Manufacturing AUTOMATION

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The better way: A Montreal manufacturer uses visual knowledge sharing to perfect its processes


October 17, 2013
By David Sherman

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CMP’s president and CEO Steven Zimmermann is a perfectionist. He’s spent the last 30 years, he says, looking for a better way of doing things. Now he thinks he’s found it.

He’s developed and is marketing what he calls Visual Knowledge Share (VKS), and if he has his way, it will revolutionize the manufacturing process.

 

VKS promises to increase productivity, reduce costs, eliminate defects and even create jobs by making onshore manufacturing more competitive.

As well, it holds promise for educational and institutional uses, from operating rooms to hotel rooms, where it might not only ramp up efficiency, but reduce infections and mortality rates by providing nurses, doctors and even hotel maids with computer-generated electronic checklists and reminders.

These are big plans for a small Montreal-area suburban manufacturing company, but Zimmermann, 52, has already bet more than $5 million on VKS and is rolling it out in his own 138,000-sq.-ft. facility on the city’s South Shore. He is convinced that VKS has the potential to one day be larger than CMP, which this year expects $70 million in revenue.

CMP makes sheet metal or stainless steel enclosures for a large variety of transport, medical, technical and security applications. It doesn’t do the high-tech guts of the machines. It does the complex designing, machining, bending, punching, painting and integration of what the guts are wrapped in.

And it offers clients what it calls its “Deep Dive” cost reduction program, a consultation/design process that helps reduce the number of parts, streamlines the design, standardizes parts to reduce manufacturing costs, and promises mistake-proof design and assembly.

To compete with offshore manufacturing, it is highly automated, using the latest in laser cutting tools and robotics; so much so that a worker can often run two machines simultaneously without compromising quality, Zimmermann says.

Its dedication to automation can be seen in its machining centres and lasers equipped with dual pallet and pallet exchange systems, robotic welding, automatic reciprocating painting, automated bend angle correction systems on press brakes, automatic advance on visual work instructions during assembly processes, and robotic welding and riveting, he says.

What VKS adds to the mix is a “just-in-time” hardware and software component that not only does away with paper on the shop floor, but eliminates wasted time and, Zimmermann insists, most manufacturing defects.

CMP does low-volume, large-size manufacturing items. It processes as many as 1,000 products, from new doors for the Montreal metro system for Bombardier, to enclosures for airport security systems for U.S. Homeland Security, to ultrasound machines for medical testing.

Previously, employees, when confronted with a part to be stamped, punched, folded or painted, had to consult a filing cabinet where instructions were stored.

Of course, paper is prone to loss, damage and misfiling, and words alone are an invitation to misunderstanding. And the complexities involved in the low-volume processes made defect-free workmanship a challenge for employees who saw only a few pieces of any given job and then had to go onto a completely different task for another order.

The problem was how to teach a specific task quickly and easily on a product the worker on the floor might only see a few times.

VKS solved that, says Zimmermann. Today, when a piece for processing arrives at a work station, an attached bar code is scanned and a computer monitor with a touch screen lights up with written and visual instructions for the operator, including schematics and video.

The system will also track a worker’s progress and productivity, but Zimmermann insists that this is not a well-honed big-brother approach to manufacturing, despite the fears that some employees expressed as the system rolled out. Some worried that they would lose their job, while others worried they’d be spied on.

“Used improperly there is room for abuse,” says Zimmermann. “But it’s primarily a training tool. It’s not designed to monitor. Everyone should go home (after a day’s work) with a sense of satisfaction. Employees can send ideas through the computer to make productivity more efficient. It’s a tool for them.

“People need to feel empowered, not disempowered. The best ideas from everybody will be incorporated. We strive for the highest common denominator. The expectations for quality will go up.”

The genesis of VKS, Zimmermann says, began with the company’s desire to compete in the free-trade environment while not depending on the cheap Canadian dollar of the ’80s.

He saw the 60-cent loonie as a crutch, and looked for ways to manufacture at home when everyone was flocking to Mexico or overseas.

“I have a continuous improvement mindset,” he says. “And little tolerance for ineptitude.”

When VKS was in its infancy, the price of hardware and Internet bandwidth was too expensive to make the system practical.

His brother Dan had been working on a system to document instructions with computers and bar codes in the early 2000s at his own firm when CMP was manufacturing ultrasound machines with a Level 3 integration. But the price was a handicap.

In the last few years, though, the price for bandwidth and hardware dropped dramatically — touch screens are available for less than $1,000 — and the company began working with VKS on its own shop floor, while his brother did the computer code.

In 2009-10, Zimmermann brought the whole system in-house with his own software development team. He began installing the nascent VKS in spots on the floor that had the highest defect rate and the lowest productivity. He was able to reduce defects by 95 per cent, he says.

Now it’s in use almost everywhere, and will soon be part of the paint shop where projectors will beam instructions onto a wall, so the hardware will be immune to drifting paint spray.

CMP took its system to market at a conference in Indianapolis in May.

“Everyone we spoke to immediately saw the value of the software and how it could help improve an organization,” wrote Ryan Zimmermann, the product’s implementation manager, in an email. “If we can put our heads together over here, and break the ice with a few initial sales, I believe that we have some serious potential to storm the market with VKS.”

The system is unique, and Zimmermann says the company has the resources to market it. He will start with his base of 1,000 customers and his suppliers, and move on from there.

For the man with no patience for ineptitude, VKS is an idea perhaps whose time has come.

David Sherman is a freelance writer based in Chateauguay, Que.

This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.