Digital Manufacturing Comes of Age

As digital manufacturing technology matures more metalworking shops are finding proven and practical applications that provide real value.


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inspection with digital device

As digital tools become more widespread, more shops are looking for ways that software can provide practical solutions to manufacturing challenges.

More manufacturers these days have digital manufacturing on their minds. As digital technology continues to find its footing, many see it as necessary for competing in the marketplace. According to AMT Vice President and CTO Tim Shinbara, digital tools are firmly establishing themselves as essential for simplifying and improving manufacturing businesses.

Every investment that a shop makes is a business decision, which means that every investment has to pay for itself,” Shinbara says. “What data-driven manufacturing does is provide the infrastructure to improve how a business runs.” Essentially, these digital tools are designed to provide resources for making informed decisions on how to run a shop.

Cutting Tool Management

Digital tooling management

Digital technologies improve facilities’ ability to monitor their tooling needs.

Cutting tool management is a vital part of the daily functioning of every machine shop, as no chips are flying without the right tools in stock. Some companies have recognized this and developed digital tools to help manufacturers keep accurate digital records of their cutting tool needs.

Some manufacturers create a “digital twin” that represents the tool’s current state of wear, temperature, positioning and vibration. In addition to helping optimize the cutting process and predict tool life, software can keep track of stock and even the location of cutting tools to improve the users’ ability to prepare for upcoming jobs. The software fundamentally does the work of keeping track of the tools so that the user can make informed decisions.

Machine Monitoring and Facility Management

Monitoring machine uptime is becoming more common, and manufacturers are finding new ways to exploit this data as the practice evolves over time. Keeping track of this data can help managers make more informed decisions to address issues with production. If, for example, a high-volume job is showing frequent downtime because of part changes, the facility manager has exactly the information needed to justify investing in automated solutions for changing out parts.

machine montoring is more than data collection

Machine monitoring has evolved beyond individual machine data collection. Now systems are becoming integrated and connected across the entire factory floor.

More importantly, machine monitoring systems can provide a facility with the tools needed to enhance the contributions of the people working there. These systems can identify bottlenecks that slow down jobs, helping the manufacturing team to gain a clearer picture of what processes need their attention. If the data shows that one process is slowing production, it provides a focal point for shopfloor personnel to develop improvements that can drastically cut down the time a part spends in the shop.

Machine monitoring is not a solution in and of itself. Rather, it is a guide that can illuminate problems in a process, enabling users to fix those problems on their own. Whether the solution is to retrain an employee, develop a new process or invest in more advanced machinery will depend on the problem. However, solving that problem is impossible until you manage to identify it. That’s where this technology can help.

Preventative Maintenance

Another emerging area in which data-driven manufacturing is proving its value is in preventative maintenance. Few things are more expensive than unplanned downtime on an important machine, as the loss in productivity magnifies the drain the busted equipment has on a manufacturing firm. Fortunately, newer digital tools can avoid unplanned repairs by scheduling preventative measures that are less expensive and more effective than making repairs after a breakdown occurs.

This technology is an outgrowth of standard machine monitoring. However, it takes advanced software to analyze the fail states of machines, identify patterns in machine data that precipitates these breakdowns, and identify maintenance needs before anything goes wrong. While it often takes months for software to recognize the problems that can shut down a machine, once a preventative maintenance system familiarizes itself with your machines, it can drastically reduce the number of breakdowns you experience, paying for itself many times over.

Out-of-the-Box Digital Tools

One of the most common concerns with adopting any new technology is the time, training and resources needed to introduce it into the mix. With newer digital tools shops will find solutions that are easier to implement than ever before. This includes more modular options that are accomplishing more tasks in a single installment, offering more interoperability with minimal training required.

digitally integrating multitasking equipment

Rather than needing 2-3 pieces of equipment each built with its own interface, and then struggling to connect them all to each other, users can introduce fewer components with more simplified means of integration with other pieces of equipment on the factory floor. This degree of consolidation, and sophistication, brings multi-tasking to a whole new level, and alleviates concerns with getting new technology up and running as soon as possible.

According to Shinbara, “Those thinking more intentionally about integrating their machines on a larger digital scale are setting themselves up to get the most benefit of these trends.”

Many of these technologies have been developing for a while. But according to Shinbara, what’s emerging now is the practicality of making these disparate components of manufacturing technology work together. Or as he puts it, “These tools create super users without adding extra buttons to the machine.”