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Optimizing Machining and Production Performance

By Datanomix

Nikel Precision Group is a comprehensive engineering and contract manufacturer based in Saco, Maine. Nikel produces mission-critical components and assemblies for the aerospace, defense, industrial and medical markets. Its 100 employees delivers engineered parts critical to complex end products.

The gang at Nikel Precision Group, from left: Jamie Bell, Andrew Raddell, Jesse Auger, Jacob Deschaine, Harry Roberts, Marcus Ring, Earl Heathcock and John Strautnieks. Nikel leverages production-monitoring systems from Datanomix and Caron Engineering. (All images provided by Nikel Precision Group)

Like many manufacturers, Nikel has been unable to hire as quickly as it would like. To offset labor shortages, Nikel embraced automation, and with a focus on increasing unattended machining and operator efficiency, the company has purchased advanced machinery that includes the latest five-axis milling machines.

“As we’ve grown, and the complexity of the parts we produce has increased, we’ve focused on technology to meet customer demands,” said Jamie Bell, vice president of operations. “Today’s CNC machines have the intelligence and advanced tooling capabilities to manufacture complex parts to exacting specifications, which helps Nikel differentiate itself. The bar is set high on every dimension and aspect of performance and component quality.”

But technology innovation doesn’t end with new CNC machines. Nikel has also implemented solutions that optimize tool performance to improve quality, as well as production intelligence that provides real-time insights into the performance of the factory. “To fully realize the potential of our advanced CNC machines, we’ve been working with Caron Engineering and Datanomix to help us increase the quality and speed at which we machine parts.”

According to Bell, “There are significant increases in productivity to be had by properly introducing technology into areas where outside expertise delivers impactful business outcomes for the company. These tools become core building blocks for a new way of managing production and, ultimately, our facilities.”

Real-Time Problem Solving

“I’ve been looking at machine monitoring software for a few years,” said Bell. “When I talked with Datanomix, it was obvious they had been working with manufacturers like us to develop products that would be impactful. And they were willing to spend the time to understand our requirements and deliver a solution that worked for us.”

Performance data monitoring is available on the shop floor and is used by Datanomix to analyze long-term trends.

Nikel implemented Datanomix in August 2020. Offering real-time production intelligence and deep insights into ongoing factory trends, Datanomix met a lot of Nikel’s criteria for production monitoring. “Since Datanomix requires no operator input to deliver insights in real time, the platform supports our strategic initiatives for automation and unattended operation. We get insights automatically,” Bell said.

Datanomix analyzes data directly from CNC machines as parts are produced. The platform develops a benchmark that reflects what good production should be—it’s a stretch, but achievable because the system has seen it. Every run is compared to the benchmark in real time, giving operators a letter grade on current production. Lower-scoring jobs get more attention from senior operators, supervisors and sometimes engineering. Datanomix becomes a system for real-time problem solving, training opportunities and contextual info about that part.

By showing Datanomix on smart TVs around the shop floor, everyone can understand what’s happening in the factory in real time. “For the folks running the machines, it’s motivational to see production scores and know where you are against the benchmark. Everyone sees when the first part comes off the machine, where we’re at with cycle times and parts, and which jobs need attention. It brings the entire team together,” Bell said.

Everyone at Nikel reports their time every day, and this information is used to cost jobs. But when running multiple jobs on a machine, with different parts across shifts and multiple parts running on unattended shifts, it’s not always easy to determine which jobs drive costs. Datanomix reports on a variety of metrics, including spindle utilization and cycle times, for every part to help with job costing. Nikel also gets a better view of how to best utilize each machine across jobs and shifts to maximize productivity and profitability.

Bell is excited about the opportunities to turn more of their data into actionable insights, especially around the convergence of people and machines. “Datanomix helps us focus on the things that need focus. I can look at the dashboard and see that machine A is running at 68 percent and machine B is running at 98 percent, and they’re both running the same part. It quickly becomes obvious that utilization and efficiency have a lot to do with the operator. Datanomix identifies these gaps so we can create a plan to address them, including training on best practices.”

The rich repository of data from daily operations is used by Datanomix to analyze long-term trends. All of the metrics—cutting hours, production hours, setup time, cutting time, utilization, cycle time, true machine cost and setup cost—are calculated on a per-machine and per-job basis to show performance for each job and areas for improvement. In addition, an Alarms Pareto chart lets Nikel analyze the alarms history for all its machines, helping them diagnose issues and predict maintenance.  

To improve part quality and optimize tool performance, Nikel has been working with Caron Engineering, using the company’s TMAC adaptive tool monitoring solution.

“We use TMAC on our five-axis milling machines,” Bell said. “We’ve found that CAM software is not very efficient for stock removal—there’s a lot of air cut time. TMAC lets us program a maximum feed rate or maximum horsepower draw so when you’re exiting a cut into an air cut, TMAC increases the feed rate, reducing air cut time and shortening cycle times.” TMAC is also used to watch horsepower to monitor spindle wear for proactive tool maintenance.

With Caron and Datanomix working together, Bell sees plenty of synergies that will advance the use of data in his operations. “As the data from Caron systems is integrated into the Datanomix platform, we will have a single source for data from tools, machines, operators, and finally, the whole factory. The more we can consolidate and analyze information across our technology stack, the better we’ll be able to serve our customers.”

For information about Nikel Precision Group visit or call 207-282-6080. For information about Datanomix visit or call 866-488-4369.

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