Metal fabricators get on the same page, with software

How software manages information flow in manufacturing

The FABRICATOR April 2013
April 19, 2013
By: Tim Heston

Conductix-Wampfler, Omaha, Neb., developed software that integrates information from CAD, product data management, ERP, and customer relationship management. Built on the company's success, the software is now available for others interested in ensuring everyone in the business is on the same page.

Metal fabricators get on the same page, with software -

This web-based application ties together information from product data management, enterprise resource planning, and customer relationship management. Image courtesy of n.cequence.

Conductix-Wampfler epitomizes diversification. The manufacturer makes everything from cable-reels that could fit in the back of a small pickup to products the size of a bedroom. Projects vary from the relatively standardized to the fully customizable. Workers shepherd one-off orders as well as projects requiring several thousand parts. Capacity levels change with demand. Engineering change orders abound. The company has in-house fabrication capabilities that it relies on for one-off or low-volume work, and then outsources higher-volume orders to contract fabricators.

Its 70,000-square-foot Omaha, Neb., plant focuses on lower-volume work, while its 110,000-square-foot plant in Harlan, Iowa, produces higher volume products like conductor bars, small spring reels, push-button pendants, and radio remote controls. Managers may send projects to either facility, depending on capacity levels on the floor and demand levels from customers. The company is a global organization, and demand could be coming from anywhere in the world.

Diversification breeds complexity, and Conductix has plenty of both. The company must deal with thousands of parts, each of which has its own solid model with myriad layers of information underneath. Years ago such information had to be manually exported to the company’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. To view the current state of affairs from the road, executives had to log on to a virtual personal network (VPN) and click laboriously (thanks to sluggish connections and network congestion) between different screens.

About a dozen years ago, though, the situation changed. Now anyone with the right access can log on to a web app and view current orders, quote histories, plant capacity levels, all on one screen. Most important: “The information is entered once, and no one has to enter it in again,” said Kyle Kraudy, the company’s Omaha-based director of engineering, Americas.

Such is the Holy Grail in an age of information overload. Manufacturers are swimming in data. Sure, the modern fabricator has machine tools that don’t require hard tooling. Want to cut a new sheet metal profile with a laser? Just change the program. Still, the machine can’t make the right part if it’s not given correct information. Efficient flow of information, from the customer to design and engineering to the shop floor, has never been more important.

The Birth of Alphabet Soup

Over the years CAD models have grown complex. They’ve become three dimensional, with myriad layers of embedded data. A technician may convert a sold model into a sheet metal model that includes specific material grade, thickness, bend radii, and reliefs for welding. Some CAD packages automate the sheet metal conversion. Does a fabricator have the tooling and machines available to perform this specific bend radius in this location on the part? Such information now can be baked in to the CAD model.

All this information spurred the need for software systems like product data management (PDM). The CAD model now encapsulates so much information, PDM acts as the traffic cop of sorts, ensuring one small change doesn’t snowball into an avalanche of trouble somewhere else.

“PDM helps police your files and police the interactions,” said Craig Therrien, a Boston-based product manager for SolidWorks. “It’s like a library card. Who owns and has rights to make changes to the model right now? PDM also knows all the relationships up and down the chain. So if you want to know where the model is used, it can show you all the related assemblies and all the elements downstream that depend on this model.”

If ERP is the river of information flow—tying in the tributaries of accounting and other front-office functions with manufacturing, shipping, and supply chain management—and if PDM manages the currents, then the CAD model is the headwater. Coveted and protected, solid models drive everything in modern manufacturing. But a river can run dry without rain—that is, customers—and this is where customer relationship management (CRM) fits into the puzzle. CRM shows not just customer contact information, but also order history, previous quotes. It’s a record of all previous contacts with the customer.

Kraudy explained Conductix’s situation. “Previously, our PDM system housed all of our CAD data and engineering files.” This included information about those files—the description, the weight, the bill of material, part numbers, and order quantity. “That information was duplicated in our ERP system. Basically, all that data that was in our PDM system we were putting manually into our ERP platform,” Kraudy said. With engineers working on several new designs every week, all these manual data dumps added up.

Metal fabricators get on the same page, with software -

It all starts with the model. Here, a fabricator uses the costing function in CAD. Images courtesy of Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks Corp.

Things changed thanks to a project launched in 1997. That’s when the company’s IT department developed a web-based system called Navpoint. Initially a quality system, Navpoint eventually morphed into an enterprise platform that not only included quality, but also CRM and PDM.

Currently in its fourth incarnation, Navpoint creates a real-time window to sales, engineering, scheduling, and operations. It ties together several software platforms, including SolidWorks® Enterprise PDM, ERP, and a CRM system. It even ties in work flows for new product development.

Say an engineering change order (ECO) comes up. When the ECO is approved, engineering data from the enterprise PDM system is pushed automatically to the ERP system. The Navpoint ECO functionality essentially acts as a trigger for that data push.

Today a salesperson need not log in to a VPN to access the company’s ERP system, go to one screen to access production capacity information, then another screen to access quote and job histories. It’s all there on one web-based dashboard.

“We’re controlling the information flow of [design] revisions,” said Kraudy. “So we ensure that when procurement goes out to get a quote, they always know they have the latest information in SAP [the company’s ERP platform]. Prior to this, it was a manual process, so someone had to manually go in and put those drawings into SAP. Now we always know we have the latest version.”

Last year Conductix licensed this software to a third party, which is now selling it under the name n.cequence. “We made quite a few modifications to it,” said John Peterson, n.cequence’s Omaha-based president. “It’s no longer an in-house system that’s hard wired for a specific company.”

Like its predecessor at Conductix, n.cequence connects data between the PDM and an ERP system and manages work flow. As Peterson explained, “Say you want to look at a customer record for some basic data, and you want to look at recent orders. You want to have a link so you can pull up an engineering drawing, and then you need some cost data. Sometimes the cost data may be in SolidWorks, or the ERP system, or both. The system acts as an overlay and makes it easier to synchronize the data.”

It Starts with the Model

Data has always driven manufacturing, but now more of the computation occurs on the front end—that is, where the design starts. As SolidWorks’ Therrien explained, “you can now cost directly in CAD. The old way to do it was to import the model, fix it manually in the design software, flatten the model, make a drawing, and send it over to the costing department, which would work off of 2-D drawings. Now this can all be done inside the 3-D model.”

He added that CAD talks with nesting systems and software platforms from machine tool manufacturers. Some platforms work inside the CAD program to ensure what’s been drawn or tweaked on the screen can actually be made on the shop floor. Similarly, other programs can run inside CAD to create inspection reports. “You can click a button, and it automatically balloons your entire drawing.”

Data from the CAD model now is pushed to the shop floor. As an example, Phoenix Products, a high-product-mix manufacturer in Milwaukee, has large, flat-screen monitors in its assembly cells, which in a given year could handle more than 20,000 SKUs. Assemblers receiving a job packet scan a barcode, which brings up the solid model as well as detailed assembly images and instructions.

Therrien added that such concepts are even making their way into harsh environments like the welding cell. Earlier this year he talked to one contract fabricator who uses tablets in its welding department. The tablets are placed in protective boxes during the actual welding, but between operations a welder can reach for the tablet, call up the next job, and receive a 3-D view of what the weld joint is supposed to look like.

The Value of Transparency

Conductix-Wamplfer is part of the Delachaux Group, an international company that over the years has purchased companies like conductor rail maker Insul-8 Corp. in 1976; cable handling equipment company Industrial Electric Reels in 1987; and crane component maker Wampfler AG in 2007. An economic analyst probably could create an index out of all the industries the organization serves.

Such diversity may create a sound business model, but the Devil’s in the details—and it seems that at Conductix, the Devil is under control. Any approved ECO is pushed automatically (that is, no retyping of data) to the ERP system, which in turn produces the latest drawings with every work order.

The software helps staff make myriad decisions that hinge on available capacity and the project due date. High-volume orders are outsourced, while low-volume work is sent to the company’s in-house fabrication area, which offers plate and sheet cutting, bending, machining, and welding. From there, work flows to the assembly cells, which are set up to be adaptable for various products. One week the cell could be assembling one product over and over again, while the next week the cell could be rearranged to assemble a mix of low-volume products.

Such transparency flows upstream, too, all the way to the sales function. “While the salespeople are at a customer site, or anywhere on the road, really, they can log on to the web app,” Kraudy explained. “They can put in the number of products a customer needs, and it instantly shows what the lead-time would be if they were to place the order right then.”

The sale starts the rain, which replenishes the headwaters of product design and rivers of manufacturing. Without transparency and efficient work flow, a lot of that water would just run down the drain.

Tim Heston

Tim Heston

Senior Editor
FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-381-1314

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The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.

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