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IT: Processing in the information age

As adoption and capabilities increase, information technology offers real-world benefits in real-time delivery. Are you wired?

In the not-so-distant past, process monitoring and production management consisted of plant supervisors leaving their offices, looking out over the plant floor, and determining whether all was running smoothly. For those lucky enough to have a window, a sideways glance from time to time would suffice.

Now, an alphabet soup of software programs—ERP, CRM, SPC, MRP—handles the task in real-time, and, in some cases, across continents. If it seems a little overwhelming, you''re not alone. The myriad technologies are confusing enough to befuddle even those who sell the products.

"There are a whole lot of names they give us," explains David Monroe, VP of sales and marketing at Mattec. "But the new name—the new name for the technology we offer—is manufacturing execution systems (MES). That''s the new buzzword."

All these buzzwords are wrapped up into one acronym, IT (information technology), which is playing an ever-greater role for an industry that increasingly demands up-to-the-second data—including every part''s complete biography (what operator made it, on what machine, from what material batch)—and remote access of the sort that allows a plant manager in Texas to check a machine in Guadalajara without having to dig out his passport.

"The lightbulb''s starting to go on," Christine Roedlich, director of U.S. engineering for Moldflow says. "They''re saying, ''Oh, I could actually [check on a machine] from home.''"

Even for shops operating all their presses in the same location, efficient facilities must address problems before bad parts are shipped, molds are damaged, or production is brought to a halt for hours.

"Say you''ve got 20 to maybe 100 molding machines on the shop floor," Roedlich says. "To keep track of which machines are up and which machines are down, and why they''re down—to be really effective as a manager—you can''t do it if you don''t have [real-time, comprehensive] production data."

Look, mom, no operator

Advances in process monitoring and optimization (where programs provide setup guidance before shooting parts, or use real-time cycle data to make suggestions for process-parameter alterations) potentially point to an operator-free environment. But that is not the immediate future envisioned by either Roedlich or Monroe.

"The computer intelligence and the speed are certainly there today to do that sort of thing," Monroe says, adding, "we get a lot of resistance from molders who say, ''That''s good, give me the advice, but I''ll be the ultimate decision maker of whether I change the process or how I change the process.''"

Roedlich also says that processes can become more automated than ever before, but not to the point that they obviate humans. "There''s not going to be a replacement for educated, experienced people out there," Roedlich says. "You really need that intelligence."

Nonetheless, the systems do work autonomously in some instances. For example, if parts are molded outside the set spec limit, pressure value, cycle time, or cavity pressure, they can be diverted automatically by a robot.

Monroe says the next leap will fall well short of a completely closed loop process, and land somewhere closer to a setup instruction repository, where optimum recipes for each mold are downloaded to a machine as the mold is installed. Rather than asking for a lights-out plant, more and more Monroe and Roedlich report that their customers want to link their process monitoring and their ERP systems.

Islands in the data stream

Working in isolation, ERP/MRP systems and process monitoring programs have been collecting mountains of data for some time, but they''ve done so without one complementing the other.

"We were islands of information," Monroe says. "We collected the information, process engineering would take it, quality control would take it, but we would never feed the corporate structure."

The connection is logical, however: How can ERP systems perform capacity planning and allocate resources if they don''t have the production statistics?

With an integrated setup, as orders come in, they can be combined to make one large production run, and all the while, machine usage and materials will be instantaneously updated. The immediate and primary benefit is reduced inventories for materials and finished parts.

Monroe illustrates the advantage with one customer, Plano Molding (Plano, IL), which has four facilities using Mattec''s monitoring program. From these disparate locations, every 20 minutes each plant uploads its last 20 minutes of production data into its MRP system, allowing the company to continuously track production and make just-in-time material orders and product shipments.

Information is power

Some of the benefits of fully implementing all the available IT tools can be difficult to discern, but beyond the process transparency necessary for medical or automotive molding, or the ability to reduce scrap and run more efficiently, Roedlich says the programs allow processors to make informed decisions.

"How can you decide ''I need more molding machines,'' or ''I need fewer molding machines,'' or ''I need more people,'' or ''can I get away with fewer people?''" Roedlich asks, "if you don''t have data on exactly what''s happening on your shop floor in real time?"

Offering an example of one client realizing savings of $250,000 in the first six months thanks to greater efficiency, Monroe says the programs can also find processors money.

"Where the real advantages have been, where the real money has been made," Monroe says, "has been in improving productivity levels, reducing scrap, and getting more utilization out of your equipment."

The paper trail remains

When Monroe began selling rudimentary predecessors of the current products 20 years ago, even the basic desktop computer, which is now a ubiquitous fixture in any business, would have been an anomaly. And while it has yet to live up to all its promise, IT advances have irrevocably altered the processing environment.

"We all talk about the paperless factory," Monroe says, "and I haven''t seen much of that, but I have seen absolute mobility. You''re not stuck at your desk trying to find out what''s going on."

Tony Deligio [email protected]

Contact information

Mattec Corp.   www.mattec.com
Moldflow Corp.   www.moldflow.com
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