OEM’s prototype shop certifies workers to prepare for the next generation
July 18, 2011
The prototype shop at International Gaming Technologies employs serious talent. They take a sheet metal part through the entire fabrication process, from laser cutting and bending to welding and grinding. To qualify for a job here requires technical knowhow about a variety of manufacturing processes. This is why management has decided to use FMA’s Precision Sheet Metal Operator certification as a benchmark.
Ever walk into a casino and see the Wheel of Fortune® slot game? That comes from IGT—and there are plenty more. In November 2010, International Gaming Technology (IGT) produced its 2 millionth slot machine since going public in 1981.
The organization employs thousands in offices around the world, but several people at the Reno, Nev., headquarters play a unique role. Without them, that 2 millionth slot machine may never have rolled off the assembly line. They’re the workers of IGT’s sheet metal prototyping shop. Every one of IGT’s 2 million machines has a sheet metal enclosure; for many, prototype workers have found better ways to fabricate them.
Nick Anderson, a manager in the hardware engineering department, doesn’t downplay their experience. The six-person team has a combined IGT experience of 121 years, and precision sheet metal experience of 164 years. Before coming to IGT, all of them spent several years at various sheet metal fabricators. Besides Anderson, the shop consists of four sheet metal journeymen and one planner. And these guys know their stuff (see Figure 1).
Thing is, these experienced tradesmen are taking some online training courses—specifically, e-Fab, offered by the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association—to prepare for a relatively new industry credential, FMA’s Precision Sheet Metal Operator (PSMO) certification. The question is, why?
“We’ve very pro-training here,” Anderson said. “The more we can impart to the employee, the better off that employee is, and the better off the company is.”
He added several caveats. What makes the training valuable isn’t just the test itself, and it really isn’t about posting certificates on the wall or tacking on some letters after a person’s title (though he doesn’t doubt the PSMO certification will give employees a sense of pride).
There’s a more pragmatic reason. IGT needs prototype shop employees to not only take the fabrication process from laser cutting through bending, welding, and finishing, but also think critically about manufacturability. This requires a broad knowledge base, and managers are looking for a benchmark, a baseline qualification for anyone who might be looking for a career in IGT’s prototype shop. Anderson said the company hopes to use the PSMO certification as that benchmark.
The typical day in the prototype shop isn’t typical. Workers take orders from the queue and follow a part or subassembly from laser cutting and punching through bending, various welding processes, and finishing (see Figures 2 and 3). These people don’t do repetitive work, and they don’t follow predetermined procedures or routings. To get the job done, they determine everything from the best bend sequence to the nuances of holding the gas tungsten arc welding torch at just the right angle to produce a smooth bead.
They think not just about how they would fabricate a part, but also how others would. They look at a part drawing and determine the best way to make it for the various sheet metal fabricators that supply IGT’s final assembly line with metal parts. They think about challenges that could arise: a wide weld joint gap, a channel that would require a special offset tool on the press brake, or a feature that may require a special form tool on the punch press. In other words, nothing is set in stone.
For DFM (design for manufacturability), the prototype shop team looks for part attributes that could be difficult or impossible to manufacture: a narrow hem on thick sheet metal, for instance. But they also think about process simplification and standardization. Special tools, such as countersinks for hardware and louver form tools for venting, are used only when absolutely necessary. “But otherwise, we try to keep every [piece part] pretty much flat, laser-bound,” Anderson said.
Managers at contract fabricators may tout their ability to weed out certain operations through innovative tooling, like a punch form tool that eliminates a bend at the press brake; and that’s fine, but IGT works with a large supply base. This is why the prototype shop strives for simplification and standardization using common punch and brake tools as well as conventional welding techniques. The less complicated the manufacturing process, the less costly it is for IGT to outsource the fabrication.
For this reason, prototype workers are cross-trained on every process. They have to be. In most fab shops, a worker is tied to, say, the press brake department. In these environments, the workers own the process. Supervisors, setup personnel, and operators all work to make the bending process as smooth and error-free as possible. They may be cross-trained on other machines, but their specialty often lies in one area.
IGT’s journeymen, on the other hand, own the orders for parts and subassemblies that come in the door. “They will grab the next job in line and take that from beginning to end,” Anderson explained. “There’s contiguous work flow, and one worker will communicate with the engineer designing the part.”
In this environment, excess bureaucracy would kill efficiency, as would ignorance. This explains why IGT’s industry veterans are, at this writing, preparing for the PSMO certification exam. But that’s not all they’re doing. A few now can be found sitting in front of computers learning the company’s Pro/ENGINEER® CAD/CAM software as well as the fundamentals behind IGT’s design process. “This will help them gain a better understanding of how complex the [design] process really is,” Anderson said.
Conversely, it’s not unusual to see design engineers using hand tools, drill presses, right-angle grinders, or a manual shear to do basic fabrication. These engineers have received basic training on fabrication and machine safety.This way, “a lot of the designers come down to the shop to do their own rework,” he said.
Such training doesn’t make fabricators designers or designers fabricators, but it does help both gain a greater appreciation for the other’s work. Designers have so many variables to think about that they might miss specifying whether a flange should be a certain length. Meanwhile, fabricators might plan entire processes around those flange dimensions, but they don’t need to worry about the nuances of slot machine design.
The shared knowledge and understanding foster creativity and speed, Anderson said. Most jobs engineers send for prototyping are given about a two-week lead-time, but if a rush job comes in, the journeyman can churn out the part in 30 minutes to an hour.
The list of skills IGT’s prototype shop employees have reads like the resume of a job candidate many shops dream about: laser cutting; press brake setup and operation; wire welding; gas tungsten arc welding; grinding and polishing; discussing design alternatives; focusing on manufacturing simplicity and reducing overall production costs. That’s not an easy candidate to find, and this, Anderson said, is where that PSMO certification will come into play.
He still has several years to go before he has to worry about turnover, but IGT’s journeymen eventually will retire. When they do, managers want to ensure their knowledge doesn’t leave with them. Anderson hopes to use certification to filter new applicants during the coming years. Without certification, job seekers needn’t bother applying.
The current cadre of experienced workers learned fabrication through informal training programs at IGT and previous employers—and on old equipment. They know how to calculate bend deductions and determine optimal bend sequences. In the days before CAD/CAM, they developed flat layouts on paper using manual calculations.
As the shop purchased new machines, machine tool OEMs trained them on the new equipment, but this complemented, not replaced, their knowledge gained through years of experience. Modern machine software isn’t perfect, after all. It may unfold parts and provide bend sequences, but a journeyman will know that one bend sequence is more efficient than another.
Such experience leads to some significant financial benefits. One small change, made by designers and journeymen working together, could save IGT millions in production costs.
IGT’s prototype shop can’t function efficiently without strong communication and collaboration, which is why the company developed a simple system to ensure both design engineer and prototype worker are on the same page. Developed by IGT’s IT department, the intranet-based scheduling system allows workers to bring up an order with a specific, time-stamped model attached to it. Each order relates to one drawing and one design engineer.
The system offers transparency and helps overcome the miscommunication common in prototype environments, where designs change frequently. Such changes at IGT caused some headaches under the previous system, when engineers would just e-mail orders to the prototype shop. When the order came up next in the queue, workers would download the current design file from the server. But sometimes that file was the wrong revision. Multiple engineers could be working on different attributes of one part, so the design file could be updated frequently. Numerous updates led to ample confusion.
This is why the new scheduling program uses a kind of virtual job-traveler system. The engineer who creates the order has his name—and only his name—tied to that order, and one design file. To avoid confusion, that design file cannot be changed once the order is submitted. But engineers can see exactly where that order stands. So if a part is in the queue ready for laser cutting, and a design engineer needs to make a change, he may choose to cancel and resubmit the order with a new design file.
The system augments, but doesn’t replace, interaction between departments. If a journeyman notices a hole on or near a bend line, he will walk up to engineering and discuss the problem with the engineer connected to the order. At the same time, if an engineer has a manufacturing question, he just walks over to the shop to chat with a fabricator. The system creates enough of a document trail to ensure prototype jobs run smoothly, but isn’t so bureaucratic as to inhibit the free flow of ideas.