Quality Scan: Common Software Platform Has Advantages
Visit any major manufacturer's plant and you'll find multiple measuring instruments in the company's metrology labs and on its shop floors. Each piece of equipment was state-of-the-art at the time of purchase.
Recently I visited a car manufacturer's powertrain plant. The dimensional metrology lab was full of CMMs from almost all the world's manufacturers. There were optical measuring systems, roundness testing machines, precision length-measuring equipment, and gear-testing machines from yet more and different suppliers. In the shop-floor environments, there were more CMMs and various hand gages.
In most every case, each piece of inspection/measurement hardware had its own software interface, even, in some cases, when the different pieces of equipment came from the same manufacturer.This situation results in equipment being underutilized—both from the perspective of available capacity to inspect, and because users aren't expert in all the system's capabilities—particularly in using the software. Furthermore, significant time and money go into personnel training, retraining, learning, and relearning, particularly on systems that are not often used. Company staff ultimately may end up calling for outside technical or application support when the plant needs inspection data—and paying a premium price.
One outcome of this predicament is that some plants end up without any in-house metrology knowledge—quality staff are mainly users of programs set up by others.This approach is very dangerous, as it creates too much dependence on outside suppliers—or perhaps corporate experts in other locations—which can lead to situations where production stops until a specialist arrives.
I am a strong advocate of a single-software philosophy. This stance was unthinkable only a few years ago, both for a lack of common standards and a lack of options. The automotive industry has pushed for years for a standard where the end user could separate dimensional measuring equipment from the software, to gain the ability to mix and match solutions to suit company requirements.
Work has been done on standards to separate a measuring device's operation from its original software interface. These efforts have so far been largely restricted to certain classes of hardware, such as CMMs (I++), and have not yet addressed other types of hardware, such as vision machines.
The market waits for no standard, and companies that supply metrology hardware and/or software have come forward with solutions to satisfy a single-software philosophy. There are now software solutions available, and to varying degrees these address a multiple-platform/single-software strategy.
A single-software approach offers benefits:
- Simplified Training—With one software platform, training is simplified and the learning curve shortened, so operators can measure and show output faster. Upgrade training is reduced and instruction becomes more detailed.
- Single Philosophy of Measurement and Reporting—By eliminating dozens of software programs, the quality manager can now implement common measurement, SPC, and reporting strategies on various types of instruments.
- Improve Data Readability—The main aim of any measuring task is to read data, adjust the manufacturing process, and manufacture all parts within tolerance at lowest cost. By using a common software platform, data will have a similar look and feel, which improves data readability and communications between departments and functions.
- Greater Supplier Responsibility—Software developers will have more business from the customer, and it's in the supplier's interest to implement and support the software at each installation.
- Cost Effective—When working with one supplier, upgrades may cost less and will have lower impact on daily workflow, as opposed to multiple upgrades.
There are drawbacks: A single-software platform might offer fewer ways to think outside the box. Because the developer's primary objective is cross-compatibility rather than software optimization for the specific platform, a single-software strategy may limit the options you have on any given platform.Therefore, you may have to wait a bit longer for new software features to be implemented on any particular platform.
However, productivity and efficiency benefits generally outweigh the negatives. A common software platform would receive a warm welcome from the overloaded quality professional, who must learn and use many measurement tools, and software packages to accomplish inspection tasks.
This article was first published in the August 2009 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.