Snapshot Of A Computer-Integrated Job Shop

Getting some basic software packages to "talk to each other" is the latest step in this job shop's steady march toward computer-integrated manufacturing -- at least for the moment.


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Quality Machine, Inc., in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, is one of America's great little job shops, and there are thousands of shops just like it scattered across America. That's one big reason why America's manufacturing might is on the rise again.

Quality Machine recently installed the software interfaces that allow it to easily share critical data between its estimating system, its shop control system, and its CAD/CAM system. Getting these systems to "talk to each other" is having a ripple effect that has a significant impact on the shop's bottom line. For them, the result is like having a "mini-MES," a manufacturing execution system that gives them the sort of management control that many big plants are scrambling to achieve with large-scale computerization programs.

Because so many other great little job shops all over the country are in the position (or should be) to make the same transition, Quality Machine's experience can't be ignored. It's the next step, the right next step, and it can move other shops way ahead as it did for Quality Machine.

Step By Step

This is the classic American success story. Quality Machine was founded in 1968 by William Greene, an ambitious machinist who started out on his own with two machine tools in a rented 2400-square-foot area. Under his leadership, the shop expanded steadily over the years. Mr. Greene continued to run the shop until his death in 1984, when his son Tim took over management responsibilities.

At the time, the shop was well on its way moving from mechanical single-spindle automatics to CNC turning equipment, which were programmed manually on the shop floor. (To this day, the shop's specialty is producing precision machined workpieces, with an emphasis on turning, in lot sizes that vary from 100 to 5,000 pieces, to long running production jobs. It employs about 50 people.)

As the shop gained experience with CNC, the limitations to shopfloor programming became apparent. These considerations led the company to look at off-line systems for CNC programming. A better way to store and distribute the programs was also sought after.

At this point, Tim Greene did what most shop owners do when they are looking for a product to solve a problem. He went to a distributor that he knew and trusted. In this case, it was Kevin Bork of CAM Solutions, Inc., a local distributor of CAD/CAM systems and other software for machining and manufacturing. Mr. Bork recommended the CAD/CAM system from TekSoft (Phoenix, Arizona). Demos proved to Mr. Greene that this software not only filled the programming requirements but it also offered a DNC solution to the program handling concerns.

Thus, Quality Machine took its first step toward computer-integrated manufacturing. At the time, of course, that's not what the shop was thinking about. Solving a real problem in the short term was the driving force. However, the relationship with a software distributor had been established and that relationship would be essential to the other steps leading Quality Machine to greater computer integration.

New Opportunities, New Problems

So here we have a shop that was adding CNC machines and enhancing its programming capability. This was a recipe for growth. CNC machines are very productive, and the shop had an effective way to program them. The shop was adding customers and taking on more jobs than ever.

Over the years, Quality Machine had already established a well-thought-out and carefully maintained system for estimating, scheduling the shop, routing jobs, and capturing cost data. It was entirely manual and it depended on a substantial amount of paperwork, record keeping and filing.

In those days, one of the main reasons this approach worked as well as it did is a scenario that will be familiar to many shop managers: Quality Machine had a long time employee, Lenora Little, in the front office, whose years of experience, hard work, and good memory made the system an effective tool for retrieving past part histories, and keeping track of information for payroll and billing.

At the time (mid 1980s), computerized shop control systems were starting to appear and enough shops were switching over as news of their usefulness was spreading around. Quality Machine, always keeping an eye on trends and new developments, began looking at various software packages for this application. JobBoss software from JobBOSS/Exact (Minneapolis, Minnesota) was the one that seemed to fit their needs the best, although Tim Greene recalls that many people working with him wondered if they really needed it because their current system was "working just fine."

What settled the matter were word-of-mouth recommendations from other shops and the oft-repeated comment from users that they wondered "how we ever got along without shop control software." In 1986, Quality Machine became one of JobBOSS/Exact's early customers and the shop has been using the system ever since, continually updating with the latest release. (Lenora Little, by the way, is now one of the staunchest champions of this computerized approach to scheduling, accounting and bookkeeping.) The most important recent enhancement, two years ago, was installing bar code readers throughout the shop to automate data entry on the shop floor.

With a far more efficient tool for shop scheduling, Mr. Greene had a much better handle on where the shop's bottlenecks were occurring. This crucial information has guided equipment acquisitions and even shop organization -- for example, the shop routinely sets up "manufacturing cells" by matching a piece of CNC equipment with one or two older manual machines for secondary operations or finishing. Much of this auxiliary equipment is mounted on rollers or wheeled carts to be moved around from machine to machine as the operation warrants.

Estimating: The Next Frontier

When Kevin Bork, the software distributor, came to Quality Machine in 1994 to show Mr. Greene an estimating package, he listened, but mainly because he had gotten good advice and trustworthy product information in the past, not because he thought that his shop really needed estimating software. For one thing, the shop control system had some estimating utilities. For another, Walter Musty, the shop's team manager of operations, was a darned good estimator. Mr. Musty had 20 years of experience in machine shop operations; he knew the shop's capabilities; and he had a great track record hitting the mark with his estimates. The software they looked at was Machine Shop Estimating (MSE), from Micro Estimating Systems Inc. (Franklin, Wisconsin).

It was Mr. Musty, however, who quickly recognized what a powerful tool computerized estimating software would be and this com-pany's software in particular. This package came with extensive libraries of machine speed and feed data, along with the ability to look at multiple quantities while quotinghow the costs for different quantities varied, and so on. The system also made it easy to do a lot of "what if" computations, the sort of figuring an estimator rarely has much time to explore.

Most of all, Mr. Musty recognized that the ability to generate more highly detailed and more accurate estimates would benefit the entire machining process, improving almost every step with optimized machining parameters and standardized procedures. He also saw that this system would not force them to comply with data imposed from the outside, but could be modified to reflect the shop's experience with individual machines and various workpiece materials and cutting tools. In short, computerized estimating would make him a much more effective estimator, enhancing his skills and knowledge, not making them superfluous.

Not that the shop didn't question the wisdom of duplicating software -- they already had an estimating module in the shop scheduling system. But this portion of the shop control system was designed to capture and utilize a shop's estimate as needed for scheduling, tracking and costing functions. It was not designed to be a powerful generator of highly detailed information about speeds, feeds and cycle times for every machining operation. So installing a new estimating system, which meant buying new computer hardware (essentially, the latest generation, souped-up personal computer), appeared to be a logical and worthwhile step.

Around this time, Quality Machine was taking another important step. It was opening a new facility in Iowa, with the same machining capability as the original shop in Minnesota. Tim Greene intended to operate both facilities as a single entity, with all front-office operations consolidated in the original location. Scheduling and machine programming for both facilities would happen in Minnesota. Estimating and job planning were also going to come out of the home office.

In the two years that the shop has been using MSE (the latest Windows-based release is now running on a Pentium processor with 16 megabytes of RAM), expectations have been more than fulfilled. Besides making speed and feed data available at a key stroke, the system provides other essential information and performs other valuable calculations that make an estimate more like a master process plan than a highly educated prediction.

One example: with its emphasis on high precision turning, Quality Machine uses a lot of bar stock. MSE helps Mr. Musty to:

  • match the material and size with the appropriate machine;
  • gather outside supplier information faster by automatically faxing a request for quote;
  • calculate how many bars will be needed for the job (at each quantity level);
  • determine raw material costs by weight (foot, bar, unit);
  • calculate yield per bar, allowing for kerf and cutoff waste;
  • calculate weights for finished part sizes, which determine charges for heat treating, plating and shipping;
  • calculate cycle times and total times to complete each operation for all other quantities involved; plus many more.

Of course, MSE also provides feed and speed data, which the shop has modified to reflect its methods of metal removal, tooling preferences and setup practices. As Mr. Musty puts it, the software "knows the way we like to manufacture."

Mr. Musty creates estimates as if he were actually process planning the job, using the exact machine, exact tooling and exact sequence of operations. He reviews the results that MSE gives him, using his experience and intuition to confirm this outcome.

Now and then, the figures "won't look right" until he studies certain items. Barring an occasional input error, discrepancies usually indicate that the estimate reflects speeds and feeds that are too conservative or is missing some economy of operation. When the numbers don't match Quality Machine's expectations, MSE makes it easy to review costs to find opportunities for changing them. "The charting feature presents a graphic chart or table showing where we will be spending the most money," explains Mr. Musty. "It gives us a chance to see where we may be able to trim expenses." The "what-if" capability of the system can be especially handy in these situations.

Estimates can be completed much more quickly and to a much greater level of detail than before. Finished estimates -- process plans really -- are reviewed by Tim Greene, who has a total picture of shop operations and the shop's performance in mind. Once approved, the estimate is released. If it is accepted, the shop has another job to do. Then the estimate goes to scheduling and programming.

Let's Integrate

The estimate goes to scheduling and programming. How it "goes to" is where integration fits in. Quality Machine had not been using the estimating system very long before the idea of linking it with the scheduling and programming systems to share information became apparent. Once again, Kevin Bork was the one suggesting that the shop consider interfaces between the systems.

As it stood, both the programmer using TekSoft and the scheduler using JobBOSS/Exact had to find and key in appropriate information from the prepared estimate. This was a tedious and redundant affair. Tim Greene gave Mr. Bork the go-ahead to link the systems.

Integrating the scheduling and estimating systems happened first. At the time, no off-the-shelf interfaces were available. Mr. Bork approached JobBoss and outlined what was required. Using MSE's Data Export Module, he had access to the MSE code and could show how data in a finished estimate was formatted. In turn, JobBoss software developers were able to write the routines that read data in this format and placed values in the appropriate fields.

Now, when Mr. Musty has a completed and approved estimate, he gives MSE an "export file" command and saves the data on the computer's hard drive. When a JobBOSS/Exact user needs that data, there is an "import file" command that asks for the file name. Typing it in calls up the data and fills in the Job Master screen, which has to be completed when entering a new job in the system.

The interface does not alter any of the functionality of the shop control software. It does, however, ensure that it has much better time figures and more complete information about operations with which to determine start dates and create shop routing. As a result, shop schedules are more precise and routing is more detailed. Data entered on the shop floor is also more complete, thereby improving billing and accounting functions downstream.

Integrating the TekSoft CAD/CAM system with MSE was up next. This step was fairly simple because TekSoft had already developed an optional interface for linking its software with MSE. With this option in place, Quality Machine is able to use the same speeds and feeds library for programming as the estimating system uses.

Using the same speeds and feeds library for both estimating and programming ensures that no discrepancies in how a job is run will occur. With the process layout from the estimating software, everything is spelled out for the programmer, including information about cutting tools to determine offsets and so on. There's no second-guessing about what numbers to use or how to sequence operations. And on the shop floor, the instructions are clear and unambiguous. No matter who is operating the machine, results will be the same. With cutting tools consistently running at optimum speeds and feeds, tool life can be extended and costs controlled, with more predictable results.

For Mr. Greene, this a bottom line issue. "The way it's quoted is the way it's processed. There are few surprises. I don't have to worry about whether or not a job will make money."

No Marking Time

Getting the shop's estimating, scheduling and programming systems to work together is not the only integration Quality Machine intends to pursue. Nor is this phase of integration complete. Currently, traffic on the computer system when several users are on-line sometimes causes the software to run slowly or deny access to the database. A reconfiguration of the network is being planned.

Likewise, other islands of computerization still exist in the shop. The toolroom computer system is incompatible with MSE and the other integrated applications, so the toolroom system is slated for replacement. Eventually, the toolroom will be tied in with the estimating software so that its inventory matches the tool library and so kitting lists can be prepared automatically.

The shop's metrology department is also computerized, with a stand-alone SPC (statistical process control) system tied to a computer-drive coordinate measuring machine. These, too, will be linked one day.

In the meantime, the current state of integration continues to pay dividends. "This setup is great. Finally, I not only know exactly what a job costs, but I know which operation takes the most time and costs the most," Mr. Musty reports. "I literally have absolute knowledge of each job at my fingertips."

Mr. Greene has an even more sanguine view. "Our integrated software took the front-office cost out of growth. Our business grew 20 percent per year in the last four years without any additional office staff. The system upgrades we have planned will put us in an even better position, especially as we add machining capacity."

A month from now or a year from now, a snapshot of Quality Machine will reveal a shop further along the path to computer integration. But the "mini-MES" it has working today promises to make that picture of the future an even brighter one.