Smart Industry EN

Most modern-day metalworking companies are already – to a certain amount – digitalized. By that we mean: software like Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), Computer-Aided Machining (CAM) software, and in some cases Computer-Aided Design Software (CAD).

However, what they are struggling with after reaching the first steps, is to fuse the bits and parts of their digital company into one smart connected factory and get to the most important realization: that a digital factory starts with the work-intake. 

The simple reason behind a streamlined work intake: is the following: you invested in a smart factory to be able to provide higher product quality, a shorter throughput time, and competitive pricing. 

Well, these things don’t only depend on the capacity of your machines, but most of the process from receiving the order, to the start of production. 

What you’ll find out in this article is that the success of your smart factory will depend on the quality of your work preparation and commercial processes. 

As a technically interested business owner/manager you might have the following questions:

  • How can we improve our delivery reliability
  • How can we increase our recurring revenue?
  • What software should we when use to increase our work quality?

The landscape of the metalworking industry has changed

For the last decades, as a metalworking business, you could buy a machine and perhaps use the software that came with it. As a result, we see modern machines in most factories. 

What is interesting to see is that the work preparation and sales processes haven’t been updated in a long time. The way how is being worked at the office is commonly still very pragmatic involving lots of tedious and manual activities. 

The customer needs have changed though. Because of globalization, the internet and more educated customers just having more capacity on the machines don’t guarantee more business to be done. 

The primary reason for ordering locally is now the delivery speed and the quality of the service. And this service doesn’t only come from the shop floor. 

Because speed is what matters now, buying the next machine is just simply not enough anymore. It’s now about the time in the office that makes all the difference. 

Unfortunately, most manufacturing companies are still focused on the newest and fastest machines but forget that a true industry 4.0 mindset is about connectivity. 

I call this the “Faster horse syndrome”.

What has to be done is providing customers with a faster, more reliable, and especially flexible service? 

This can only be achieved through a good strategy and corresponding processes. 

A process needs to be supported by the software. And having a fully automated process for the entire flow from order to delivery proves to be challenging for most metalworking businesses. 

This is because they haven’t made the shift in thinking: a smart factory of the future is now a software-based business.

It’s crucial to understand this shift:

A smart factory does not win from the competition by buying more machines but rather by having an integrated process from start to finish. Only at that stage, it becomes interesting to add smarter and faster machines to the business.

A fast machine is not adding much value if it does not integrate well with the rest of the process, since it will most likely be standing still all the time anyway. 

That’s why we need to stop looking for ‘faster horses’ and look for a more effective approach: an integrated whole.

How do achieve an integrated factory, you ask? That’s by strategic design.  

A digital factory strategy for success

Every smart factory uses different software systems which have overlying capabilities. 

I’ve found out that for every factory, no matter its size, or the machines and software they are using, the goal is to develop an integrated factory, based on the following components:

  • Automated work preparation software, such as Computer-Aided Machining (CAM) and compatible quotation software. 
  • A centralized database of all business data, such as Enterprise resource planning (ERP)
  • Machine data management, including job orders. For example by Manufacturing Execution Software (MES)
  • Machines with digital control standards (SCADA – OPC-UA)

Let’s have a look at how this works in practice.

The holy grail of a digital factory

The work intake process:

The factory is working completely paperless from the start. Not even emails are necessary anymore. All work comes in through the cloud, through self-service portals, or supply chain integration software. 

Quotations and time estimations are created by formulas and algorithms. Resulting in consistent and reliable pricing. Also, through an automated intake, the risks of mistakes are drastically reduced. 

The production process:

The central ERP system is taking care of the entire operational process, product management, and finances. The CAM software is simulating production before work is started, to make sure everything is manufacturable. 

All programs are centrally stored and connected to the product data. They are organized by unique codes so that they can be easily re-used on repeat orders and for analytics of the product performance. 

On the shop floor, everything is paperless too. Machines log productivity into the MES system. Including production times, material usages, and exceptions. 

Automatic and daily quality controls or work instructions are centrally and automatically executed. Employees work with computer terminals and maybe even mobile devices. 

All in all, all data flows through the organization digitally. 

But where do we begin to achieve this? 

Start your digital factory at the intake

If you are still working with Excel or paper to make quotations, the first and foremost priority should be to get a proper insight into how calculations are being made.

In general, most mistakes that happen in production can be traced back to faulty processes at the work intake and can be prevented with digital calculation software. This varies from having wrong pricing estimations, production times, or even registering special customer demands.

The first shift any factory should make is to register as much information in the commercial process as possible. In this way, the data can be used later down the line.

If multiple people calculate the same product the price should always be the same. The only way to truly achieve such a reliable system is by automating it.

In my opinion, the foremost priority for any SMB should be to have a fully configured modern calculation software that supports 3D models of both parts and entire assemblies, ideally with all working steps that are available in the business.

If companies have achieved a streamlined order process, only then it makes sense to invest in further automation downstream. Before that, I think there a huge opportunity for businesses that will thrive with their work preparation and commercial processes.