“The practicality of what you can do with the IIoT today is largely determined by the machine and controller’s age, with older machines often coming up short,” says Jonathan Kim, division manager for industrial IoT solutions at Amada America Inc. “Obviously, you could invest tons of money installing sensors into older equipment, but that’s not very cost-effective. It makes better sense to collect production-related information from all of your machines, then use that data to improve your operations.”
Kim is right. Provided their press brakes, laser cutters and stamping presses are properly maintained and functioning, why should the typical sheet metal shop care how many amps the servo motors are pulling or the temperature of the hydraulic fluid? More important is to know how long until the big job will be finished, how many hours of setup time the shop incurred this week or who’s standing in front of machine No. 5.
It’s only after a manufacturer has mastered the task of consistently collecting accurate production data – an activity with which many still struggle – that they should worry about the electromechanical minutiae of the IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things).
There is a solution for all of this. It’s called Influent by Amada, a brand-agnostic software system for “connecting and measuring everything.” Influent was launched in the spring of 2020, during the beginnings of the Covid-19 pandemic, and,
therefore, received less fanfare than it deserved.
“From that perspective, it’s quite new, but we’re already seeing great success with a number of customers, despite the Covid-related restrictions including travel,” Kim says.
He notes the ways that Influent is different from other solutions. As mentioned, it’s brand-agnostic, which means it works with Amada equipment as well as any other equipment on the market. It can also interface with third-party software, such as ERP, CAD and BI (business intelligence) software. This makes Influent an integrated shop floor intelligence system in that it captures the information and analyzes the data then presents the result in dashboards, reports and notifications to management. This helps management identify trends and bottlenecks and make needed decisions for continuous improvement.
“Influent is not an add-on to an existing product like some of the other solutions out there,” Kim says. “It is Amada’s highly scalable IIoT platform. It can connect, monitor and manage a single machine or all the machines in the factory. Amada designed and developed it from scratch specifically for the U.S. market and it is made in the United States.”
Two solutions are available. Influent Monitor is, as its name describes, a monitoring tool focused on machine connectivity and machine-centric analytics. Influent Enterprise takes that concept one step further by supporting integration with other systems as described earlier. It does this by connecting through custom application programming interfaces (APIs) via direct database connections or through an interim “staging” database.
“There are various ways of tackling the integration,” Kim says. “For instance, our professional services team is currently engaged with a cloud-based ERP vendor. Their system has an API, but it’s limited, so we utilized an ODBC (open database connectivity) connection, a more general interface to their database. Between the two, we’re able to share data in a secure, bidirectional manner.”
Using an iPad tablet, the machine operator can enter part counts, specify a deviation reason and perform dozens of other functions. Operators and supervisors can log on to a mobile tablet or computer and check on job or machine status. With the necessary access rights, they can also drill in on production data to find
improvement opportunities and avoid potential problems.
Interestingly enough, this connectivity has reduced a bottleneck common in many shops – the lines of workers waiting to report labor at the ERP terminals. “Some of our customers have a limited number of terminals on the floor, but our ERP integration enables unlimited data entry access points,” Kim says. “Not only does the integration reduce ERP licensing costs in some cases, but it eliminates waiting around ERP terminals, which results in reduced machine idle time.”
The true cause
It’s also possible to broadcast such information to shop floor displays. “We worked with one shop recently concerned about maintaining PCs on the shop floor environment, so we came up with a plug-and-play appliance-like solution,” Kim says. “By using an app that allows us to display from an Apple TV to a widescreen monitor, everyone can now see all machines’ status and whether there are any alarms. It’s a great way to display real-time production metrics.”
Other customers have related that Influent has allowed them to discover fundamental problems that were easy to fix but otherwise would have remained buried. One example comes from a shop that was having problems with employees not following the production schedule.
“Management assumed the employees were cherry-picking the easy jobs,” Kim says. “After implementing Influent – which asks for a reason whenever there’s a deviation – they found two problems. The first was that, even though the job was released for production, the travelers (routers) were sometimes left sitting in the programming office,” he explains. “The second reason was that the supervisor told them to work on a different job. Those kinds of things happen every day, but without a good shop floor intelligence system, you’d never know the root cause of the deviation.”