SPECIAL REPORT: Innovation in Argentina
The vicissitudes of the Argentine economy make it difficult for small and medium-sized companies like Conextube to plan long term. And that’s exactly why Conextube feels the urgent need to add “intelligent production technology” and increase process automation through the adoption of robots, said Ariel Gomes, general manager at Conextube.
Conextube supplies the low-voltage electric material market. It sells standard and customized solutions, plastic and metal products as electrical components, energy distribution equipment, modular distribution controls, multifunction boxes and cabinets and installation materials. Its offerings are channeled through electrical material distributors, telecommunication and government suppliers and energy-distribution firms like Edenor and Edesur.
Conextube, located in this manufacturing district nine miles outside of bustling Buenos Aires, implemented its first ERP a decade ago. “After that, we started to run all our processes in an integrated way: manufacturing, commercial, supply chain and administration processes in one solution,” Gomes said.
In the last year, the company has set its sights on supplying new market segments, he added. It has been introducing customer-relationship-management software, to improve its sales department and management of current and potential customers. The company also made headway implementing a collaboration software called Fluig. Finally, the company implemented an MES (manufacturing execution system).
It feels like a true digital transformation, Gomes said, noting that the Totvs MES involves integrating “all of the manufacturing processes.”
To get its shareholders to agree to investing in robotics, Conextube laid bare a harsh reality: “It’s a matter of surviving,” which necessitates expanding sales within and outside of Argentina, he said. “If we don’t switch to smart production, we are going to be out of the market in a few years.”
Conextube cannot add robots to all of its production lines—because it produces 3,000 different products, some of them custom.
“What we can do, however, is automate the more strategic lines and the most profitable lines, or those parts of the process that are quite common in different lines,” Gomes said.
The firm started with the first batch of 3-axis TopStar robots and Omron cobots, and the experience with them has been “very fruitful,” he added.
“In mid-2020, many people were absent because of COVID,” meaning they were older and at risk or actually sick with the virus, Gomes said. “We are a 130-person company. But at that time, we had only 40 or 50 people in the plant. And because we had implemented the first wave of 3-axis robots”—which handled extracting pieces from machines and placing them in boxes—“we were able to keep the line working. That was very important for us: The automation made it possible to satisfy customer needs.”
Conextube has started to invest $2.7 million to increase plant and logistics capacity, automate key processes and implement an MES, which will “interconnect all the resources of the plant and improve planning and execution—and jump to another level of production,” said CFO Julián García. “For sure, this is a milestone in our company´s history.”
“Here, as you can see, with this new tool, we’ve been able to plan monthly production and better manage available resources,” he said excitedly, gesturing toward a screen displaying a beta MES from the Brazilian software firm Totvs (pronounced “Totus”). “We will be able to monitor units produced and the level of scrap. We can also make quality controls and do preventive maintenance on time, drastically reducing the dead times. And, the most important thing, we can have real-time information. That will make the difference for our company. ”
One big advantage Conextube will have over its current operational status is the ability to have control of production, which will be key to succeed, Gomes said. “We want to be able to operate 24 hours per day and, if everything is okay, to have an interconnected site so we can get reliable information and make better and faster decisions.”
The MES will be, of course, connected to Conextube’s ERP server, “so we can interface the ERP with Totvs to get the whole picture,” he said.
This will be possible only if the company re-engineers critical processes as it implements new equipment and technology. “Having a new machine doesn’t mean we are going to produce more automatically,” Gomes said. “To become more efficient, we have to re-engineer. We have to not only review current practices but also make real and sustainable improvements in all the key processes.”
Through the MES concept, “we will be able to focus on improving the management of manufacturing operations and establishing a direct connection between our planning programs and execution on the factory floor,” he said. “The information generated in this way will enable the optimization of sales and production activities from the first contacts with customers, followed by customer orders until the dispatch of finished products—using accurate and real-time data.
“What a relief.”