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Controlling manufacturing information is now a priority for most metalworking companies. As implementation of automation systems proceed, data is being generated at an ever increasing rate. Manufacturers, just as most companies, have used paper systems to keep track of events and data. Unfortunately, in the age of computers, paper-based communication systems are increasingly unable to handle the level of data moving around a company. Shopfloor control systems designed to keep track of information, documents and data are beginning to address this need. Ultimately, the objective of these systems is to eliminate paper communication altogether and rely on networked computers in a "paperless factory."
Gardner Disc Grinders and Abrasives of South Beloit, Illinois, a maker of disk grinding machinery, has taken steps to move to a paperless environment. They have been using an MRP system for several years, scheduling and distributing jobs using paper "travelers." Bill Wepking, industrial engineering supervisor at Gardner, is responsible for making sure documents and data can be accessed when and where they are needed. When Gardner wanted to obtain ISO 9001 certification, they needed to record their procedures for supplying various documents and information to the machine operators. With paper tape and setup sheets, there proved to be an opportunity for improvement in consistency and control over this process.
Mr. Wepking and his associates could see that they would need to make the shift to network communications eventually. They decided it would be better to start planning for that eventuality and look for ways to organize their information. After a lengthy investigation, they decided on CIMNET Folders of Robersonia, Pennsylvania. It offered a way to control the distribution of part files for the operators so they knew exactly which versions and revisions were actually being used. Folders includes complete DNC functions so the process, from accessing files to loading the part program and making the part, is easy to define. Folders has a lot of communication and data manipulation features for other areas, but they wanted to solve the ISO 9001 issue first. "Being certified has expanded our customer base, so we want to make it work right."
After using Folders for over six months, Gardner now has a perspective on evaluating system performance. Mr. Wepking says, "We've seen what we were hoping for in terms of control for ISO 9001 purposes. It's enabled us to spend more time on actually making parts and much less time on paperwork."
CIMNET Folders is designed to provide all the information a machine operator needs, from the part programs to the drawings, setup, routing and tooling sheets, and even digital photographs. Manufacturers like Gardner have found the best way to move to a paperless process is to start building electronic folders with a few essential documents. Then as operators become more accustomed to accessing data on the network, they can expand into other documents and processes. "Our operators picked up their interface module, WorkMaN, very quickly," says Mr. Wepking, "and they like not having to deal with tapes and lots of paper. We were able to combine the setup sheets with the part file, and then have the DNC configuration automatically strip out the extra characters on download. We are now ready to add drawings to the folders and interface with our scheduling system."
One feature of the Folders system that helped with the original implementation and integration into the process was the Toolkit. This is an automated method of building or modifying electronic folders, and adjusting the operators' work queues. "Toolkit was an unbelievable benefit up front," says Mr. Wepking, "because we were able to build over 7,000 folders for most of our parts automatically. We have most of the part programs organized in a file structure so that we can identify which part program is related to each part number and machine. Now we can access any folder as we need, and we didn't have to spend a lot of time building each one."
Starting out with a "point solution" for a pressing problem, and then expanding makes a lot of sense when time and capital are at a premium. Medium sized manufacturers such as Gardner want to move at a pace that they can handle, without too much disruption. "Now that we have some experience with Folders," concludes Mr. Wepking, "we can see where we can add job and labor tracking, SPC, and interface all the data we collect with our other systems."
Making automation work profitably requires solving individual problems, leading to optimization of the total process. It works best when one person is responsible for making the project successful, making sure that each step is completed in alignment with a predetermined approach to total integration.