Automation comes in many forms. Robots and material handling systems are becoming a permanent fixture in an increasing number of shops. Computerized machinery, including
automated press brakes, laser cutters and stamping presses, has long augmented and enhanced the capabilities of its human masters. And then there’s automation as it applies to sensor-based data collection and manufacturing software systems, two of the primary drivers behind Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).
Stephen Bieszczat, chief marketing officer for the Delmiaworks (IQMS) product line at Dassault Systèmes, says that success in today’s competitive manufacturing environment depends on all of these things. But it also requires end-to-end visibility and control of the production floor, and for that, a robust ERP (enterprise resource planning) and MES (manufacturing execution system) platform is needed.
“A MES, in particular, offers several benefits that shops simply cannot overlook as the industry moves into the digital age of manufacturing,” Bieszczat says. “Chief among these is the ability to automatically monitor production levels and machine status in real time. Not only does this identify potential bottlenecks and help avoid unplanned downtime, but it also provides the data needed to measure progress toward job completion. These capabilities allow management to make more accurate delivery promises and schedule their equipment and materials in an effective manner.”
Real-time, accurate data also serves to control costs, he adds. Where scrap and wasted materials were once overlooked or even hidden, a MES brings such losses into the light of day. It gives those responsible the means to accurately measure machine utilization as well as labor and material consumption and do so in a largely automated fashion.
The result? Actual parts costs, efficiency rates and time standards without the historical hassle of performing manual calculations.
Tackling the trifecta
“Everybody is moving toward automation these days,” says Kathy Conrad-Etheridge, responsible for marketing at Salvagnini America Inc. “To what level they’re adopting it depends on the business, their goals and how much automation they can absorb, but everyone is at least considering it.”
Salvagnini performed an industry survey recently, and found somewhat surprising results. Yes, a large number of shops are automating due to the shortage of skilled labor, but many have an entirely different reason – manufacturers everywhere face unrelenting pressure to produce quality parts, on-time and for a better price.
“It’s the age-old trifecta of manufacturing challenges, with automation the best way to address all three,” Conrad-Etheridge says.
There’s more to this story than price, delivery and quality, however. Automated machines also support cloud-based process integration to MES systems, which as Dassault Systèmes’ Bieszczat mentions, is a prerequisite to any Industry 4.0 and IIoT initiative.
“Investment in these capabilities is a must,” she says. “Granted, the IIoT’s vast potential has just surfaced, but it’s boosting the development
of so-called “smart manufacturing’ via MES software and, eventually, AI and machine learning.”
Implementation requires software and hardware compatibility, Conrad-Etheridge warns. Yet the upgrade of older technologies, as well as those that are not so old, is both costly and may not allow shops to reach the same performance levels as machines with native IIoT capabilties. Because of this investment constraint, most of the sophisticated automation requests are currently coming from larger organizations, but even smaller businesses are enjoying the features of real-time control.
For those attempting to establish a fully connected shop floor, she recommends starting with a clearly defined scope of work. Each software and hardware vendor should have measurable key performance indicators (KPIs), with well-understood definitions of the various logical, mechanical and safety interfaces required. The internal project lead should also be sure to share enough information about the company’s global processes and lead the communications between vendors.
With all that in mind, the benefits of Industry 4.0 and the IIoT are easier to grasp than one might expect.
“The creation of precise industrial communications protocols will serve to increase the success rate of any smart factory initiative, making integration both more effective and less costly, even when using multiple vendors,” Conrad-Etheridge says. “A future with an affordable MES for any business is easily foreseeable, and in my mind, will have a much faster adoption rate than occurred with CAD/CAM and other legacy manufacturing systems.”
One easy place to start such a transformation might be in the sawing department. Elizabeth Dick, sales and marketing director at TigerStop LLC, describes the company’s extensive line of automated push feeders and material positioners. These can be attached to ancillary equipment such as saws, drill presses and ironworkers, ensuring that material is processed quickly and accurately with no waste. TigerStop also manufactures fully automated sawing systems able to load material as well as nest and optimize it.
She points to Curries, a steel and aluminum door manufacturer that began a lean manufacturing journey in 2004. After installing TigerStop automated positioners, not only did the company eliminate all of the shop’s manual stops and associated waste, but the team was able to eliminate paper cut lists through the use of TigerStop’s integrated software system.
Vision Quest Lighting saw similar success when management invested in a TigerStop system for one of its cold saws, slashing downtime and increasing part accuracy on its low-volume extrusion cutting. So did J&D Tube Benders of Wisconsin, which enjoyed complete ROI on its TigerStop automated positioners and dynamic optimization software within five months of implementation.
“There’s a misconception out there that TigerStop is nothing more than an automated tape measure,” Dick says. “And while we can and do automate a broad array of shop floor equipment, we also provide the touchscreens, printers and software needed to streamline manufacturing operations, improving productivity and part quality while eliminating waste. Best of all, you can start with a basic positioner and add features to it as your needs grow.”
Driving toward the future
Another automation provider with a long list of customer success stories is Italy-based Comau S.p.A., a global producer of “Industry 4.0-enabled systems, products and services.” Mark Anderson, head of robotics and automation products for North America, and Duilio Amico, director of marketing and network development, shared several recent examples:
- Chinese sheet metal fabricator Taren automated its Amada turret punch line using Comau robots. Equipped with integrated material thickness checking and able to deliver 1-min. changeovers, the system produced an estimated 50 percent total cycle time savings.
- Welding and plasma equipment manufacturer Cebora partnered with Comau on a robotic cutting application. Compared to a traditional CNC plasma table, the custom configuration is far more flexible and able to handle a wider range of workpiece shapes and sizes.
- Automaker Maserati invested in an automated manufacturing system from Comau to assemble and finish the aluminum doors on its SUV line. With 82 robots and integrated material handling, the system can produce multiple vehicle models simultaneously without interruption.
- Comau worked with Guangdong Cuifeng Robotics Technology Co., in Dongguan, China, to implement a fully automatic press brake system. It offers real-time production tracking together with material picking, workpiece transfer and palletizing in a single application.
“We’ve been very active in the automotive industry for decades, but are beginning to see a lot more demand from smaller companies in the general manufacturing sector,” Amico says. “Shops have finally begun to understand that they have to automate or they’re just not going to be successful, a realization that has taken on special significance since the start of the Covid epidemic.”