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No Shop Too Small for Industry 4.0

Ilene Wolff
By Ilene Wolff Contributing Editor, SME Media

Smaller shops are reaping benefits ranging from solving quality issues to attracting and keeping talent

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Implementing Industry 4.0, including through classrooom learning as shown here, may help attract and retain shop workers who are excited about learning something new and being at the cutting edge of technology.

The ability to take Industry 4.0 software and implement it into your current server system, connect your machine tools, start collecting data and make it valuable to your business is very easy to do. That is according to Brad Klippstein, supervisor and product specialist at Okuma America Corp., Charlotte, N.C.

A good example is Okuma’s graphics-heavy, browser-based software, ConnectPlan. It gives users immediate visibility into their machines and equipment and can report on machine tool operating performance. That performance information can provide a roadmap to opportunities for fixes.

“What’s important is to try to figure out what problems or issues your shop is facing right now,” Klippstein said. “You might not care about solving all of them, but you can choose the ones you want to fix.”

For example, the data may show one machine has a higher non-cutting time than another, or that setup times on a machine are always longer than one across the aisle. That’s when shop management has to ask why those conditions exist and make a business decision about what they can do to fix them.

“When the machine is running, I’m hoping that most of the time it’s cutting,” said Klippstein. “If it’s not, that’s where we might be able to make some improvements in cutting programs to make them more efficient so there are fewer tool changes and less turret movement or air cutting where it doesn’t need to be. That’s one thing you could look at.”

Another datapoint for consideration is downtime. Let’s say, for example, a machine stops right after lunch every day. It could be the machine is in setup mode or there’s no operator on hand. Or there could be a problem that needs fixing.

The answer may lie not within the machine, but with an operator. If Operator A on day shift does setups in half the time that Operator B on afternoons does, there may be operational or personnel issues that need to be addressed.

“Those are the kinds of things you’re going to want to see in a system like this so you can better utilize your equipment to its fullest potential,” Klippstein said.

To keep that equipment in top shape, ConnectPlan and similar software have a preventive maintenance function. Okuma’s is time-based, so it’s essentially a digital version of an owner’s manual with the advantage of having a centralized location to store the information.

For legacy machine tools, the data to be collected is limited but there are nuggets to glean even from machines that are 20-30 years old. Since the very first computer numerical control (CNC) machine was produced, all CNCs have had an indicator light or some other visible signal to tell an operator whether the machine is running, idling or stopped, and whether it’s in alarm mode. Although less than what a new machine may have to offer in operational data, this limited information is still valuable to a business.

Also, legacy machines, with their limited information, may be a less intimidating first step to integrating Industry 4.0 into shop operations, and may present more opportunities for improvement than new machine tools that are still running on spec.

“For people that want to start collecting this information, here’s what I usually tell them,” Klippstein said. “It’s very easy to collect from the newest equipment (so) connect one new piece of equipment and that will give you an idea of all the information you can get. If you want to connect a legacy machine (with extra hardware wired into the machine control) where the information is a little bit more limited, that gives you both ends of the spectrum.”

Communication Enabled

Some Industry 4.0 tools can bring us “back to the future.” For example, the use of the chat feature on Excellerant’s real-time machine data and communications platform reminds John Carpenter of the mid-20th century culture at Pratt & Whitney when his grandfather worked at the aviation company.

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To implement Industry 4.0, Bosch Rexroth offers any combination of sensors or hardware that might include PLCs or IoT gateways (shown here) and software, including applications from the company’s Nexeed suite of apps.

“He used to say when the engineers worked on a part, they had a personal relationship with the machinists,” said Carpenter, president of Excellerant, Somers, Conn. “There was absolutely no division between the guys on the floor and the guys in the front office. They were one big team.”

Who would have thought companies implementing Excellerant’s platform to join Industry 4.0—touted for increased productivity and quality—would find that better communication was one of its benefits too?

Chat on the platform is helping to re-ignite the type of free-flowing communication Carpenter’s grandfather experienced by empowering machine tool operators to send and receive messages across management and different departments. Operators can alert supervisors about an issue with tooling, inform maintenance that lube oil is getting low or simply pass off a note to the next shift. The instantaneous nature of these messages allows production-inhibiting events to be resolved preemptively and in real-time.

“That chat feature is one of the most powerful things I’ve seen with the software implementation,” said Carpenter. “It’s a new tool that fosters an environment for the operator and for management to interface with each other.”

Experts such as Carpenter—and those from Bosch Rexroth, DMG Mori Software Technology Solutions USA Inc., Okuma America Corp. and Siemens Industry Inc.—have different approaches when working with machine shops and small manufacturers. But they’ve all seen their customers reap benefits from taking discrete steps into the connected, digitized and data-driven world of Industry 4.0. These benefits can include real-time machine tool monitoring, in the factory or from a remote location; increased productivity and quality; bias-free reporting; acquisition justification; predictive maintenance; and attracting and retaining top talent excited at the prospect of learning new things and being at the forefront of modern processes.

“We’re all about empowering companies to do their best with the data that’s in front of them,” said Carpenter. “[As someone once said,] you don’t know what you don’t know. And that really is the case with a lot of the small and medium guys we cater to. They don’t know that it could be so much better.”

What Can be Digitized?

Chris Pollack, virtual technical application center manager for Siemens Industry, Elk Grove Village, Illinois, said manufacturers may have been taking steps to implement Industry 4.0 without even realizing it as they digitized tasks that had traditionally been analog or physical. For example, a shop or manufacturer may have transferred a machining program from the programming area to the shop floor electronically vs. storing the data on a device, walking it to the machine tool and plugging it in.

“If you look at a lot of the steps that these companies are taking today, [the steps have] been moving them down the road to Industry 4.0,” Pollack said. “I think it’s important when we talk to job shops that they understand that just by simply connecting a machine to a network you’re moving down the road to Industry 4.0 and digitizing.”

From there, he advised looking at the process of producing a part, from concept to shipping, and considering what processes are slowing down manufacturing operations or decreasing uptime or spindle utilization and digitizing them.

“It may be something as simple as adding some form of a simulation process to their manufacturing process so they can simulate the machine tool motion before bringing the part down on the shop floor and finding out that where they were going to position it on the table isn’t sufficient,” he said.

An additional benefit of implementing Industry 4.0 is related to employee hiring and keeping good employees, which is a big problem for smaller shops.

“One thing a lot of businesses, especially smaller businesses, don’t think about is if you can excite your workforce with new technology, new aids to do processes and keep them learning, it’s much easier to retain that employee,” he said. “A lot of people wouldn’t think implementing Industry 4.0 would help me retain employees, but it does. These guys are doing the same process they’ve been doing for 20 years. If you think about the mindset of the employee, it’s hard to stay excited about your job. In a lot of cases that’s what forces people to look outside, look for other opportunities.”

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Excellerant’s tablet-optimized shop floor interface allows machinists to track production progress and machine tool cycle times against current ERP schedules.

For other aspects of implementing Industry 4.0 beyond digitizing, Pollack recommended consulting with the experts. He advised hiring a vendor to collect machine tool data with, for example, Siemens’ cloud-based platform, MindSphere, or its equivalent server-based option, Sinumerik Integrate. Shop personnel can then use that information to spot trends.

“Maybe it’s something as simple as giving you a monthly report on your machine tool utilization,” Pollack said. “It’s going to be up to the users to some extent to dive into this data, but at least the data can be presented in a much more clear format.”

In addition to collecting and compiling machine data, implementing a preventive maintenance program may require vendor help, he said. Currently, Siemens is providing customers with the tools and data for the shop or manufacturer to write a custom preventive maintenance application.

“Preventive maintenance gets really tricky because all kinds of baselines have to be acquired and then it takes consistent intervals to continue to baseline the machine over a period of time for the software to figure out a trend to determine if there’s a problem coming up,” said Pollack.

Eliminating Bias in Reporting

In addition to collecting and compiling historical data that can be mined for information to help improve operations, software that provides real-time monitoring, such as DMG Mori’s Messenger, can be useful in several ways for shop owners unfamiliar with Industry 4.0. This is according to Amane Sudo, chief operating officer for the software technology solutions section at DMG Mori, Hoffman Estates, Illinois.

These useful features include:

  • When a machine stops, a digital notice is sent to management. Without this feature, a manager would have to see the machine to know it’s down.
  • For shops that operate in multiple shifts, shop workers and management can review information from the previous shift to see if there were any problems. This eliminates any bias in reporting.
  • A DMG Mori customer could see a Messenger dashboard once a month that shows the run rate for each machine. If the rate is slow, they go to the shop floor to find out why. If the run rate is consistently high, they have the data they need to justify adding a new machine.
  • In a small operation where machine tool operators have to perform multiple functions, some of which can take them away from the shop floor, they can monitor machinery remotely through Messenger.

Industry 4.0 vs. A New Machine Tool

Rodney Rusk, Industry 4.0 business leader at manufacturing technology provider Bosch Rexroth Corp., Charlotte, N.C., said most often in his dealings with job shops and small manufacturers the owner doesn’t have the budget for a new machine and sees Industry 4.0 as the alternative for solving quality issues.

When Rusk asks what kind of benefit the owner is expecting to get from connected manufacturing, the most common response is, “I want to improve my quality because my customer is gauging me on the amount of product I send that meets their specifications.”

After those conversations and diving deeper into specifics, Rusk may offer any combination of sensors or hardware, which might include PLCs or IoT gateways and software, including applications from his company’s Nexeed suite of apps. Nexeed’s applications include predictive maintenance, a product performance manager, a product quality manager and an energy manager.

Rusk worked with one shop that has 15 machining centers, all about 20 years old, and was turning out inconsistent parts. After the company installed sensors and made some direct observations, management determined there were problems with five of the machines. The issues related to fixture design and the operations of one worker.

In another case, at Bosch’s factory in Bethlehem, Pa., a percentage of parts weren’t passing inspection on a line that manufactured 16,000+ variations of a valve body, Rusk said. There were so many variations that workers were confused and sometimes grabbed the wrong part.

“By re-imagining the process and figuring out how do we benefit the worker here,” shop management got the data down to zero defects, Rusk said. They did it by error-proofing operations, including posting instructions on the machines’ HMIs, lighting up the bin where the next part should be picked, and using a red light if the worker pulled a part from the wrong bin.

“What we often find in quality issues is that lean principles haven’t been applied properly,” Rusk said.

Feeding Data to the ERP System

Troubleshooting is a key part of Excellerant’s platform as well. When using the system, the first step is for a shop to lay a foundation by installing the platform and any necessary hardware and get its machines connected.

“What’s nice is that we have about 30 years of experience and notes that document how we connect this equipment,” Carpenter said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a new machine or one from 50 years ago. If it’s got a control and one of the engineers in our group has done it, we’ve got notes on it.”

Once the data start to flow and are compiled and analyzed, Excellerant’s practice is to downplay a shop’s production rate in favor of other goals.

“The key is to expose them to the metrics and try to get them to the point where they’re looking at being more productive with better quality,” he said. “It’s all about producing an excellent product at a planned rate.”

Being transparent with the data exposes inefficiencies and raises questions, such as: Are we changing the tools out when we’re supposed to? Is the program correct? Are materials showing up on time? That’s when process improvements can really start, said Carpenter.

“Quite often, once the system is in place the operators use it to show why they couldn’t be as productive,” he said. “They uncover all these no-go situations.”

What he really likes to see is a factory feeding machine tool data into its enterprise resource planning (ERP) system—which otherwise doesn’t concern itself with data from individual machines on the shop floor—if the ERP system can accept live data. By automatically collecting real-time data about key performance indicators like cycle times, finish rates, scrap vs. good parts, etc., and feeding the information into the ERP system, a shop can empower its schedulers. That’s a big change, “because ERP does great on the financial side but typically fails miserably on the shop floor,” Carpenter said.

The end goal is to implement dynamic scheduling that accounts for a worker who called in sick, material that didn’t show up, or a machine that’s down. “Over time, the hope is the ERP system can learn and give suggestions on the best way to handle anticipated bottlenecks,” he said.

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