June 14, 2007 by Dan Deanovic
Historically, the majority of a manufacturer’s costs have been labour. When Henry Ford introduced the moving assembly line in 1913, labour accounted for an estimated 80 per cent of total costs. One of Ford’s key beliefs was that labour costs could be greatly reduced by eliminating unnecessary steps from the manufacturing process.
Ultimately, machinery accomplished what Ford and many others set out to do: streamline the production of goods and improve efficiencies on the shop floor. Machines could complete the same tasks as humans on an assembly line, but at a much quicker pace and at significantly lower costs. As a result, production and assembly processes required fewer workers and labour costs dropped considerably.
Faced with tighter margins and increasing competition, job shops and custom manufacturers today are embracing innovative new ways to take shop floor automation and business management to the next level. Driven by new applications and technology advancements, these solutions are enabling businesses to minimize costly manual labour practices throughout the manufacturing process to obtain a level of efficiency that their predecessors could only have imagined. In addition, these solutions allow shops to maximize other resources, including their existing investments in machines, systems and applications.
One of the new tools responsible for driving this level of efficiency on the shop floor is intelligent numerical controls (INC). Capable of running on virtually any machine – from the simplest lathe to multi-function machines running the most advanced algorithms – INCs monitor and measure the output of production data, such as job starts, machine hours and part counts, without manual intervention. These controls provide seamless integration with almost any application and peripheral, including shop management systems, while also interfacing with barcoders, feeders, robots, probes and tool setters to help streamline production.
It is critical for job shops and custom manufacturers to have access to this production data, along with employee information and other operational data, in a single system to more effectively manage production. The integration between the shop floor and back office provides a more holistic view of the organization. It enables management to better plan and schedule projects, ensuring that business is always running smoothly and that customer expectations are being met.
While computer numerical controls (CNC) have been in use for decades, intelligent numerical controls are a very recent introduction. Based on standard PC motherboard architecture, these controls truly represent the state-of-the-art in numerical control form and function.
Whereas previous controls relied on hard-wired control mechanisms, intelligent controls rely on software. The difference is significant. For example, every machine purchased with CNC controls was, in essence, obsolete the day it was installed. It could be upgraded with new controls, of course, but this was extremely expensive and time consuming. In contrast, intelligent controls are upgradeable simply by installing new software. Should additional computing horsepower ever be required, the components of the intelligent control are as easy to upgrade as the components of any personal computer.
The true value of intelligent numerical controls is apparent when they are integrated with an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system on the back end to automate the collection of production data and enable communication with business and production systems on the shop floor. Production data can come directly off machines into the ERP system, providing a level of accuracy unattainable through traditional data entry methods. Moreover, by automating this process, job shops can always have the most up-to-date data in real time, and they can also better control headcount and costs.
ERP integration with INC controls offers powerful additions to a manufacturer’s competitive arsenal. Far more than simply reporting machine run times and parts produced, the integration of ERP and INC systems helps to drive all aspects of manufacturing effectiveness and efficiency.
The product of ERP/INC integration can be as basic as real-time reporting of machine data to the ERP system. However, since INC is a software-based environment, manufacturers can now achieve unprecedented synergy between not only the INC and ERP systems, but also a wide range of affiliated applications, including robotic controls, automated tool management, metrology, cooling systems, material feeders and tool setters.
Achievement of such integration typically involves the use of an application program interface (API). Well-designed intelligent numerical control software includes not only a resident API, but also a well-documented, easy-to-use .NET interface. With these components in place, integration between multiple systems is a relatively straightforward process.
One of the benefits of the integration shown in Diagram 1, is real-time data transfer from the machine to company management. Among the possible data being transferred are:
• Job setup time (accurate tracking of setup time and costs);
• Job starts and stops (machine time costs, maintenance schedules, tool changes);
• Machine operator time (accurate labour tracking, not only by work centre but by job); and
• Material usage (pulling material from inventory within the ERP system as material is depleted on the job).
Such basic integrations offer all of the advantages you would expect, including reduced human error and improved accuracy. Perhaps most important is the instant addition of the data to the manufacturer’s ERP system. This empowers managerial decision making. Any purchasing manager responsible for raw materials can tell you how important that becomes during times of material shortages or price volatility.
While the basic integration of ERP and intelligent controls is powerful, imagine what you can do by taking the concept one step further. In Diagram 2, the same use of the API is applied to integrate with several other systems in the work cell. The diagram shows tool usage data flowing from the automated tool crib, through the API, into the intelligent control, and out to the ERP system. We also see that the tool usage data are being combined with tool wear data from a metrology system. The entire overall system is now working more effectively and efficiently than ever before. For example, tool wear data combine with tool availability data. The metrology system authorizes the automated tool crib to issue new tools when they are needed. Purchase orders are automatically issued, just-in-time, based on rules set up within the ERP system. Costs are tracked more accurately than ever before, and finite adjustments to the system are now possible.
In this example, we’ve only leveraged the intelligent control to integrate ERP with the tool crib, metrology, machine data, material usage and labour. Similar integration, based on the straightforward use of the intelligent control’s API, greatly broadens the possibilities. As shown in Diagram 3, an entire manufacturing operation can now be integrated. Integrating two systems, however, can be problematic, and integrating three or more can be overwhelming. But history shows that such integration is possible. Consider, for example, the integration of your PDA with your cell phone and laptop. This was originally looked at as an impossible dream until the appropriate APIs were developed. Now, such integration is commonplace. It has changed the way we do business and the way we live.
The integration of the manufacturing environment, made possible through the use of intelligent numerical controls and ERP, holds similar promise. At the very least, it will change the way we manufacture. Given the history of manufacturing breakthroughs, it could just change our world.
Dan Deanovic is the director of development for Exact JobBOSS, a provider of job shop software.