We may be entering a new manufacturing age. OK, that’s hyperbole, but it’s one that comes to mind after you step back and think of just how far we’ve come, even during the past 10 years.
First, consider the biggest challenges in U.S. manufacturing, most of which deals with high-product-mix situations. As our monthly columnist Dick Kallage has said, “You’re not in the manufacturing business. You’re in the changeover business.”
What matters today isn’t just how fast a particular laser can cut, how fast a welding robot moves, how quickly an automated panel bender or press brake can churn through a batch. It’s also about how quickly an operation can change gears and switch from one job to another.
In any high-product-mix shop, maintaining excess capacity is critical because of the variability that comes with such an operation. The managers at CR Metal Products in St. Louis told me they try to ensure their shop is “like a 12-lane highway,” with enough excess capacity built in to take on whatever comes down the pike. It goes back to the old traffic analogy. In heavy traffic, when the vehicle volume nears the road’s maximum capacity, it doesn’t take much to slow down. One driver tapping on the brakes starts a big ripple effect behind him, creating miles of stop-and-go traffic patterns. Add more lanes (increase capacity) relieves the bottleneck.
The same logic applies to the shop floor, which is why fabrication managers try to keep the highway clear. According to Kallage and many others, central to this is managing changeover and keeping machinery maintained and in good working order. Machines don’t necessarily need to be running all the time to be efficient. After all, if they’re not producing parts that are needed immediately, they’re creating excess inventory and overproducing. Although they may not be running constantly, they need to be ready to produce. Unplanned reactive maintenance can throw a serious wrench in the schedule. This is where preventive maintenance and overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) measurements come into play.
All this has made metal fabrication—and manufacturing overall—really an information business. Managers and floor technicians want to know what’s happening now. Software and real-time monitoring systems are playing a bigger role than ever.
And this includes augmented reality, a far-out concept for most manufacturers just a few years ago. This month, Indiana Technology and Manufacturing Companies (ITAMCO) has released MTConnect+Google Glass, a free so-called “Glassware application” (software folks good at naming things) that monitors machine tools using Google Glass.
MTConnect® is an organization promoting royalty-free standards intended to foster greater interoperability between control, devices, and software. In other words, it aims to get all the disparate systems used in a manufacturing plant essentially to talk to one another. For an augmented reality application like Google Glass, such interoperability is critical.
Company employees can access the data they need to see—and actually “see” it right in front of them. A CEO walks near a machine and, wearing his Google eyewear, instantly sees job data and compare it to the company’s accounting, quality control, sales, and engineering data. The sales staff can provide Google Glass to customers on shop tours, impressing prospects with the capabilities of the facility and helping them visualize the final product.
The company offering the technology, ITAMCO, offers gearing and precision machining services to heavy industry, and many participants in the MTConnect initiative are in the machining arena as well. In the long term, though, the fundamentals of this technology could apply to any manufacturing specialty, putting information people need to know right in front of them—now.
How far we have come.