My previous blog post dealt with today’s key manufacturing challenges in the metal cutting industries – I recommend reading that first if you haven’t already. Now, based on our decade long automation and process optimization experience, here are some suggestions for automation solutions that can solve those five dilemmas.
Automation Solution for Challenge #1: Shortening product life cycles and increasing level of product customization
In order to tackle this challenge, the company must be able to 1) manufacture a large range of different part variants, while 2) also having the ability to constantly introduce new variants to the process without disturbing normal production flow. The first requirement has a lot to do with the hardware used in the manufacturing process: it should be as flexible as possible, therefore ensuring its capability to process different kinds of parts without using too much special machinery. Good examples of flexible hardware include the utilization of 5-axis machining and the universal zero point fixturing concept. Here, the required fixture can be assembled from standard components without having to manufacture custom made fixtures and jigs to be clamped on to the machining pallet or machine table. In turn, this helps keep fixture costs down and usually shortens lead times as well due to quicker fixture preparation. In addition, the company must have a solid way to manage all part data and manufacturing documents. This is because as the amount of different part variants rises, it gets more difficult for the factory personnel to remember which part setup, NC program and tooling should be used with each part.
The second requirement is about how swiftly and efficiently new part variants can be introduced to the production process. To ensure good results, operators must do as much off-line preparation as possible, as opposed to stopping the machine for the setup work. Nowadays, the most commonly used offline tools in the industry are different CAM and machining simulation software, but other tools are also available. For example, virtual production systems allow an even more comprehensive off-line testing of different production scenarios before introducing them to the real process. With Fastems Virtual FMS, it is possible to simulate how the production order would flow through the production system with the current resources. This kind of offline simulation is especially useful when ramping up a completely new production system, and can shorten the ramp-up time remarkably.
Automation Solution for Challenges #2 and #3: Short delivery times and planning horizon combined with pressure to reduce stock
For the second part of my blog post, I decided to combine the second and third manufacturing challenge into one due to their interlinked characteristics. That is, dealing with shorter delivery times and planning horizons can quite easily be solved with bigger stock – but that’s always risky and sub-optimal in terms of work-in-progress and capital efficiency. The better alternative is to improve the manufacturing process’ capability to adapt and react to changes. In other words, changes in the customer demands should immediately be echoed to the factory operations.
Traditionally, production planning and execution are two separate processes inside the company: the production planner compiles the production schedule based on received production orders and their delivery dates. After this the schedule is communicated to the factory floor workers so that they know what to do next. This system would be good enough if the production backlog was static and all changes were communicated well in advance. Unfortunately, this is usually not the case, and schedules must be adjusted all the time due to changing delivery dates and new orders. As a result, schedules are always outdated, in spite of the extra effort put in to production planning. A better solution for this is to utilize an intelligent production planning and execution software. This calculates optimized production plans automatically based on released production orders and updates operators’ work queues accordingly, thus streamlining the planning-execution process and shortening lead times. Fastems MMS also takes into account the needed production resources such as tools and raw materials and informs operators if resources are already missing or will be missing in the future. In turn, this decreases the amount of extra hassle and waste on factory floors.
Automation Solution for Challenge #4: Labor shortage
Labor shortages make manufacturers unable to expand their production, because they can’t find the workforce to do it or even worse, renders them unable to find replacements for current operators or managers who might be retiring.
This problem has two dimensions: 1) how to increase workforce efficiency and 2) where to find the right people?
First, automation can provide a very simple solution to the labor shortage problem by enabling unmanned production, e.g. by running a third shift autonomously. Combined with smart production planning and execution software, automation also helps raise the productivity of the current workforce by efficiently managing tools, NC programs, fixtures and materials, thus saving the operators’ valuable time. The end result: increased productivity and oftentimes an added bonus of increased job satisfaction.
Second, automation also changes the nature of the work around manufacturing processes. It becomes less dangerous and more ergonomic, as loading stations offer good working positions and reach. The job will also include a more digital man-machine approach, often favored by the growing generation. The jobs of the operators then shift to co-workers and managers of the automated manufacturing process – titles you can sell even to millenials!
Automation Solution #5: Implementing data-driven manufacturing
There is a lot of hype around the internet of things and digitalization, but how can these fancy and abstract concepts provide actual, tangible value in the shop floor? This question can be approached with five steps:
- Create targets for data gathering. This helps narrow down what data is needed. Goals could include, for example, an increase of output by removing bottlenecks or a decrease of re-working costs.
- Then, necessary data needs to be created using sensors and event tracking, e.g. the completion of certain NC-programs or hourly machine utilization.
- Thereafter, the collected data needs to be turned into information. This calls for a system capable of combining different kinds of data and visualizing them to a dashboard.
- The visualized data describes multiple relationships between different parts of the manufacturing chain that are difficult to spot without it. Include the use of this visualized data as part of your work to help in daily decision making.
- Fix problems according to the data!
One practical example of goal-directed data gathering is tracking the OEE (Overall Equipment Effectiveness) value. The OEE provides a comprehensive picture about a device’s operating history. This takes into account availability, performance and quality factors of the device’s operating profile and combines those into one tangible indicator. The OEE provides more transparency compared to pure utilization tracking, which, for example, does not reveal if the machine tool’s feed rate has not been set to 100% or if some of the manufactured parts of the device have not fulfilled the set quality requirements. Fastems’ MMS Dashboard includes, among many other meters, OEE calculation for all MMS connected machine tools. You can find more information about the MMS Dashboard here.
So is there any way out?
So far, I’ve presented a bunch of measures that can be taken to handle the TOP 5 manufacturing challenges today. In one way or another, many of these solutions have been connected to harnessing an intelligent production planning and execution software, as well as automation hardware to make daily manufacturing processes more agile, productive, and data-driven. There are certainly more players out there, but rooted in our decade long experience with thousands of customers, we can confidently say that Fastems Manufacturing Management Software (MMS) is THE answer to your challenges. However, ultimately, that’s for you to decide, so if we managed to catch your attention, have a look for yourself!
Part 1 of this Blog Series - The Challenges