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To Each His Own: Batch Size 1 Arrives

By Karen Haywood Queen Contributing Editor, SME Media

New systems open door to big operational equipment efficiencies, less scrap, better quality & Batch Size 1

Fastems President David Suica

New systems, software and processes are replacing so-called islands of automation with seamless, automated manufacturing lines that boost overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) from 30 to 80% or more. Like a chess master, these systems think multiple moves ahead on the factory floor to ensure continuing production when circumstances change. These systems cut scrap, improve quality, improve throughput and—the pièce de résistance—open the door to extreme customization, a.k.a. “Order of One” and “Batch Size 1.”

Automated processes include pallet handling, bending and insertion, measuring and assembly transportation. These emerging systems for production-integrated quality assurance (QA) also can disrupt the manufacturing-distribution system by enabling factories to ship these “Orders of One” directly to customers.

“One part can be made just as efficiently as 18,” Fastems President David Suica said. “You’re running super lean. You’re running ‘just in time’.”

“In the past, automated systems were tailored to a very high volume of part manufacturing,” Pete Rogers, VP of operations at Acieta, said. “If you were doing only a one-off or two-off of a part number, you would never automate. The payback wasn’t there because of the additional programming needed for a mix of parts. Now these new systems can be programmed to do a high mix of part numbers even if the volume is pretty low. They can order and produce only what they need when they need it. You can produce one-off parts.”

“More and more customized manufacturing requires the ability to break out ‘serial’ processes in a set order,” said Matt Trowbridge of Omron Automation Americas. “So oftentimes we see benefits in using mobile robots instead of fixed conveyors, which allow for flexibility in workflow and material handling.”

“Because the Virtual Measuring Room and ScanBox automate the programming effort for the inspection process, it makes it significantly more productive for smaller batches, even batches of one,” said Richard White, director of business development at Capture 3D.

“Industrial transportation technology is a game-changer,” John Kowal, director of business development at B&R Industrial Automation Corp., said. “We’re changing the business model.”

Unlike previous automation that scaled mainly for major manufacturers, these emerging systems also work well for small and general-purpose shops.

“This allows them to run a variety of different parts and materials on time and also enables a series of one,” Suica said. “That’s good because they don’t know what’s going to hit next week.”

Rogers pointed out that larger companies tend to have fewer part numbers and very big volumes of those parts. “A lot of smaller companies have very high numbers of different parts at very low volumes,” he said. “Now systems are capable of doing that. Company size is not as relevant as company needs. You don’t have to be a John Deere or a GM.”

At a three-man shop called AA Precision Tooling in Blooming Prairie, MN, owner B.J. Schrank increased gross production output by 60% by adding Acieta’s robotic cell, he added.

Employees, who had done the work manually in the past, were intimidated at first by the robot, but then appreciated it because it’s easy to use and eliminates the strenuous and repetitive parts of the job.

“A big challenge of ‘short run,’ or customized, manufacturing is ensuring quality,” Trowbridge said. “The high variability of the products requires advanced inspection and tracking systems that are flexible and integrated. Advanced vision systems can tailor their inspections based on the specific parts that are being produced. Serialization and tracking are key for quality tracking, but can also be useful to optimize processes as they become more complex.”

Quality improves because there is less human interaction. Even the best welder can have a bad day. Instead of performing dirty, potentially dangerous tasks, humans can supervise the robots.

“Rework is reduced because the robot is so consistent,” Rogers said. “It’s going to do the same task over and over again. Quality goes up dramatically. You have a known process. The system will tell you if there’s an error. In a grinding operation, the system will automatically send a faulty part back to the machine for regrinding. Before, the problem would be caught manually after final inspection.”

Having data visibility across the enterprise is “an extremely important aspect to enable IIoT. Flexible manufacturing requires the automation systems to know exactly what to build, what to inspect or verify, and the ability to track products through all these processes,” Trowbridge said. “This requires connectivity across not just the automation system but also the enterprise system from customer order, material management, production, inspection and finally to product shipment.”

Added Suica: “There’s less chance of error because data is transmitted automatically by the system as opposed to writing it down or typing it. There’s no chance of writing a number incorrectly or ‘fat fingering’ on a keyboard. It’s a very stable process. From a very stable process, you end up with higher quality, less errors, higher throughput and therefore, better OEE.”

Manufacturers that begin using Fastem’s Flexible Manufacturing System (FMS) typically have OEEs in the 30% range and see improvement to the 80% range, Sucia said.

But these systems excel beyond improving OEE.

“While your throughput and operational efficiency may increase with the robot putting in parts as fast as it can, if you don’t need all those parts, if all you need is one unit, there’s no benefit,” Suica said. “OEE says ‘You’re making a lot of this part.’ It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re making the right parts. That’s where scheduling comes in. Now you don’t have to worry about having a whole pallet’s worth of parts sitting around waiting.”

In the past, manufacturing processes were often established to make more parts than were immediately needed because each robot or machine had to be manually programmed each time—a process that could take 20 minutes or hours or even several days.

Ten years ago, companies automated individual operations but not a series of operations, Suica said. “You’d automate just the milling, just the cutting,” he said. “Someone would put a robot in front of a lathe, run all the parts that needed to be run. Any changes in scheduling required a human to change it. You still have a lumpy process.”

In the past, when different factory processes were automated, but not the entire line, workers and/or forklifts had to individually carry raw material to a robot or machine, unload the material, make sure the machine was running properly and then take the partially processed part to the next station in the line.

Islands of automation often don’t connect seamlessly to each other, don’t integrate with other automation equipment and run on software that isn’t scalable, Suica said. Processes also slow down and are more prone to errors at the points in-between automation points.

“You had to stop production to add more parts,” Rogers said.

“Utilization was really poor,” Suica said.

“Changeovers had to be planned at each automated island on the production floor,” Kowal said. “It could take five minutes, 20 minutes, an hour.”

Or even longer.

When using a Teach Pendant to program robots on the floor, “for some systems, it could take up to a week to program a part,” White said. “In the automotive industry, it could take up to a week to program a hood, trunk or other hang-on part. That day to a week they spend programming the manufacturing cell is lost productivity.

“That’s a huge loss of time.”

New systems address these issues and are flexible, expandable and compatible for integration.

Acieta’s Robotically Integrated Bending Solution (RIBS) is comprised of fully integrated robotic forming cells that perform functions that have been manual and costly in the past. The RIBS robotic cell loads and unloads material, operates press brakes, picks up and inserts sheets or blanks between beams and then supports the sheet or blank while the punch and dies closes to form the bend. RIBS pays for itself because it runs at a constant rate with no breaks, reduces scrap, eliminates ergonomic-related issues and increases output without the need to hire more workers.

The system automatically moves parts through the entire process without human intervention.

“RIBS picks up parts, puts the parts on the press break and then places them on another conveyance system that goes to the welding system,” Rogers said. “Parts exit our system ready to go to painting. The biggest difference is there is no human intervention between each of those steps. With RIBS, you can be adding more parts to the system while it’s running production.”

Capture 3D’s Virtual Measuring Room software, combined with its ScanBox 3D measuring and inspection cells, lets manufacturing plants measure and inspect parts in much greater detail than before, White said.

Older technology in use, the Coordinate Measuring Machine (CMM), might touch/measure 300 spots on a car door, but that takes a lot of time and any places in between those 300 touch points still could contain errors, White said.

“We have the ability to measure 100% of each part. Depending on which of our systems you use, you might get 16 million points per measurement,” White said. “You get much better quality control because you’re measuring everything. It’s significantly faster because we’re measuring chunks of information at a time instead of one point at a time. It’s an order of magnitude faster.”

The system often identifies problems no one knew existed but it also helps by identifying how previously rejected parts can be reconfigured instead of scrapped, White said.

One Capture 3D customer identified an immediate return on investment. This company cast rough parts, inspected them for missing material, and then machined them for the finished product. Numerous cast parts were about to be scrapped because of undersized material condition. But the VMR and ScanBox showed that by turning and tweaking the part, it could go through machining and emerge as a quality part, White said.

Usual ROI for the systems is 6–12 months. “In that case, we had the payback during the demo process by determining that several parts thought to be scrap were actually good parts,” he said.

Fastems’ Flexible Manufacturing System One (FMS One) for automated pallet or part handling enables untended (lights out) production, efficient space utilization and full control using Fastems’ Manufacturing Managing Software (MMS).

“With a pallet-changing automation system, as soon as the system is finished making part A, it can immediately make part B. The machine is always running,” Suica said.

The MMS plans, processes, controls and monitors production from anywhere in the world via a secure Internet connection, he said.

“You can be in New York and your plant is in LA and you can view or manage the system on your smartphone,” Suica said.

Like an expert chess player, MMS looks ahead and lets operators know if they have everything not just for the current job but also for projects several weeks out, he said.

When an unexpected situation arises that will impact production—such as a tighter deadline, a missing part—the system automatically rearranges the schedule in real time. The latest version, released last summer, also monitors tool life and prompts factory owners for new tooling if needed.

“The system looks forward in scheduling and tells you ‘You need to have this part, this raw material, this program and tools. The system automatically orders the raw materials for when it’s needed to be there and schedules the load stations. You may have 50 pallets inside that system. The system picks which pallet needs to be run, checks the availability and runs the part. If you don’t have the raw material, the system will automatically reschedule everything else so it doesn’t lose any time. It tells you what it’s going to be doing this afternoon, tomorrow, the next day. If something changes in your requirements or customer demands, you change the desired output and it reschedules everything. As your future changes, as it does in every machine shop, if you first wanted the part at 2 in the afternoon and then need it at 10, the system automatically reschedules everything so that part can be made at 10. It’s very dynamic.”

With B&R’s automated industrial transportation technology, each product can be moved independently on the line, Kowal said.

“It’s no longer a linear process,” he added. “It’s a process where, if a product requires extra steps or extra time, it can be done in a way that doesn’t hold up the flow of traffic. It can complete those tasks independent of line speed. If you have multiple size products you’re working on, you can do that because each transportation shuttle is independently controlled.”

B&R makes automation PCS (APCs) in Batch Size 1 with custom branding and other features distinct to each customer.

“There are 250 billion possible configurations of industrial PCs,” Kowal reminded. “We have to have an efficient Batch Size 1 operation. The ERP (enterprise resource planning) system communicates directly with the machines on the lines, picking the components for the products, managing the process through assembly, testing, documentation and shipping.”

B&R’s evolving transportation track technology enables individual, automated movement of product and tools through a factory line, he said. In fact, the technology has existed for 15 years but the software is finally catching up, he added.

The company debuted its latest release, ACOPOStrak, in Europe late last year, and it is set to begin selling it in the US this fall.

The transportation track technology paves the way to not only produce orders of just one product but also bypass shipping middlemen and distribution centers and ship it directly to commercial and consumer customers, Kowal said.

For example, envision a six-pack of children’s bottled drinks with two each of lime, strawberry and orange.

With older technology, these bottles would be shipped in cases of the same product to a distribution center where workers would rip open each case and manually pack each six pack, he said.

Using advanced track technology, the rainbow pack can consist of the consumer’s choice quantity, flavors and bottle sizes and be shipped in the rainbow pack directly to e-commerce companies or even to consumers, he said.

“Consumer packaged goods companies have been losing market share, especially with millennials,” Kowal said. “With this technology, people can order the exact flavors they want and even print their kid’s name on the bottle or label.”

Other potential markets include hospital or mail order pharmacies, he said.

Consider a patient who takes multiple medications a day. Each day’s pills could be packaged in a blister pack, with numbered orders and individual instructions for each pill, Kowal said. “You could eliminate or reduce human error.”

Throughput also improves.

Using RIBS, one manufacturer increased throughput to a single part every 8 hours from a single part every 40 hours, Rogers said.

Weld quality is better and the need for rework has been drastically reduced, he said.

The RIBS system also saves space: It requires 25% less production space, Rogers said.

The flexibility and savings on inventory and scrap reduction and improvements in throughput can lead to return on investment, depending on the system, ranging from 6 to 18 months.

One Fastems MMS customer saved enough cash from inventory reduction to pay for the system in 18 months, Suica said. “The automation system knows the machine tools, knows the program, knows the fixture, knows all the offsets from the tooling supplied. The chances of it running wrong are greatly eliminated.”

With the robotic cell, AA Precision Tooling reclaimed 10% of its shop floor, Rogers said.

“Before you needed a lifting crane,” he said. “You needed areas where parts are stacked on pallets. You needed an area for processed parts that have already been bent.

“Now you’re moving one part in and out at a time. The need for all that material handling and shop-floor space goes away.”

Because the system enables Schrank to check and spec parts, scrap has been reduced to 1% from 3%. One of the three employees had been sidelined to deskwork because of health issues and has now been able to return to the factory floor to supervise the robot cell.

In addition to company size, part size doesn’t matter as much either, Rogers said. As long as the part can fit in the system, it can make one part at 36″ (914 mm), the next at 48″ (1219 mm), the next at 43″ (1092 mm), he said.

“You don’t have to do them all in batches of one part size,” Rogers said. “You write a production order for all the parts they need to produce in that day: 7 of part one, 5 of part three, 4 of part 70. You send that order to the system at the beginning of the day and the system starts making parts one by one throughout that order sheet.”

These systems are moving beyond merely identifying problems to recommending or even implementing solutions.

“A lot of very good programs will tell you what’s going wrong,” Suica said. “‘A machine is getting too much vibration.’ ‘The oil temperature is too high.’ In the automation world, what you want is the system that tells you what you need to do this afternoon, tomorrow. ‘If you do that, the system will make these parts. If you don’t do that, the system won’t make these parts.’”

In manufacturing, sometimes every part must be inspected; in other cases manufacturers may check one part out of 100 or even 1000, he said. With a completely automated system, “You have 100% inspection. You have 100% faulty parts caught. You have a dramatic increase in quality.”

Such systems also enable remote monitoring.

“While you’re watching a football game on Saturday afternoon, you can look on your smartphone or other smart device and see what’s happening on the factory floor,” Suica said.

Companies also save on equipment inventory. One large Fastems customer began using FMS and reduced the number of vertical machine tools to 12 from 112, he said.

“Your cost of capital is crazy reduced,” he added. “Now you have only 12 vertical machines and 12 horizontal pallet changing machine tools. The rest of those machines are gone, sold.”

Companies need fewer engineers and either need fewer employees or are able to divert employees to safer, more rewarding tasks.

“If you run your entire line as an integrated process from raw material to completed part, it changes the whole dynamic of operating your business,” Suica said. “You know the costs. You know the routing. You know the throughput. The costs drop dramatically.”

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