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"Soft" Automation is Long Overdue

Digitalizing and systemizing the clerical work of quoting and quality control is more achievable and more urgent than ever.   
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In the first installment of this column, I wrote that my new monthly platform would focus not only on practical applications of data-driven manufacturing, but also “what comes next.” One tumultuous year later, I’m more convinced than ever that part of “what comes next” is as much about the front office as the shop floor.

A quality control inspector enters measurement results into a computer interface at Marzilli Machine Co.

At Marzilli Machine Co., automatic ballooning and report generation dramatically speeds the creation of documents essential to the work of Chris Kancel-Lengyel, quality control inspector.

A case in point is the quick-turnaround manufacturing of PPE earlier this year at Protolabs, Inc., a digitalized protoyping and manufacturing company in Maple Plain, Minnesota that has developed its own “soft” automation. The process begins with automated analysis of a CAD model submitted online to an engine that provides near-instant pricing, manufacturability and other information, streamlining typically labor intesnive front office tasks. Thanks in part to this front-office automation and its tie-in with the rest of the plant, the company was able to quote urgent orders in minutes and even ship some life-saving parts on the same day they were ordered.

Some manufacturers can never be (or even want to be) like Protolabs’ plant in Minnesota, where quoting automation is only the front end of a system that interfaces more than 500 machine tools as well as 3D printing, injection molding and other equipment. Nonetheless, I wonder sometimes whether shop owners fully understand the capability of tools that are available to, and even designed for, businesses like theirs. One manufacturer’s experience aside, the tumult of 2020 is evidence enough that it is time for more shops to embrace “soft” automation with the same enthusiasm as machine-tending robots.

This does not have to mean developing one’s own software. In a previous column, I wrote about how a company called Xometry invites parts purchasers to submit CAD files online for near-instant part pricing and design feedback. It then delegates jobs to a network of manufacturers according to their capability and capacity. A company called DigiFabster has taken yet another approach by offering a similarly automated, cloud-based front end as an individual service. That is, rather than joining a network, shops use the service individually for their own customers, even adding their own logos and other personalization to the online interface as they see fit.

Whatever the future of these businesses and others like them, CNC machine shops have soft automation options beyond quoting. Consider the example of Marzilli Machine Co., a small shop in Boston that was the subject of our November issue cover story. Owner and founder James Marzilli credits much of this relatively small shop’s growth to an insistence on digitalizing processes wherever digitalization is feasible. To that end, the shop invested in quality control software from High QA that scans, balloons and annotates 2D drawings automatically. This eliminates much of the work associated with generating inspection plans and reports.

I had seen this software before, but only on the floor of a trade show. Learning about its impact on an actual CNC machine shop was an entirely different experience, proving hte extent to which shops can achieve significant levels of “soft” automation now. It also convinced me that as more of the necessary tools become available to automate quoting, quality control documentation or other varieties of office work, barriers to adoption could be more mental than technical in nature. As James Marzilli puts it, “Everybody is talking about automating, but what they’re really saying is just, ‘Let’s put a robot in front of this and replace the person.’ They’re not really considering how much manual work goes into just administering the company.”

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