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Measuring up: A real-time operations management system helps a bearing manufacturer see real-time results


October 24, 2014
By Alison Dunn


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Oct. 24, 2014 – It was all thanks to a rejected part.

Wayne Horley, president of Edmonton, Alta.-based Innovative Mechanical Solutions Ltd. (i-Mech), recently gave a potential customer a tour of his shop floor. The facility, which engineers, designs and manufacturers custom bearings for the directional drilling motor industry, was humming along as Horley showed his guest the real-time network i-Mech installed in 2012 to monitor its CNC lathes and other equipment.

“The system has an operator interface, and if there’s a rejected part, with two clicks on the screen, the operator can key in the reject and the reason for the reject,” Horley says. “I was showing [the potential customer] the system, and there was one reject reason that was out of the norm.”

Horley and his team immediately jumped into action.

“In real time, we identified the problem, went to the machine and opened it up. We could see the problem and we came up with a corrective action.”

Within minutes, the machine was back up and running, continuing to make parts with virtually no downtime.

Variances and rejects happen in almost every manufacturing facility. Downtime, too, is something that’s often unavoidable. But what matters most to manufacturers is getting back up and running as soon as possible. With a real-time operations management system, Horley and the team at i-Mech were able to make that a reality.

The potential customer was impressed. So impressed, in fact, that Horley says, “they’re now a customer.”

Looking for visibility
In 2012, i-Mech was building a brand-new facility in Edmonton, and Horley knew he wanted a paperless monitoring system. At the IMTS show in Chicago, Horley met representatives from Burlington, Ont.-based Memex Automation Inc., and learned about the company’s MERLIN system. Short for Manufacturing Execution Real-time Lean Information Network, the system promised to help boost shop floor productivity and reduce operating costs by giving i-Mech instant visibility into the production process.

Horley already knew he didn’t want what he calls a “traditional” system of data collection, where an operator writes down on a time card how many parts he made. Then someone else collects the cards at the end of a shift and enters the data into Excel spreadsheets, leaving lots of room for error.

“If someone is on holiday, then [the cards] sit for a week. You get entry errors if someone can’t read somebody else’s writing, and it’s not in real time,” he says.

Not only that, but the process is time-consuming and takes operators’ time away from their jobs. Horley also didn’t want a system that simply plunked a computer out in the middle of the shop floor.

“Instead of a guy writing on a time card at the end of a shift, he would take it to a computer and enter it,” he says. “But it’s still taking your operator’s time away from manufacturing to enter information.”

What the MERLIN system offered was both hardware and software to monitor the equipment and collect data.

“It connects to any manufacturing equipment and collects runtime and downtime,” says David McPhail, president of Memex Automation.

More importantly, when a machine is down, the operator can enter a reason for the downtime, helping collect data on why the equipment is down. Once that data is collected from the machines and their operators, managers, planners and other executives can use it for process improvements and lean initiatives.

“Understanding why it’s down is extremely important,” says McPhail. “If you understand why things are down, then you can actually fix it.”

The system doesn’t just collect data in real time. It also analyzes the data immediately. It calculates overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) based on availability, quality and performance, which then shows if a piece of equipment is making or losing money.

Automating this data acquisition and analysis process was exactly what Horley wanted for i-Mech’s new facility. Two years ago, Memex installed Merlin on six machines, and today the system runs on 10 CNC lathes and several more pieces of equipment in the plant, including a laser cutter and a laser welder.

Seeing the benefits
Horley says i-Mech has realized a number of benefits from implementing MERLIN. Since i-Mech installed the system in a new facility, there’s no hard data in terms of improved productivity, but Horley says that implementing any sort of accountability system improves productivity by a minimum of five per cent.

Horley also says the MERLIN system, because it tracks productivity, is an employee motivator.

“The operators know that we’re keeping track of things,” he says. “And the people who are self-driven and want to continuously improve? They love this system. How does the star operator feel when the guy standing beside him makes the same wage but has less productivity? We can pick that up now and reward the operators that have high productivity.”

The MERLIN system also helps with OEE and lean manufacturing because it not only collects data from the machines, it helps Horley and his team analyze that data easily. Memex’s McPhail says that’s a key component of the system: there’s no point in collecting data if you’re not going to use it to make improvements. The system does the analysis for the user, offering both standard reports and the flexibility so users can write their own reports.

Another benefit is that it reduces employee costs, since it is no longer necessary to hire a person to work on data collection and analysis.

“I talked to a company who has three people employed full-time just to get their data into a database,” says Horley. “We have zero people employed to do this, because we get the data automatically. When you have to hire people to do lean manufacturing, it kind of defeats the purpose.”

What’s next for i-Mech now that it has MERLIN installed in Edmonton? For one thing, the company is continuing to collect and analyze data from its machines and will continue to look for productivity improvements. i-Mech is also considering setting up another manufacturing facility in the U.S., where Horley says they will definitely implement the system.

Horley is also encouraging some of i-Mech’s third-party partners to implement the system.

“Not only will they be able to manufacture parts better, but we can tie into their system [to] see where our parts are,” he says. “We don’t have to have our people call their people, and have them call us back. We could just log into their Memex system and see what machines they’re running and where our parts are.”

What advice would Horley give other manufacturers looking to implement a monitoring system?

“Do it sooner rather than later,” he says. “The real goal is that you’re collecting all this data without any effort. Once you’ve got the data, you can analyze it and make reports. But if you’re not collecting the data, what have you got?”

McPhail agrees.

“If you don’t measure something, you can’t manage it,” he adds.

Alison Dunn is a Burlington, Ont.-based freelance writer.

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.