As human beings, we spend a lot of time making mistakes and then figuring out how to best learn from them. To a certain degree, life on the manufacturing floor is the same. Fortunately, whether it’s in personal or business life, there’s a practical way to approach it: To achieve any level of improvement, you have to be able to see the bigger picture.
For manufacturers and fabricators, the big picture comes into focus by first looking at historical operating data. By keeping a thumb on past data, fabricators can learn how to adjust to challenges to achieve better results in the future. But it doesn’t stop there. Fabricators also need to see their operations in real time and from anywhere.
For decades, these approaches to manufacturing excellence have been the goal; they just haven’t always been easy to achieve. But today, as software and machine technology make advances and as Industry 4.0 becomes better understood, true gains are being achieved.
“Industry 4.0 is essentially just putting a name on the direction that the industry needs to go,” says Robert Adelman, North American laser product manager at BLM Group USA. “Our customers want an overall shop floor view. They want to understand their entire environment to make it better and more efficient wherever they can. And so, at BLM, designing our own software has been a top priority, and it’s helped us to seamlessly transition into this new era of manufacturing.”
Thanks to BLM’s commitment to in-house design and development, its software offerings today are all encompassing. The various components include CAD/CAM design, programming, and production simulation and planning software. And, they can all be tied together within the company’s software suite, giving customers the bigger picture they need to attain the goals they’ve been striving to hit.
BLMelements is BLM’s integrated software suite, a united platform for all of the company’s software offerings. It combines design, programming, simulation and multi-machine production management into a single source and does so in a user-friendly way.
“BLMelements is the family of software that we use on our tube-oriented products, including our tube lasers and tube benders,” Adelman says. “Because we work in a 3-D environment, a customer can bring in an imported model and go from import to part program in an easy and automated manner.”
If quick and easy work seems to be the norm these days thanks to intelligent software, it’s important to remember that not that long ago, software in a manufacturing environment was used to run a machine and nothing more. But today, with Industry 4.0, the push for manufacturing software is to help customers manage their entire process – from idea creation in the front office all the way through production at the machine.
“What Industry 4.0 means to BLM is that we have to expand the focus from the machine to the entire production process,” he says. “Previously, programmers had to manually bring in a model and classify width, height, thickness and profile type, but that’s all been automated. Today, a file can be dragged and dropped into the environment and automatically processed.”
And that’s just scratching the surface of what BLM’s software suite can do. A quick look at the suite shows a slew of capabilities, including part design, process simulation, time and cost estimation, nesting, real-time part tracking, production statistics and quoting.
The process of design to production begins with BLM’s CAD/CAM software, Artube, which looks totally different than it did 10 years ago when it was first introduced to the marketplace. Not only does it have a different look and feel, but the automation component of it is delivering something new and productive to tube fabricators.
“If you have an idea, Artube can draw it for you in a 3-D environment,” Adelman says. “You can choose whatever profile you want, like a square tube, from a pre-loaded library, and there’s no need to do test cuts or adjustments to finalize a design, no matter its complexity. Even implementing joints and intersections has been simplified thanks to the software’s ability to offer optimal processing suggestions with the click of a button. Users can easily edit, add or remove features, change tube size or shape, and adjust radii or thickness without extensive CAD/CAM experience.”
Once a part has been designed in Artube, users can determine the time and cost involved in processing it with PartViewer, BLM’s simulation and analysis software. PartViewer simulates the cutting process, including parameters such as cutting speed and pierce point.
“PartViewer is going to tell you how long it will take to process a part, but also how much it will cost in materials, electricity, gas and labor,” he says. “That information can be used to produce accurate quotes in just one click of the mouse.”
As is true with flat-sheet processing, nesting tube material is an important step in reducing scrap and overall part costs. With ProTube, BLM’s manufacturing execution system, users can handle job creations, nesting and machine setup with ease. The system nests jobs according to section type, meaning parts that are cut out of 2-in. square tubing, for example, would get sorted together.
ProTube also puts machine setup in the hands of the programmer, taking production management responsibilities off the plates of machine operators. This is helpful as the programmer has access to the original prints, which indicate customer preferences, such as how to handle the weld seam or when to use nitrogen in the case of a part that can’t tolerate oxidized surfaces.
“This allows the operator to be more of a material manager,” Adelman says. “Instead of spending time setting up the machine, he can manage loading the job and handling the array of cut parts coming off of it.”
To round out the software offerings, ProTube Enterprise acts as a parts server to localize jobs in one place. It also can also integrate with a customer’s ERP system where work orders originate.
“With Enterprise, not only do we know when a job has been sent to the machine, but we also know its status – if it’s started, started and paused, or completed,” he explains. “We can also determine the time from when the last part was cut to when the next job is loaded in order to evaluate how long the operator took to measure, sort and package parts and then start the next job. In a healthy production planning environment, you should know how long it takes to do these tasks. Then, you can create reports to compare with original quotes to determine whether a job was accurately estimated.“
If, for example, a job was estimated with 35 min. of processing time, but it actually took 40 min., customers can get a breakdown of how that extra time was spent. These insights can tell a manager where to focus attention for improvements in the future, such as machine maintenance or operator training.
Protube also includes Cockpit, an intuitive software element that provides users with a situational awareness view of their tube lasers and other interconnected BLM machines. This is good tool for shop floor managers that have to prioritize where they focus their attention.
Cockpit can be viewed on any monitor that has a web browser and displays what job each machine is processing, the amount of time a job has been running as well as the time remaining. More importantly, it displays the true current status of the machine, whether it’s on or off, in production, in an alarm state or, lastly, waiting in production (waiting for material or an operator). This allows the production manager to focus their attention on other responsibilities.
Beyond the simplicity that BLM’s software suite brings to part programming, accurate quoting and real-time tracking, there are significant time and cost saving elements baked into the company’s offerings. While traditional nesting can achieve material savings, Artube can also help reduce the time required for downstream processing, such as assembly.
“Let’s say you have two 2-in.-sq. parts with 45-degree miters that need to be welded together,” Adelman says. “If you were to use a bend cut instead, you might have to spend extra time cutting, but you’ll spend significantly less time for layout, fixturing and welding. And you don’t have to determine where to start cutting or what angle to cut at because Artube does that legwork for you.”
In fact, Artube can recommend a variety of assembly options, including slots and tabs, hooks and slots, T hooks and micro-joints. Assembly optimization also comes with material savings thanks to Protube, which can assess the angle at which parts need to be cut to match miters together.
“If you have a miter, we can common cut it the same way you might on a flat sheet laser,” he says. “On top of that, Protube can tell you the best lengths to order from your tube supplier based on the parts you need to produce.”
BLM designs and manufacturers more than just tube lasers, such as tube benders and 5-axis lasers, which helps to position the company as a total solution for tube processing. Its machines and software were specifically designed to work together to simplify the forming process.
“BLM’s Artube can unbend and straighten bent CAD models and can also export that data directly to our bender software VGP,” Adelman says. “Even more, BLM benders can communicate directly with our lasers to correct hole positions and lengths that are offset when the tubes are bent. This helps increase accuracy as well as reducing setup time and scrap parts.”
To fully realize these time and material saving benefits, BLM offers customers a five-day course that includes direction on how to create a part or import a part, how to estimate time and cost, and how to nest parts. For customers looking at Protube or Protube Enterprise that want to begin production management, BLM offers training sessions one month prior to machine delivery and installation, which allows the programmer to get their parts ready to run.
Keeping up to date
To fully realize the benefits of future versions of BLMelements, the company improved its method for letting customers know about software updates through a new pop-up alert referred to as BEST, which stands for BLM Elements Suite Tools. Prior to BEST, BLM learned that customers had been working in outdated software, which had left them dealing with errors that had been corrected months or even years before.
“We would hear about programmers that were using old software because they didn’t know there was a new version or didn’t have the right login credentials to download it,” Adelman explains. “Perhaps the person that was supposed to be getting those email alerts was no longer with the company or in a different role, but either way, BEST works around those login issues by simply looking for the customer’s software key. When there’s a new version, the software itself is alerted to download the new software along with information explaining what’s new.”
To fully achieve the goals set forth within the idea of Industry 4.0, companies like BLM understand the need to embed more intelligence into manufacturing systems. And they also understand the need to do so in a way that’s easy to embrace.
With the advent of Industry 4.0, BLM not only delivered on new productive software, but also worked to improve the human machine interface with a tablet-like feel and an icon-driven screen that is intuitive, easy to understand and easy to use. The company also answered the call to connect with outside architectures, such as MTConnect and OPC UA.
“Our customers want an overall shop floor view, and not just at the tube cutters, but at the machining centers, press brakes and whatever other equipment is on their shop floor – they want to understand the entire environment,” Adelman says. “We’re universal, so we offer that flexibility. After all, when our customer’s goal is to see the bigger picture, we have to help them do that.”