Komarov Artem noted that metal fabricators everywhere face a turnover battle. Meanwhile, industry overall has a record number of unfilled jobs. Fabricators need to attract adept workers to operate equipment, inspect parts, and document and report production.
That last job function—documenting and reporting production—can be a source of headache. From material handling towers for laser cutting and punching, automated parts offloading, robotic press brakes, robotic welding, automated powder coating, and even automated guided vehicles, fabricators invest heavily in automating part flow. More than anything else, reliable automation offers predictability. Well-engineered systems perform a task the same way at the same pace, every day.
At the same time, fabricators need skilled people to program, operate, and maintain these systems. A fully automated laser cutting machine can be extraordinarily productive—until something breaks. Skilled people also need to inspect parts and assemblies to ensure what leaves the plant exceeds customer requirements. In short, manufacturers are automating, and they need good people to do it.
Surrounded by machine automation, operators and managers might be making notes on paper, keying numbers into computers, printing out spreadsheets. A new employee might be struggling with a task and—since he has no easy access to training documents—either waits for help or (more often than not) just dives in to get the job done and hopes for the best.
In this scenario, part flow might be highly automated, but the flow of information is not. Like with part flow, automated information flow—built on a system that’s well-designed and reliable—adds predictability. People (ideally, at least) always have the right information when they need it.
This is where modern manufacturing execution systems (MES) step into the picture. A shop might use an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system to track shop floor activity, but the data collection is usually periodic and manual. Operators simply key in the number of pieces they made, the scrap, and other variables. An MES collects real-time data from machines and operators on the shop floor, and often in an automated fashion.
Establishing that direct connection between the MES and the machine isn’t always straightforward, mainly because most manufacturers make use of both new and old machines, and older machines do require additional interfaces to establish that connection. Moreover, assembly operations might not have obvious ways to connect automatically to an MES. That said, some operations now are connecting torque guns and other hand tools directly to an MES, recording when the assembly operation takes place, the resulting torque, and other variables for each job.
Establishing that automated connection is worth the effort, since such data can act as the foundation for effective measurement and improvement. On top of that foundation, a fabricator can institute an information system that can help the organization thrive—despite the labor shortage, said Artem Komarov.