how much product you get out the door right the first time. 

What are the associated costs of machine monitoring software and how can SMEs justify it?
It’s far less expensive than most people think. Old machines can be connected easily using Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) devices. Some connect non-invasively to any machine, requiring no modification to the machine, its controller, or even the company’s network. These IIoT devices monitor one or two conditions on the machine and have the built-in intelligence to communicate wirelessly to a local PC, which in turn is connected to the cloud. 

Other off-the-shelf devices, such as tablets, large LCD screens and interactive whiteboards, are now commonly available and very cost effective ways to collect and get information to everyone in real time. Software costs can range from very little to very expensive, but we suggest starting simple, and deferring the big, expensive long term projects until after you’ve gotten your feet wet with a smaller project. Often, the success of the initial smaller project eliminates the need for the large expensive project, or helps it be defined far more beneficially. Smaller projects can get started for around $1,500 per machine while larger projects can get into six figures quickly. 

You say starting simple is important. Can you give us an idea of what that might look like?
Monitoring ten machines, establishing a baseline and getting your operators engaged in the process would be a really good simple first step. After 60 days, you’d have empirical data from those machines but also you’d have engaged operators and really good information about downtime. With all of that info, you’d be in a far better position to plan the more expensive investment. 

From what you say about getting operators involved, it sounds as if the human factor is a big part of the puzzle, especially capturing the knowledge operators have.
Quite often the people on the floor really have a good sense for how things work. They’ve built a lot of their own ad hoc processes because the administration systems in place are cumbersome. So they already know how things move well. Find out from them what processes they put in place and what’s working well for them. If you just go in from an IT or administrative perspective and start changing things, you’ll be changing those things that are already working well.

People who have been doing those jobs for that long and have by and large been doing them well have a lot of critical knowledge. You should tap into that knowledge before you start creating new systems.

What does a manufacturer need to consider to ensure it selects the right system for its operation?
First, a manufacturer should know what processes are really working well in their plant and which processes aren’t. Too often, we see a manufacturer with great manual processes lose their competitive advantage because the system they implement causes them to change a working process. 

Second, a manufacturer needs to know where they are right now. You can’t measure the effect of a new system if you don’t know where you started from. 

Third, the manufacturer needs to involve their people in the process, and not just a select group. Everyone should know what the reason is that the company is investigating new systems, what the company hopes to achieve with it and how that impacts everyone. 

Fourth – related to the first and third – is that the manufacturer should know what it hopes to accomplish, what problems it will solve, clearly identifying what success looks like.

What kinds of efficiencies can machine monitoring software deliver?
The first answer most people think of is overall machine utilization and efficiency. But the answer goes far beyond that. Order processing efficiency is often far more important – how fast a new order comes into your system and can get shipped out, as this increases capacity without capital expense–no additional buildings or machines, and adding to profitability and competitiveness.

Cloud systems have redefined how machine monitoring type software operates. How do you address the security concerns of manufacturers given that important data is stored in the cloud?
The best place to start is by taking a common-sense approach. Not everything needs to be connected to the cloud. Do your machines really need to be connected to the cloud, or do you just want to be able to see the status of your machine through the cloud? Data can be backed up and recovered, but physical damage done to equipment, tooling or parts cannot. 

As much as we know that more and more of our world is being connected to the cloud, there is a growing number of manufacturers that are looking to mitigate their risks. Hybrid solutions, where some elements are connected to the cloud and some not, are one way to accomplish this.

What can manufacturers expect to see in manufacturing software platforms in the coming years? 
There will be more integration between training, operating and work instructions, scheduling and workflow management systems. The work floor is changing quickly, and it’s not just about new machines. The older workforce is retiring and manufacturing has to attract and accommodate a younger workforce by communicating with them through more modern means, and by making the work more meaningful to them. This will represent a significant challenge for many manufacturers, but others will see it as an opportunity not just for sustainability, but for relevance as well. Manufacturing is more than just the production of products.

Everyone’s thinking about AI right now, but in the next 10 years the most valuable tool is going to be the human intel that’s already there.  Yes, AI is something to aim for in the future, but take advantage of that human intel now. Don’t forget about the people! SMT

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