Time to pay even closer attention to workforce readiness, strategic partnerships, experts say
The economic challenges brought forth by COVID-19 are causing a more intense focus in manufacturing on the need for the kind of alacrity achieved with digital tools and the kind of digital savvy achieved with strong partnerships. Shop floor workers want tools that provide instant feedback—especially when it comes to machining high-cost aircraft components. They need to use data to identify problems, find solutions and make decisions faster than ever before.
A sticking point in the stepped-up battle against waste: the availability of digitally savvy workers.
To be sure, the shortage in qualified workers is a pre-pandemic problem: A perfect storm has been brewing for years—largely because of an outflow of retirees (and their tribal knowledge) and an inflow of more complex technologies that can produce products more efficiently, at higher quality and lower per-piece costs and with reduced scrap.
“With the advancement of tools and the machines and processes, trying to find skilled people who can do all of those [tasks] is getting more and more difficult,” said Dale Johnson, global strategic account manager for the cutting tool manufacturer Sandvik Coromant. “People are being asked to do more and more things. You’ve got engineers and operators in charge of more cells and machines that are becoming far more technical than they ever used to be.”
Johnson was one of six experts Smart Manufacturing gathered recently for an exclusive panel on reducing waste in aerospace machining. The others: Julien Acis, a business development manager for Daher; Nagi Naganathan, president of Oregon Institute of Technology; Gary Hilton, a vertical integration IT technical leader at Boeing; Urmaze Naterwalla, head of R&D at the Oregon Manufacturing Innovation Center (OMIC R&D), and Jeffery Sturtevant, an aerospace account manager at Doosan Machine Tools. Smart Manufacturing magazine Editor in Chief Brett Brune moderated the discussion.
With the exception of Acis, everyone on the panel is a member of OMIC, which is keenly focused on collaborative partnerships for metals and other manufacturing. Another key part of OMIC’s mission preparing the industry’s workforce through on-the-job learning.
OMIC modeled after English facility
The OMIC R&D research center is one example of a partnership established to research new technology and processes—and expand the workforce by teaching workers through practical experience about the latest technologies.
OMIC R&D is modeled after the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Center that Boeing and the university established in 2001.
The goal was to develop a facility where the aerospace giant and the Sheffield, England-based school could do research to produce better technology while training local students in advanced manufacturing.
The idea was transplanted to the U.S., and a charter member of the center became Boeing Portland, home to one of the world’s largest titanium machining shops that produces parts for the aerospace industry.
In all, OMIC R&D has 32 members, including Doosan, Sandvik Coromant and educational institutions like Oregon Tech, Oregon State University and Portland State University.
In January, as part of the larger OMIC project, Portland Community College broke ground on a $24 million, 31,000-square-foot OMIC training facility near Portland. Barring further COVID-19 delays, the Training Center will next spring begin classes in CNC operation, machining, industrial fabrication and mechatronics.
Naganathan, the president of Oregon Tech, said the university collaborates with many others to develop such programs that ensure a highly skilled, diverse manufacturing workforce.
Dynamic interaction at OMIC lauded
OMIC provides a “different approach” to education: a model in which industry and academia dynamically interact to develop a workforce that is immersed in technology and benefiting from internships and externships at member companies, Naganathan said.
The goal is to get people ready to work at various skill set levels. It doesn’t have to take six or seven years for all of these levels, he said.
In U.S. manufacturing, “a bit of a caste system has developed in technical education,” Naganathan said. “We have the vocational schools injecting some skillset. We have the community colleges doing something. We have polytechnic universities like ours focused on applied practice. And then there are research institutions. We have created a bit of a disconnect. And when it comes to areas like manufacturing, it becomes a disadvantage to industries.
“We need to learn to create a seamless partnership among the approaches in these four types of institutions when it comes to preparing the workforce,” he added. “And the support is more than dollars and cents. Industries and universities have to speak to each other, not talk at each other.”
A better future for manufacturing will come “when industry comes closer to the university, university gets closer to industry,” like what has happened at OMIC, Naganathan said. “We want to be the ‘industry’s university’.”
When dynamic interaction between the two is achieved, “we produce a different kind of workforce” that can “do more with less,” he said.
Aerospace work ‘unique’
OMIC’s research projects are designed to solve the metallurgy and manufacturing challenges faced by its member companies, and it focuses on digital solutions for key industry sectors, including aerospace and defense, metals and machining. Technology includes additive manufacturing, in-process gauging and the real-time analytics that Industry 4.0 offers.
OMIC’s Naterwalla, who is a former Boeing Portland senior engineer for manufacturing solutions, said the opportunities for growth in aerospace are large, but the work can be challenging.
“The smallest part we might see might be the size of a picnic table, and they can go as long as 20-plus feet,” he said “The sheer size of them, combined with the type metals that are used, like titanium, steels, aluminum, and the intricate features and extremely tight tolerances required, makes for a very unique machining process.”
Data seen as ‘raw material’
Today, data is the “raw material” that, if utilized to its fullest, can drive process and quality improvement from the shop floor to the board room.
Most companies already collect production, inspection and other quality data, Naterwalla said. But this data is not necessarily used either for real-time decision making in the cloud or in statistical analysis to determine wider trends.
For instance, sensors on machine tools can collect data via sensors and wireless transmit data, such as vibration levels, hole specifications and other forces involved in the milling process, to determine process efficiency and product quality.
For instance, smart manufacturing tech might help companies overcome problems like material elongations and shrinkages during large parts manufacturing.
“Digital can definitely do things like prevent cutting tools from excessive damage, and create a repeatable, reliable process, which I believe is one of the paramount things to aerospace machining today,” Naterwalla said. “Especially, around large parts that sometimes take days to machine. Manufacturers just cannot afford any unforecasted incidents in the process.”
Boeing’s Hilton noted that integrating digital tooling and connectivity technology has a number of “pain points.”
Those include integration into the existing architecture, backward compatibility, bandwidth availability for wireless technology, information security, tool and process certification by governing bodies and process changes that can affect the workforce.
“For example, [workers] may be [using] a torque wrench on a certain jig for the last 30 or 40 years, but it’s a digital torque wrench now,” Hilton said. “It’s a different process in the way that the tool collects data and moves that data to the work instructions and completes the build record for the process.”
The ultimate goal is to not just collect the data in real-time but to generate actionable insights utilizing analytics and artificial intelligence, he said.
“Now we can collect data and create trends and start to introduce artificial intelligence to begin to predict whenever an event is going to occur in your factory and mitigate issues in your factory, and suggest how we would fix those in the factory,” Hilton said. “Digital tooling, with the ability to create data, is key in enabling artificial intelligence in our factories of the future.”
French aerospace firm accelerates
Integrating these technologies has helped Daher with operations in the U.S.
Daher’s Acis said that embracing Industry 4.0 starts with using digital tools, including simulation software.
“Today, we have some tools that allow us to anticipate and predict extremely accurately the way the parts are going to be manufactured following the process—and how the raw material, for example, will behave,” he said. “And those tools will ... anticipate any change of dimensions and determine the [accuracy of the] parts at the end of the process—just by the prediction and the use of digital tools.”
Machine monitoring brings efficiencies
Doosan Machine Tools America’s machines are trying to bring every bit of information the operator needs to run that part down to the shop floor in a way that is easily handled through human machine interfaces (HMIs), Doosan’s Sturtevant said.
Machine tool builders are adding technology to help ensure process control, such as process verification, adaptive controls, tool life management and in-process gauging, he added.
The data gives users the ability to find out “what’s going on at your machine, what’s going on your floor,” Sturtevant said. “I mean, how many times does the door open? How long is open? Why is it open? We have interfaces to our machines where you can get every bit of parameter, on/off, and IO information, and then use some software to tell you where you’re deficient.”
Digital and connectivity technology can be applied to a factory at the individual piece of equipment, across a department or facility, or even across multiple facilities.
Johnson said there is a lot of overwhelming information available, and he encourages his uncertain customers to start small with basic machine tool monitoring.
“If you put sensors on the spindles, you can [do simple things like] check for spindle load or spindle vibration, to give you something predictive of machine tool maintenance,” he said. “Then, you can hook up multiple machines and a shop manager can take a quick look and see which machines are up and running. There are small steps that customers can take instead of jumping in the deep end right away.”
Digital, connected technology can help manufacturers capture a “45,000-foot-view” of production and identify any bottlenecks in a factory—and areas to target to increase the efficiency flow through a shop, Hilton said.
Optimally locating the sensors is key to getting the most appropriate data, and potentially reducing scrap.
“If you’re [milling] in a very complex, large part and the raw material alone might cost $100,000, and [the tool] is inside the part say five or six feet, the operator can’t see or hear it,” Johnson said. “Sensors can become the ears and eyes of the operator and give that immediate feedback … right to the machine so you can give it back the controls to back off my feeds and speeds. And then, it can also give some basic feedback saying the temperature of the insert is getting too warm.
“Maybe I need to back things off, or maybe I’m at the end of my predictable tool life,” he said. “Instead of damaging something severely, whether it’s a machine or a part, it gives that feedback right away.”
Subtractive not going away
Digital technology is just beginning to be utilized in shops and factories across the U.S., and this emerging technology needs trained workers to best utilize it.
Centers like OMIC play an important role. While equipment is always evolving—from the near-net shape forgings first discussed in the 1980s to additive manufacturing today—Naterwalla emphasized that subtractive manufacturing is not going away.
Additive and subtractive “actually become complementary businesses,” he said. “We shouldn’t look at them in two separate silos.”
Watch for more in-process inspection tools
If the main pain points of digital tooling that Boeing’s Hilton described can be overcome, aerospace machining will become rife with in-process inspection tools that will cut waste, Daher’s Acis said. “It’s all about finding the best compatibility between design, raw materials and manufacturing processes,” Acis said.
In the composites world, some automated fiber placement robotic machines have “all types of inspection tools embedded in the heads of the machines,” he said. “And they are linked to some digital software, allowing us to predict very early in the process if the part will be good or not, or if there is some repair that can be decided on during the process.”
Not only is recycle time reduced but also the repairability of the part is enhanced, Acis said. “The idea is to lead toward a better buy-to-fly ratio [the weight of the forging as compared to the weight of the finished part], a better system ability. But above everything, it’s about reducing cost. You are reducing scrap parts, the amount of non-quality, and therefore you are improving the efficiency of your manufacturing process.”
You can watch the entire roundtable session below.