A glimpse of the Shop Floor of the Future…
The first part of this article discussed a Harvard Business Review piece by Willy Shih and Helmuth Ludwig that presented 4 challenges to the next stage of “efficient and responsive” production. I won’t belabor those points further, having discussed them in the first installment. What I want to discuss here is my own vision for that next stage of production.
What are the key innovations needed to take production to the next level, especially where CNC is concerned?
I alluded to it in the prior article when I took the authors to task for suggesting that largely what was needed was a better ability to share data between existing systems. Instead, I believe we need to develop whole new categories of software that will collect and integrate data on the Shop Floor in ways that have not been done before. Or at least, that haven’t been done as comprehensively, seamlessly, and with as much connection to management and operations as what I will propose. I want to introduce these ideas in the form of a Blue Sky sketch of the different software modules that will be part of the future CNC Manufacturing Suite, how they’ll work together, and what they’ll accomplish. It’ll be a day in the life of the Shop Floor of the Future, a work of CNC fiction, in other words…
John Allan parked his Tesla sedan and strolled up to the door of his Job Shop, AllanTech Machineworks Inc.. The door unlocked automatically, sensing the iPhone 12 in his pocket and knowing immediately who he was. As he entered, the lights came on by themselves. Here and there various CNC machines on the shop floor were still quietly completing the final stages of the lights out shift of the night before. It was 6:30am, and as usual, he was the first one to show up at the plant. Allan was proud of the facility, which was spotless and gleaming white. He had always invested in the latest technology, and had a good nose for which things were going to make a difference to his business and which ones were just so much hype. He grinned as one of the floor cleaning robots scuttled out of the way–it was a distant industrial grade cousin of the old Roomba vacuum cleaner robots that had been so popular years ago.
As he sat down at his desk, the two 32 inch flat panel monitors sprang to life and his computer welcomed him. It too had sensed the iPhone in his pocket which automatically woke the computer and logged him in. His first order of business was to check the status of the Lights Out Shift. The G-Wizard ShopFloor software already knew that at this time of day that was what he always wanted to see and had the appropriate screen up and waiting. It showed a schematic of his shop floor, and each machine had a color code–red, yellow, or green depending on whether it had accomplished everything expected to date. All of the machines were connected to G-Wizard ShopFloor via the shop’s network and used the MTConnect protocol.
He saw there were two yellow machines and a red. A quick look at the yellows told him their latest Inconel job was chewing up inserts right and left as usual. Those machines had blown through the spares in their tool carousels and needed new inserts to be installed. He didn’t need to worry about taking any action, G-Wizard would automatically assign the task to the operators responsible for the machines. There’d be an urgent todo waiting for them when they walked in the door in about half an hour. John turned his attention to the machine that had coded red. This had to be more serious, and John hoped it wouldn’t be too costly. Taking the machine offline to wait for repairs would slow everything down. Looking at the diagnostics, it seemed as if the preventative maintenance sensors on the machine’s spindle had detected some bearing noise that seemed ominous. G-Wizard prompted to see if he wanted to initiate a service call on the machine. Allan sighed–spindle work is expensive and can be time-consuming, but it had to be dealt with. He clicked the affirmative and G-Wizard sent an email to the local machine dealer asking for a maintenance tech to come out and be prepared to swap the spindle cartridge. He’d get a notification back as soon as they responded telling him when the tech would show up.
Next he pulled up the quotes folder to see how the incoming business pipeline looked. G-Wizard was plugged into multiple RFQ feeds across the Internet. It was bringing them in as fast as they became available and triaging them to see which ones fit his shop’s capabilities the best. He didn’t want to waste time bidding on jobs unless he was sure he had a competitive advantage over most other shops who might try to bid. That had always been one of his secrets, and he was pleased that G-Wizard could help him sort through, analyze the CAD models, and automatically determine which ones were worth more attention. This morning there were two new jobs that needed bidding, and he would make that his first priority.
A few mouse clicks later, he had loaded the CAD model from each job into G-Wizard Estimator, the Job Cost estimation module of the G-Wizard suite. It ran the CADCAM Wizards to determine what the optimal tooling and feeds and speeds would be for each feature on the model. It also selected one of the standard material sizes AllanTech kept on hand as the starting point and costed the material in. He noted it had also estimated the CAM programming time based on the features involved. These were straightforward jobs, so he gave the quotes a quick review, made sure G-Wizard had flagged that there would be available machine time in the correct time frame, and then signaled to G-Wizard to go ahead and bid both parts. Having done that, he turned his attention to see the status of pending bids. He noted that one had been lost, but two more were moving forward. In both cases, the customers had questions.
He clicked to bring up the questions. The customers had submitted them as part of the online RFQ and bidding process to the special customer portal G-Wizard provided. It would serve as the online meeting place for the relationship as it progressed as well as tracking all the contact information, making sure only the most up to date CAD models and BOMs were being used, managing change orders, and all the rest through completion of the contract. Both questions were asking for his input on how to manufacture the parts more cheaply–very typical and he was happy to help. The CADCAM Wizards he’d used to bid the jobs originally included a DFM (Design for Manufacturing) feature. He checked for DFM suggestions and came up with good ideas on both quotes. If the customer would make a few relatively minor changes to the design, he could bring down their costs considerably. The best part was his customers always appreciated this kind of help tremendously. As he formulated answers to each question, he noticed out the corner of his eye that the morning was flying. His people had already come in and changed the inserts on the machines. Apparently this had triggered G-Wizard’s tooling inventory management to discover they were about out of those inserts. Allan tried not to let himself be distracted–he always used a task timer to stay focused, but this needed looking at to make sure they had enough inserts to finish the job.
Fortunately, G-Wizard ShopFloor’s Tooling module was completely integrated with all the other ShopFloor data. It had been monitoring the tool life statistics for each job by passing the part program’s g-code through G-Wizard Editor to determine the time in cut and distance in cut for each tool on each job. It had then used that data together with information from the machine monitoring to tell how long the inserts were lasting before they needed replacement. Lastly, it tapped into the original quotation information captured as part of the RFQ process in the customer portal to tell how many parts had to be made, from which it could calculate how many were left. Allan heaved a sigh of relief–there were enough inserts on hand to finish the job, and G-Wizard would send a reorder to their preferred tooling supplier automatically to keep levels at a reasonable threshold. His quick check told him he would not need to get on the phone to facilitate a rush order of inserts.
Thinking back over the old days made Allan chuckle. Having this much visibility into tool life had been nearly impossible except for those few shops that kept track of it all in spreadsheets, and even then it was darned near impossible. Most jobs were short runs–customers wanted just in time manufacturing. All a tool had to do was outlast the short run of a single part and the record keeping wasn’t good enough to tell what its real life was. He remembered getting the first real reports of tool life out of G-Wizard–it had been a real eye opener and had spurred him to change suppliers in several cases. The cost savings from that alone more than made up for the entire cost of the G-Wizard ShopFloor Suite.
Meanwhile, down on the shop floor, Sue was busy tending her machines. She was responsible for four of the VMC’s. Once upon a time she would’ve consider keeping four VMC’s happy churning out parts to be a hectic and somewhat nerve-wracking job. That was until she’d taken a job at AllanTech and started using their G-Wizard ShopFloor software. They’d mounted a tablet-sized Microsoft Surface PC right to each machine’s control panel. G-Wizard was interfaced to each CNC Machine and knew quite a lot about what was happening with the machine. When she’d walked in, G-Wizard had immediately tipped her off that inserts needed changing on two of her machines. Once she got that done and unloaded the parts from the other two VMC’s, she went back to G-Wizard ShopFloor. It was time to set up a new job. There was a special Kanban card deck waiting to guide her through the task. Boy, she sure didn’t miss the old Setup Sheets–this new system was so much easier and more complete. It always had every bit of information she needed and then some in one place and always with the most up to date version. Scanning through the cards to set the machine up, she noted the first card involved setting up all the digital assets on the VMC’s–g-code, tool offsets, and work offsets. She clicked the button on the Kanban card to load those into the machine in the form of the part program itself and a short g-code program that used G10’s to set up all the offsets. She didn’t know it, but G-Wizard ShopFloor had seamlessly queried G-Wizard Editor to figure out the tooling and work offset information that would be needed. It had also checked in with the Tool Crib module to load the correct offset information for each tool.
Having loaded the g-code and offsets, here next step was to set up the tools. Here again, G-Wizard ShopFloor was ready with the list of tools in the form of a Kanban deck with a card for each tool. Included on the card was information about where the tool could be found, which tool slot it would inhabit, and even a step-by-step Kanban deck that could teach her how to load a tool into the carousel of the VMC. She wouldn’t need that last bit having done it so many times, but they had a new intern they were training who loved having all that information available. Fortunately, she wouldn’t need to load many tools. G-Wizard ShopFloor continually analyzed the job queue for the shop and made sure to use as many standard tools as possible. These were determined to minimize the time operators spent changing tools while balancing job throughput and keeping inventory management simpler through having fewer tool types to manage. The system was slick and cut costs tremendously.
The workholding for this job looked like a new dual station vise that Sue hadn’t used yet. Again, the Kanban deck told her exactly how to set it up on the machine’s table and even where the vise was stored back in the Tool Room. After installing it, she fired up the part program. Like all part programs AllanTech ran, it had a standard set of behaviors right up front to cut down on mistakes. It would check that she’d gotten the right tools into the right place and it even probed the vise to make sure it was there and to measure how far out of tram it was. Sue thought wistfully of the old days when she would sweep her Interapid indicator to tram in a vise. That was a thing of the past. Nowadays, they ran a standard routine as part of every part program that used the vise that would sweep the jaws with a probe and apply coordinate rotation to the job for a perfect “virtual” tram. No operator effort needed and no mistakes possible.
The day went on like this at AllanTech with more of the same. Every activity was precisely coordinated and supported with exactly the right information at the right time. Training could be done on the job as every task was fully documented on a step by step level. Many more tasks were automated including tasks that no robot arm could touch–analysis and decision-making tasks that could only be managed by bringing together all the data on the Shop Floor into one software suite that understood how to fit it all together to make the difference. This is just a portion of our Big Vision here at CNCCookbook. We’re working diligently to deliver all of the components over time. The beginnings of a surprising number of parts of this fanciful vision are already starting to become apparent in our various products, and I’ve tried to make that easier to see by linking out to discussions of them.
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” — Arthur C. Clarke
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Bob is responsible for the development and implementation of the popular G-Wizard CNC Software. Bob is also the founder of CNCCookbook, the largest CNC-related blog on the Internet.