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Begin your digital transformation by binning your most important tool

There's one tool that you can find on almost any factory floor. It's nearly two thousand years old, and many factories would grind to a halt without it. And yet, eliminating it is essential to unleash the potential of the smart factory.

That tool is paper. On many shop floors today, paper documents the machining processes, and is used to record any observations and measurements. Paper is wonderfully flexible, but it has many shortcomings for modern manufacturing. The information can only travel as fast as the paper can be moved, which may slow down production lines. If you need access to a particular piece of information, you need to track down the paper it's stored on, which could be time consuming. If the paper is lost, its information often goes with it.

Digitalising the notes

Sometimes hand-scribbled annotations and data captured at the machine are rekeyed into a computer system, so data can be aggregated and analysed. However, the rekeying runs the risk of misinterpreting the handwriting and mistyping the information. It also incurs a delay.

In many cases, data is not entered into a computer system, which makes it hard or impossible to access again later. If an operator made improvements to a documented process at a machine, that information may be lost. Mistakes may be made if future decisions are based on incomplete or inaccurate information.

Enabling the paperless shop floor

We've been working to introduce a paperless shop floor management solution at the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC). The AMRC carries out research into advanced machining, manufacturing, and materials on behalf of its clients, who may make manufacturing and investment decisions based on what they learn. The AMRC's partners include Boeing, Rolls-Royce and Airbus.

Argenta created a solution that replaces the AMRC's paper route cards, project documents and data capture with a digital document repository. Whereas the information relating to a particular experiment might have been spread across different paper documents before, it's now stored in one place and available for easy access by any number of people at the same time.

The document repository is based on the Windchill product lifecycle management software. Our solution is used to pull out the relevant project document explaining the experiment, and make it available on a PC beside the shop floor machine. The operator can make any observations or amendments, and check the document back in with any changes or observations when the job is finished. The NC files used to program the machines are also downloaded from the repository, and can be checked back in with any modifications that were required on the shop floor. In the past, the programs would be transferred to the machine using a USB key, a manual process with no built-in mechanism for capturing modifications.

Direct data capture

The solution also uses LabVIEW to capture data from the machines directly, and store it in a SQL database. Data on machining vibrations (chatter) can be used to better understand the cutting process for the materials and tools under test, so that the surface finish can be optimised. For this project, we also capture the position of the tool, load on the tool, whether it's cutting, the spindle feed rate and more.

One of the things that sets us apart as a National Instruments Alliance Partner is that we can not only capture the data using LabVIEW, but we can also build bespoke reporting solutions using our in-house C#, .NET and SQL development skills. For the AMRC, we created a visual reporting solution that uses, for example, stacked bar charts to show utilisation and line graphs to show vibration trends. The visual approach makes it much easier for AMRC to see how experiments are progressing right now, and to analyse performance after the fact. Understanding machine utilisation in real-time and historically helps with resource planning and management. Making data available to everyone who needs it, whenever they need it, helps to increase productivity.

If you'd like to talk about how we can help digitalise your shop floor, get in touch for a chat. Let us help you bin the paper, so you too can unleash the potential of the smart factory.

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