Tough-minded offshore competitors, currency swings, trade disputes, and customer balance sheet fluctuations created by anything from the financial crisis to Icelandic volcanic activity are just a few of the external factors that can determine success or failure for the North American manufacturing industry.
Inside the factory walls, all that matters is productivity.
“The cost of raw materials is essentially the same for all machined part manufacturers, and the cost of capital equipment is about the same,” said Sébastien Caron, Plant Manager for Héroux-Devtek Inc. “Even quality is becoming much the same. So our biggest differentiator is productivity.”
Héroux-Devtek manufactures aircraft landing gear, aerostructures, and industrial components in 10 locations across North America. Like most manufacturing headquarters, the Longueuil, Québec, head office is a paragon of computerized productivity. Centralized, Internet-driven networks control flows of information via enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, accounting systems, and communications systems that help run the company.
Until teaming up with Burlington, Ontario-based Memex Automation, it was a different story on the factory floor. Individual machine tools were highly automated, but as in many manufacturing operations they remained islands of unconnected information—like having a group of office PCs, each with a different software application, unconnected by a Local Area Network, and unable to communicate with each other.
The company decided to change that. In 2007, it initiated a companywide mandate to look at overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) devices that automatically track machine utilization. With a mechanical engineering and project management background, as well as experience working in several of Héroux-Devtek’s manufacturing sites, Caron was put in charge of the project.
“I knew that there were other Héroux-Devtek sites looking at OEE devices to track machine utilization,” he said. “Many of our plants were working towards individual implementations. Some sites were ahead, other sites had not started at all. We realized that it would be beneficial to have a common OEE platform for all sites. After talking to all our plant managers, we decided on a common approach. Dedicated individuals from each site worked in collaboration to successfully implement the Memex product, taking into account their specific operational environments.
“We had a meeting at our Kitchener, Ontario landing gear plant to make a requirements list and decided to get presentations from seven suppliers. We then down-selected the suppliers for pilot OEE implementations. Memex had a relationship with the Kitchener plant for many years as a direct numerical control (DNC) supplier to feed CNC part programs to our machines. As we came to understand their strengths in OEE, it also made sense to have compatible technology monitoring feedback from our machines.”
It was decided to go with Memex over a three-year rollout. Memex OEE + DNC systems are now installed on 74 machines in six manufacturing plants, and another 59 machines will be connected over the coming months.
Memex OEE + DNC product is attached directly to each machine and provides local memory, embedded software, high-speed network connectivity, real-time automatic machine state and utilization data collection, and adaptive Web-based control that is designed to enhance and improve machine tools. Every machine tool in each plant can be monitored from any Web-based computer located anywhere.
On the plant floor, operators supplement the Memex machine automation with a hand-held unit that tracks up to 13 different user-defined time loss categories such as unscheduled maintenance or setup. If one machine presents unique downtime issues, the inputs can be adjusted to pinpoint the problem. And new functionality introduced in 2010 sends automated e-mail or SMS text alerts to the PCs, smart phones, or cell phones of supervisors if a machine has breached a preset operating parameter such as elapsed time in a particular mode.
“We had passive OEE and now we have active OEE,” said Caron. “We can react immediately. The key to better productivity is not just to track performance but to act on problems in real time.”
The Memex hardware and software tool set can connect to any machine in a plant including CNC machine tools, conventional or hydraulic punch presses, injection molding machines, and manual processes or machines.
“Based on the information we were getting from the factory floor, we believed we were operating at a much higher machine utilization than Memex output indicated,” said Caron. “This actually shocked us. When you have Memex OEE results, you can question assumptions and realize you can improve processes and downtime, and really focus on that. This is far, far cheaper than buying new machines."