SME: Get lean, get automation, get help

Get educated, get help, get lean, and then apply automation and robotics where it makes sense to do so. These were among recommendations at the best practices and ideas session at the 2008 SME Annual Meeting, May 31-June 3, in Detroit. Advice to attendees and Control Engineering readers includes....


Detroit, MI – Get educated, get help, get lean, and then apply automation and robotics where it makes sense to do so. These were among recommendations shared with about 50 attendees to a June 1, 2008, best practices and ideas session at “A Passion for Manufacturing, 2008 SME Annual Meeting &Interactive Unconference,” May 31-June 3, in Detroit. Advice presented at the Society of Manufacturing Engineers
After lean initiatives, manufacturers should reapply the latest in automation and robotics , said Automated Manufacturing & Assembly technical community leader, Raul Fernandez, Ph.D., in a conversation with Control Engineering after the session. Doing so can be tricky, he suggested, as automation means different to different people. SME technical communities (identified below) help membership focus on specific areas of interest, said Fernandez, with Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center (TMAC) at Automation & Robotics Research Institute, University of Texas at Arlington (Fort Worth, TX).

Raul Fernandez, Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center, told Control Engineering at the SME Annual Meeting that smart applications of automation and robotics should follow lean initiatives.

“We’re looking at automated manufacturing, robotics, part identification and traceability, simulation technologies, and electronics assembly issues,” Fernandez said. Automation cuts across manufacturing and product development in many ways, Fernandez suggested, including through robotics and radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. Among challenges is to help manufacturers understand what the new generation of robotics brings, such as many more degrees of freedom through workspace sharing with other robots and people, intrinsic safety, manufacturing integration, and digital manufacturing, which moves CAD models to shop floor manufacturing without intermediate steps.

“Automation is what’s next after lean concepts have been applied. Expect re-emerging interest in the right applications of automation,” Fernandez said. Redesigns should be made with right-sized automation technologies in mind, rather than through blanket applications of technologies, he noted. Hot spots include better hardware for robotics, more design simulation to save time and cost, and careful examination of areas, such as low tool pressure applications, where robotics can compete more effectively than computer numerical control (CNC) machining.
“Robotic cells are more configurable and flexible and can be easier to integrate than machine tools,” he said.
There also are architectural questions of controller convergence: motion control, robotic control, programmable logic controllers (PLCs), and programmable automation controllers (PACs). Even simple pressure gauge readouts have embedded logic that could allow them to function as a simple controller with their own Internet address, he said.
TMAC advises small- and medium-sized manufacturers in the adoption of new automation technologies, including where and where and how it makes sense to use automation. He spends time explaining away “a lot of preconceived ideas about the expense and complexity of automated equipment and robotics,” with misconceptions about what’s available today and how effectively it can be deployed. “When we slay those dragons, there will be more applications of effective automated solutions,” he said.
One example is helping people understand that mean time between failures (MTBF) can be better with robotics than with certain machine tools and systems that are pieced together. Generally if integration of more than two axes is involved, then a robot usually is a better value, in total cost of ownership, because of software, simplicity, maintainability, MTBF, wiring, and system integration of controller and feedback of devices, Fernandez said.
Use controls as the key differentiator in making operations more effective , especially in converting from part information to process information more effectively, said Dennis S. Bray, president and CEO, Cincinnati Inc., builder of machine tools for the metal fabrication industry, in comments to Control Engineering . Bray’s company is involved in one of the additive manufacturing technologies, metal powder compacting. Parts that can be produced with additive manufacturing processes are becoming more complicated as ability to control the process becomes more sophisticated. When a part is squeezed into existence, the compacting and decompressing movement can cause cracking and scrap if not carefully controlled, Bray explained. Precision movement of more than a dozen axes of motion compacts the part then releases pressure so as not to crack the part. “We’re producing highly complex parts as speeds of 10 to 30 parts per minute, which would be very costly to do by traditional machining techniques. Automation helps makes the pressure of faster lead times and lower batch sizes possible,” he suggested.
Work with your local Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP). MEPs offer help, said Bonnie Knopf, representing SME Grand Rapids (MI) Chapter No. 38, Ferris State University SME Student Chapter S129, and Grand Valley State University SME Student Chapter S283. Knopf, a hand-on owner of an injection molding business, Intrepid Plastics , said the MEPs saved manufacturers an estimated $1.3 billion in costs over the past year, and added to top line growth, and improved processes, supply chain growth, and business operations.
“When you own a business,” Knopf said, “you often have to do a bit of everything. I still have hydraulic oil under my nails from yesterday, so resources like these really help.”
An unidentified audience member reinforced the idea of information sharing at his local meetings. “We had a speaker that did our group a lot of good, started off by saying something like,‘We’re not that lean and not that green, but we’ve been working at it for three or four years and can share some insights.’ ” By a show of hands, less than half the audience knew about the MEP program.  
Seek ways to augment U.S. manufacturing competitiveness. Watch the “Ecospeed F HT” video on YouTube as titanium. Virtual manufacturing helps parts progress faster from design to creation. 
Take advantage of educational opportunities . For instance, SME Detroit No. 1 Chapter is organizing a bus trip, roundtrip Detroit to Chicago, for one day of IMTS 2008 , on Sept. 11, 2008, $100 or $50 for students including admission, breakfast and a return sandwich. For information, contact Rick Hagfors.
Cultivate an entrepreneurial mindset and use existing concepts in new ways (such as adapting the hook on cockleburs to invent Velcro), said Paul Nutter, associate professor at Ohio Northern University , Department of Technological Studies, who also chaired the session.
Meet locally with SME technical communities , organized by topic.

SME Toronto Chapter 26 explained on this award-winning poster board and in person how to increase local SME involvement.

These are automated manufacturing and assembly, forming and fabricating, industrial laser, machining and material removal, manufacturing education and research, plastics, composites and coating, product and process design and management, rapid technologies and additive manufacturing. When there are multiple chapters within one area, consider meeting by topics based on technical areas of interest every two weeks, rather than by chapter monthly, explained Mike Burnstein, president and CEO, TIPE Inc., Los Angeles, CA. Burnstein is involved with CASA, the Computer and Automated Systems Association, which merged with SME.
Increase local SME involvement, said Ken Shaw, SME Toronto Chapter 26 vice chair. That group won recognition for a poster-board presentation on what can be done to increase membership. Strategies include: Tout the professional networking aspect of local meetings, gather feedback and use it, do a newsletter, invite non-members to meetings and collect email addresses and invite them back, hold meetings in convenient locations (like an airport hotel rather than downtown), for correspondence use a generic title rather than name and an SME domain, and let people access information as easily as possible.

–  Mark T. Hoske , editor in chief
Control Engineering News Desk
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