Important Conversations

Listen. That’s the shop talking, and it has an important story to tell. Machine uptime. What jobs are running. Who’s here, and who’s not. This is just some of the information to be garnered from your production floor, if only you have the right ears.

Big companies have been listening for decades—Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) were being used to capture production data before Brian Mulroney first sat down in the House of Commons. These mainframe-based behemoths have since retired, however, and a new breed of faster, more flexible and less expensive shop floor monitoring systems have taken their place.

The big picture
Automotive manufacturers and their Tier 2 suppliers are by far the biggest users of MES. Mohamed AbuAli, chief operating officer at global MES provider Forcam Inc., Cincinnati, OH, points to installations at automotive giants Mercedes-Benz, Daimler and Audi, with billions of dollars in metal stamping and machining equipment being monitored more closely than the final game of the World Cup.

Modern MES systems provide a variety of nifty tools for keeping an eye on the shop floor. Aside from tracking machine efficiency, MES can keep tabs on labour hours, dynamically schedule jobs, manage documentation and integrate to Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software. The outputs of all this vigilance comes in the form of email alerts, reports and real-time visualization of the plant’s activities, which can then be sent automatically to the production manager’s computer or the CEO’s smart phone, giving them a chance to get the train back on track before disaster strikes.

It sounds complex, and terrifically expensive, yet AbuAli explains the functionality described here is within reach of even the smallest manufacturing companies. “We recently worked with a low-volume, high-mix job shop, with a handful of disparate machines—some old Cincinnati Milacrons with Acramatic controls, as well as some newer Toshibas. They also have an outdated ERP system. We were able to integrate everything into a single system, and stay within their budget.”

Benefits abound
Despite the tens of thousands of machines hooked into some sort of MES mothership, it appears the majority of the manufacturing world doesn’t give a hoot about what’s taking place on the shop floor. According to John R. Rattray, vice president of sales and marketing for Memex Automation Inc., Burlington, ON, 96 per cent of all machine tools talk to no one but themselves.

The tide may be changing. Rattray says companies that just a few years ago pooh-poohed the idea of MES are now taking an active interest. “The number of projects is definitely on the rise. People are finally starting to realize the many benefits of machine tool monitoring.”

For good reason. As Rattray explains, by investing two per cent or less of the machine tool price on monitoring, shops can easily realize efficiency improvements of 10-50 per cent or more. “It’s a simple concept, really. If you can measure it, you can manage it.” As proof, he points to one of Memex’s customers, an aerospace shop that previously calculated its Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) at 38 per cent. After implementing machine tool monitoring, the company was able to identify and eliminate the cause of poor machine efficiency—tool wear and breakage, operators overriding programmed feedrates, unnecessary program stops, long load times of material and fixtures—ultimately leading to 85 per cent OEE plant-wide. “The value proposition is significant.”

The path to success
Everyone’s heard horror stories on software implementations gone bad. Rattray maintains that an MES rollout is anything but a dicey proposition. “For every dollar of software, you’re going to spend maybe five cents on services.” The caveat here is that you select an MES system that is more or less plug and play— configuration should be as simple as selecting from a few checkboxes and drop-down menus, with reports easily modifiable to fit your needs.

Software is just one piece of the MES puzzle, however. If your shop isn’t already wired with Ethernet, you might need to get out the ladder. A shielded network cable with a Category 5 rating or better is preferred, as is good machine grounding, otherwise an errant lightning strike can make for a bad day. A wireless network might be a viable alternative, but machine tools with their powerful electric motors generate more radio noise than a teenager’s car stereo. It’s best to check with a reputable network expert early on in your MES project.

The good news is most machine controls sold today are Ethernet-ready. Plug in a network cable and get talking. Michael Rogers, automation director and sales manager for Predator Software Inc., Beaverton, OR, says even the dumbest piece of equipment in the shop can be made garrulous given a little TLC.

“The amount you spend on hardware depends on the age and type of the equipment. Older machines cost a bit more because of additional wiring and adapters, but a good rule of thumb is between $2000 – $4000 per machine.”

You might be inclined to save a few bucks by skipping the old dinosaur hulking in the corner of the shop, but that machine could be your biggest problem child. “What you don’t realize is all the downtime with some machines. Considering the maintenance costs, the square footage and lower efficiency, the newer machines might out-produce the old by 3-1. It’s tough to see this without monitoring,” says Rogers.

Multiply $3000 by 20 or 40 machine tools and you’re looking at some serious investment. Yet this is likely an easy number to justify based on the amount of data you’re going to collect from the floor—whether you’re using Predator or someone else’s solution, Rogers says MES provides a real-time picture of the shop and helps identify the strengths and the weaknesses of your manufacturing processes.

“We recently worked with a customer with a two-machine automated cell. They thought they were going great guns, and running at 80-90 per cent efficiency rates. The reality was the cell was unbalanced—the first machine, running Op. 10, took 40 minutes to complete. The second machine did its work in eight minutes, and sat idle for over half an hour per cycle.”

After implementing a monitoring solution, the company realized what was going on and was able to balance the machining load across the two machines. Says Rogers, “they nearly doubled their output.”

Scoring big
Another MES provider with boasting rights is System Insights, Berkeley, CA. According to founder and CTO Dr. Athulan Vijayaraghavan, the company’s vimana software “applies pattern matching technology to measure real-time productivity and find opportunities for improvement.” Like many MES solutions, vimana can be installed onsite, or as a “SaaS” (Software-as-a-Service) solution. This allows manufacturers to implement a monitoring solution without investing in expensive servers and the equally expensive IT folk needed to manage them.

Vijayaraghavan offers up a handful of MES success stories.

“The Curtiss-Wright plant in Shelby, NC, saw utilization go from 35 to 55 per cent in 10 weeks after implementing MES. And Ehrhardt Tool and Machine Co., Granite City, IL, added over 250 hours of productive time annually to a single machine after just two months of monitoring.”

With opportunities like this, you might be wondering why more companies aren’t jumping on the MES bandwagon. Vijayaraghavan writes this off to a lack of understanding in the industry, compounded by busy schedules and production deadlines.

Whatever the reason, MES has the potential to transform production efficiencies from lackluster figures to ones worth bragging about. Improved tool life and higher quality levels are possible as well, if only shops have the tools to understand the root causes of process failures and make better decisions accordingly. Streamlined document and tool-life management, historical and real-time reporting, instant visibility to production problems—these are just some of the benefits enjoyed by shops using MES. The bottom line is this: your machines have a lot to tell you. Better get listening.

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