Technologies to reduce production costs

Sept. 11, 2005
How manufacturers can make themselves more competitive by setting up quality systems, investing in R&D, and designing products with manufacturing in mind.

The day of the dedicated machine is dead. Shops must be lean, flexible, do more with less, and design for manufacturability. To do these, average manufacturers are shifting to lean manufacturing or Six Sigma principles, exploiting the advantages of R&D, putting spot solutions in place, and last, implementing productlifecycle management.

"Technology is U.S. manufacturing's ace-in-the-hole to boost productivity and compete globally. "

Jim Dallum, Cincinnati Lamb

Lean manufacturing
According to William Parr, professor in the Lean Enterprise System Design Institute and faculty director of the Greenwood Lean Enterprise Center at the University of Tennessee, lean manufacturing is a powerful tool that helps shops both large and small slash leadtimes and eliminate waste.

He says, "Most manufacturing processes are like riding on an airplane. Passengers usually are in the air moving toward their destination only about 20% to 25% of the time. Similarly, product is typically not moving toward getting ready for sale — it's waiting in a batch somewhere. With lean, companies reduce batch sizes, cutting the time parts are lying around waiting to be worked on. In fact, cutting leadtime by 1/2 is not unusual."

In the traditional manufacturing system, central planners send out memos that dictate which raw parts go where. They also send out work orders, describing what is to be built at the assembly and fabrication stations. Parr explains, "If the plan is perfect, with no variation, things are fine. What happens more often, though, is a lot of costly waste because there is always variation."

Lean, in contrast, operates using a "pull" system based on JIT delivery, in which parts are made and delivered only as needed.

Parr says, "Traditional push systems continue to grow inventory until shops go broke. Or until executives send out memos declaring an inventory-cutting binge for the next three months. I've seen this happen a lot in American industry. But pull systems inherently have low inventory because they put a bound on it."

Software that optimizes product design
Companies can slash costs by improving the design process at its beginning. Design for manufacturing and assembly (DFMA) software includes a design-formanufacture module, with which engineers obtain early cost estimates on parts or products, and a design-for-assembly module, which they employ to determine the best methods to manufacture products.

Engineers use the software where a design idea might still be scribbled on a napkin. Or, they use it to re-examine fully finished products to ensure design efficiency. For example, engineers take a part's geometry and determine whether the part should be made from a casting, or be machined, or injection-molded. During this process, the software draws from its large database, containing thousands of manufacturing processes, materials, and machinery, which was developed over many years in conjunction with companies such as GM and Ford.

"In lean manufacturing systems, the upstream process is triggered by downstream consumption."

William Parr, professor in the Lean Enterprise System Design Institute and faculty director of the Greenwood Lean Enterprise Center at the University of Tennessee

Engineers also evaluate each assembly's function and the relationship between parts. They simplify and streamline designs repeatedly until achieving a minimum per/piece cost. For example, in one application, engineers slashed labor time by streamlining a product design to eliminate assembly screws.

Miles Parker, president of the Parker Group, Providence, R.I., says design houses can use software to design products efficiently and thus beat-out OEM design departments that may have more resources.

He says, "Too many companies outsource overseas based on comparative assembly rates, without looking at overall organizational costs. Companies doing innovative design and removing assembly labor don't have to go overseas to be competitive." He explains many Tier-ones and Tier-twos currently use the software but even small companies can compete if they make great designs.

In the past, design engineers designed a product and then gave it to the manufacturing engineers. Often, the product could not be manufactured easily or sometimes it couldn't be made at all. Parker continues, "DFMA solves these problems because designers use it in conjunction with service, quality, and production."

Smart machines
The Smart Machine Pilot Project is a collaborative R&D project run by the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS), Ann Arbor, Mich. The project helps the U.S. military depot system improve its productivity and reduce per/piece costs. One site, the Red River Army Depot (RRAD), in Texarkana, Tex., needed help with outdated machinery that molds rubber onto the links for tracked vehicles. For one, the depots couldn't handle increased demand due to the war in Iraq.

During this project, engineers equipped facility machines with sensors and provided an electronic log to automatically capture data on each machine's performance and health. In the next phase, engineers will use this data to develop prognostics algorithms for a predictive maintenance system.

Project partners include the depots, NCMS, and several companies such as Advanced Technology Services Inc. (ATS), Peoria, Ill., and Cincinnati Lamb, Hebron, Ky.

"Collaborative R&D projects such as the Smart Machine Pilot Project enable technology suppliers and users to work together for mutual benefit."

Jim Dallum, Cincinnati Lamb

Automatic probing and inspection
According to Steve Logee, director of business development, Wilcox Associates Inc., Elgin, Ill., connecting design to downstream operations optimally involves electronically integrating inspection plans with CAD files. The improved inspectionprocess accuracy and efficiency supports lean manufacturing , thereby lowering programming labor and cutting costs

"Our Enterprise Metrology Solutions (EMS) system works in much the same way as Microsoft Office. Components feature a similar look and feel and share data and inspection reports among themselves. Thus, the system is suitable for Mom-and-Pop shops up to GMs and Fords," explains Logee.

He believes a truly universal metrology system must work on more than just a few types of measurement machines and with more than one kind of probe. And systems must be dynamic, changing in concert with new developments in manufacturing and metrology. Wilcox's system works with a variety of CMMs and a range of touch trigger and non-contact probes. For larger parts, it also works for CNC machines, vision systems, and articulated arms.

With the software, design engineers develop-and embed electronic inspection plans within the CAD model. They then use this to generate a part-inspection program. The software creates probe paths among each feature, optimizing these paths.

Logee explains since there is an important link between design intent and manufacturability, it's most logical to develop an inspection plan in the CAD system. This helps engineers who, though familiar with CAD systems they use daily, typically know less about measurement and inspection software programs. Also the link eliminates manufacturing errors resulting from design modifications not being communicated to production or the quality department.

These capabilities help automate inspection. The sooner critical information is electronically encoded, the sooner manual operations such as point-and click programming is automated. This frees operators from manually inputting motion or measurement commands or information from paper blueprints into inspection routines.

The system also captures data collected from probes and stores it on a database for archiving, statistical analysis, and graphical reporting. Personnel can view the data throughout a plant, organization, or supply chain via an intranet or the Internet. "EMS helps companies cut production costs by closing the loop between design, manufacturing, and measurement."

According to Chuck Birkle, vice president marketing, Mazak Corp., multitasking is a manufacturing technique involving multiple processes such as milling, turning, drilling, tapping, hobbing, and polishing, which performs as many of these processes in as few handlings or setups as possible.

Birkle says multitasking fits a wide variety of industries such as aerospace, medical, tooling, and lower-volume automotive applications, but it is not a solution for a niche industry. He adds it is best-suited for complex workpieces with a multitude of features and geometries.

Birkle believes multitasking gives the average manufacturer a lean weapon to use. "In the purest sense, lean is the reduction of waste. Whenever companies can do more operations with fewer machines, for example, they are exploiting lean principles of having fewer fixtures and tools and reducing part movement, floor space, and energy consumption," he explains.

For a typical five or ten-man shop, Birkle says, " Performing value-stream mapping of a workpiece shows it enters the facility, gets a saw cut-off operation, then sits on a bench to wait for a particular machine. The part goes all over the shop, being touched and handled — it's hard to add value to a workpiece that way."

However, because average shops today don't have the large volume runs shops used to have, a better measure is setup reduction. Shops should shift their focus away from cycle time to processing time.

He continues, "A good question is why do some shops make money on ten-lot runs and some shops don't? Because profitable shops get into and out-of the short-cycle, low-volume-run jobs more efficiently. Their lot sizes are smaller and they ship more frequently, thus getting parts out faster and keeping their customers happy."

Cutting and drilling
John Israelsson, a vice president at Sandvik Coromant Co., Fairlawn, N.J., says one way for shops to cut production costs is to increase the output of their existing equipment. They can do this by increasing their cutting data or re-engineering processes to get shorter cycle time.

Israelsson says, "Shops mistakenly think they save money by buying less expensive tools or equipment. But that is peanuts. The money is in output. So, shops must use technology to more quickly make the same parts. Technology lies both with the machine tool and the competence and skills of the people applying the technology."

He explains Sandvik does R&D both in tools and in how parts are machined. One example of a creative application that forced the company to come up with a new cutting technology was with machining aerospace materials, slow to machine because of the difficult materials used such as Inconel.

"We redesigned the nose radius and wiper on an insert, letting shops increase feeds by 100%. We couldn't use standard wiper technology because of the increased tool pressure," he comments.

"Lights out" and robotic automation
According to Dick Johnson, general manager material handling, Fanuc Robotics America, Rochester Hills, Mich., " lightsout" implies fully automated manufacturing that runs 24/7 with no direct labor and limited indirect labor.

Johnson explains currently there aren't many true lights-out facilities in the U.S. "One limitation has been the ability of robots to find loose parts. Traditionally, shops fixture parts for robots. However, unless the parts require machining, fixtures are too expensive just for handling purposes."

Fanuc Robotics currently offers vision systems that tackle this problem. One is a 2D system for parts that sit flat. Others use 3D sensing technology to deal with parts randomly jumbled in bins.

He continues, "A second limitation has been floorspace. Most of the time, companies have bins of parts, which forklift drivers pick up and then take to a different area of the plant. Shops need robots that can span large areas." Some companies have addressed this problem with floor or linear tracks to extend the robots' reach. Some use special overhead mounts.

The last limitation has been in programming. However, recent PC-based software allows offline simulation of robotic work cells and performs robotic language programming.

Johnson believes that now the tools are in place, more facilities should exploit lights-out manufacturing, or at the least, robotic automation. For example, one small manufacturer didn't believe it could afford robots. It bought one and now has over 150 doing machine tending and arc welding. "The company was surprised how easy the robots were to program and how easily they integrated into its factory," reports Johnson.

"Average manufacturers using point technology should start checking into their data architecture and begin thinking about how to leverage the various kinds of data they have."

Tim Egloff, UGS Tecnomatix

Product lifecycle management

According to Tim Egloff , program manager for UGS Tecnomatix Business Strategy and Marketing, Plano, Tex., there are technologies that give benefit in spot solutions. But he believes companies wanting to slash production costs must first implement digital manufacturing, which, in turn, must be part of a broader strategy that product lifecycle management (PLM) provides.

He says, "Today's world is all about information and the important useful things gleaned from it. For instance, an industrial engineer has his throughput, bottleneck, and ergonomics data. And, the quality engineer and the process-planner have other silos of data."

Using PLM software lets companies, as UGS says, "close the loop. Such shops capture as-built data off the floor and bring it back into the product lifecycle." Egloff continues, "This is mandated by the government in aerospace applications." He also believes it won't be long before safety-data collection on vehicles will be required.

Egloff claims, "Average manufacturers using point technology should start checking into their data architecture and begin thinking about how to leverage the various kinds of data they have. It's a lot easier when the executive-leadership has a product-lifecycle-management focus. Companies not using this strategy will be soon left behind."

Designing successful systems

End user MDS SCIEX, Concord, Ont., makes mass spectrometers for the biomedical and elemental markets. The company uses DFMA in product development.

George Valaitis, manager mechanical engineering, says, "Most design engineers are quite capable, but they don't always think in terms of the overall system. I'm working with our new champion to implement DFX, with the "X" meaning design for manufacturing, service, tests, and product end-of-life."

Valaitis explains, "When starting a new development program, engineers use a checklist to first address systemlevel issues such as what subsystems are included and how often they must be serviced. This forms a framework from which you drill-down into the subsystems." This process helps the company avoid making parts that, once they get tucked away in the instrument, become inaccessible for service by the end user.

He reports the software drives the shop down to the optimum number of parts and fasteners — the level best for the shop's manufacturing processes and fabrication vendors.

According to Valaitis, the company produces about 1,500 systems a year at an average price of $350,000 U.S. dollars. Each machine takes about 100 hr to build. Thus, the labor component of $75/hr is still a small percentage of the overall product cost.

Cost of labor is low

One reason given for outsourcing is to cut labor costs. However, according to a 2004 study by Boothroyd Dewhurst Inc. and David Meeker, a consultant with Neoteric Product Development, labor is typically only 4% of a part's cost.

And Boothroyd Dewhurst's white paper, "How to use Design for Manufacture and Assembly to Slash Manufacturing Overhead, Make Products Competitive, and Bring New Efficiencies to the Manufacturing Process" states outsourcing has hidden costs that companies should consider. These include communication problems, cultural differences, quality issues, shipping costs, and patent infringements.

Toward diagnostics

ATS, which grew out of Caterpillar, performs productionmaintenance operations for its customers. The company, about 20-yr old, is growing rapidly. Brad McCully, product manager, explains, "Companies are increasingly starting to outsource maintenance because of challenges with the technology and difficulty finding quality people. When equipment performs badly, employees are standing around, not working, and material gets scrapped. A good plan drives these costs out of a business."

He says the Department of Defense can't offshore work, so the agency is aggressive in finding new ways to slash costs, provide maintenance, and make factories run better.

With the Smart project, engineers applied wireless temperature sensors on RRAD machines to monitor the rubber vulcanizing process. This data was combined with other inputs in real time. Early results flagged variations in steam heating at off-hours that previously were not known.

The same approach can be applied to other production assets to monitor if spindles are running, transfer lines are moving, and switches are made. A server collects the data and over time builds a pattern of inputs. These patterns are in graph form. Eventually, the system will be predictive, using pattern recognition to flag a maintenance problem's beginning. McCully says the lessons learned through such collaborations speed up making these technologies commercially available, probably in 2006. He adds future systems will allow for self-correcting machines.

Technology is the ace card

Jim Dallam, product development manager at Cincinnati Lamb, says, "Over the years, different groups, including the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), organized industry workshops to brainstorm ideas on what American manufacturing needs to be competitive. The smart machine idea came from such sessions."

He says, "The project is R&D, but with a small R and a big D. It's not pure research science — a big chunk includes making the promising idea practical in the real world. Solutions must be robust, reliable, and simple to use on the shop floor. Other real-world issues include most organizations are resistant to change. Collaborative projects such as this enable technology suppliers and users to work together for mutual benefit.

Early-implementers gain experience and get a leg-up. And manufacturers will also eventually benefit as these promising technologies become accepted.

He notes the 'right solution' is different based on the volume/variety mix for different types of manufacturing. At one end of the spectrum are continuous process industries such as petrochemical where complex sensor technologies have been practical for years. At these sites, sensors monitor critical, high-value pump and compressor installations that often run a consistent process 24/7. Trends and out-of-bound conditions are relatively easy to identify and correct in these cases.

Discrete-part manufacturing is at the other end of the spectrum. The duty cycle of a machine tool spindle is typically not steady state. It varies up and down as different cutting tools are applied using different process speeds and feeds in different workpiece materials in a complex mix of small lot-size production. In this case, it's not so easy to apply sensors and get simple answers. Typical shops may have many machines of different vintage from different manufacturers.

Cincinnati Lamb used its special software/hardware product in the project. In a typical installation, all interfaced machines, assets, and operations automatically populate a database tied to an on-site web-server. The result is a 24/7 continuous electronic log of detailed production performance with summary reports. Reports are available on-demand as Web pages on networked PCs inside the building, or from remote locations with secure access into the site network. Dallum says, "This setup provides better information for better management. It enables operating, process, and maintenance personnel to make objective corrective actions based on shared data."

He believes shops stay competitive today through continuous improvements that slash product-development times and provide more products on a shorter lead-time in smaller batches. These emerging smart machine technologies serve to provide the right information, to the right individual, at the right time, better, faster, and at less cost. Technology is our ace card in the U.S.A," states Dallum.

Keeping work in the U.S.

Chuck Birkle, vice president marketing, Mazak Corp., Florence, Ky., believes that for complex parts, multitasking can help keep work in the U.S. For example a jet engine case is a prime candidate for multitasking. For one, it's expensive to ship a big hunk billet of titanium over to the Far East and back. And two, a jet engine case has heavy datum-dependencies that probably will demand skills that the Chinese may not yet have. He adds there are also intellectual-property issues.

Advice on multitasking

Task Force Tips, Valparaiso, Ind., provides nozzles, valves, adapters, and foam-application and injection equipment for wildland fire-suppression operations. The shop machines in lots from 50 up to about 5,000 and changes three setups a day on every machine, on average.

According to Stuart McMillan, president, the company is an end-product manufacturer, not a jobshop. In jobshops, he says, the challenge is getting programs running quickly versus running them efficiently.

"Jobshops can always improve if they get a bigger order, but the first time they make the part, they must get it done quickly. They don't really care if it takes an extra hour," he says.

On the other hand, he explains, "We know we will make multiple parts for multiple years because the company already has a proven market. For companies such as ours, multitasking makes a lot of sense."

McMillan continues, "I think the most important advice for shops looking to purchase multitasking equipment is don't bypass features like B-axis capability, helical milling, helical milling on subspindles, extra turrets, and toolchanging tool-hives just because they cost extra."

He explains over the life of a machine, this cost translates to only a few dollars a month. And purchasing machines with every feature gives company engineers tools to design products that are easier to assemble and function better, at a lower cost.

He continues, "Out of our 16 machines, we have nine of them robotically loaded and running automatically. We no longer purchase equipment without automatic loading."

McMillan notes multitasking machines don't replace labor. "I haven't seen a machine yet plug itself in and start making parts. Multitasking machines eliminate drudgery, manual labor, and human variability. Our employees are now valuable workers and because I have fewer of them, I can pay them more, and the company is still ahead," he reports.