Questions you should be asking about your software
December 12, 2006
Manufacturing software has come a long way in just the last five years. Independent software developers point out some of the advancements in manufacturing software in the hopes that some fabricators realize they may be missing out on some real production-optimization tools.
Software has changed the nature of fabricating. Most fabricating shops hammer out the manufacturing details of a job on their own computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) software packages immediately upon receipt of the customer's engineering drawings. Some of the more aggressive fabricating shops even might go back to the engineers and suggest ways to make the part more manufacturing-friendly and, perhaps, take some cost out of it simultaneously.
Some fabricating shops are going a step further—engineering parts and assemblies for customers. The computer-aided design (CAD) tools that used to be found only on the desks of engineers working for Fortune 1000 manufacturers are now available for those further down the supply chain, including fabricators.
In short, CAD/CAM tools have grown more affordable and user-friendly, while manufacturing relationships have grown more complex. Fortunately, the software tools, particularly from a CAM and nesting standpoint, are helping fabricators to stay competitive with the hope of improving even more.
Glenn Binder, vice president of sales, SigmaTEK Systems, said the folks at machine tool builder Mazak understand the opportunity that lies ahead for fabricating shops.
"Mazak calls it the 93 percent/7 percent rule," he said. "They say we spend only 7 percent of our total manufacturing lead-time burning. Ninety-three percent of the manufacturing lead-time—defined as the time between the customer placing the order to the time that the fabricator delivers the goods—is time wasted on non-value-added activities."
That leaves a lot of room for improvement, and software can play a large role in whittling away that 93 percent. To get a better idea of just what manufacturing software can do, The FABRICATOR talked to several independent software developers to determine just what a fabricator's software package should be capable of so that it can stay ahead of the competitor down the street and around the globe. The following are some questions that need to be asked.
From the most basic perspective, manufacturing software tools just aren't built the way they once were. The software is built in a 32-bit environment, not on the reliable but not-so-flexible DOS platform, and the database technology associated with the CAM software allows for easy information exchange between the software and the machine tool controls.
"Now it's a much more open environment," said Luca Poggi, sales manager for Computes Inc. "The customer can customize the software himself. For example, he can import information in Excel, ASCII, or other files from one system to another."
That sort of flexibility is necessary for a majority of fabricators because they want to maintain some sort of control over the manufacturing process. They are not ready to surrender complete control to software.
SigmaTEK's Binder said he believes 80 percent of his company's software users are working in a manual or semimanual mode when it comes to preparing sheet to be cut on the shop floor. Some are nervous about the technology supplanting someone's contribution.
"The folks also are nervous that these software tools are going to replace jobs, which in our experience doesn't happen very often," Binder said. "These are very good folks and skillful folks that can work with these tools. They either oversee the automation or move up in the organization."
Others need to be able to lay out nests manually because of certain details on the shop floor. For example, a steel service center may need to ensure that small parts are not nested in certain areas of the sheet because when they are plasma-cut, they might fall into the sump of the plasma cutting machine, becoming irretrievable unless the machine is shut down.
Manufacturing software's flexibility to work in a manual mode is important for some, but its ability to automate manual tasks is where software can make a big difference. The nesting algorithms that are available today simply weren't available only a few years ago because of underpowered computers.
"We literally had ideas for algorithms five years ago that we couldn't use because it would have taken you six hours to do a nest," said Oliver Goettsche, national sales manager, MTC Software Inc.
Derek Watson, MTC Software's international sales manager, offered up the advances in common-line cutting as an example of what the new nesting algorithms are capable of. Common-line cutting—in which the cutting device cuts a line between two straight-edged sheet parts leaving no space between them—used to be limited to common lines shared by rectangles and squares in an array. Now any combination of shapes that have at least one straight edge on the part can be nested for common-line cutting.
Automatic nesting is just one way that manufacturing software can save fabricators time. More software packages are equipped with bending, cutting, and forming simulation, which helps to streamline the actual fabricating process. Albert Sedlmaier, managing director of data M Corp., said such developments put the software closer to computer-aided engineering systems than typical manufacturing software.
Doug Wood, the Radan team leader for Planit Solutions Inc., said he has heard from fabricator customers that have saved at least 45 minutes in setup time by using the bending simulation features of the Radan CAD/CAM software. In addition, the simulation helps to eliminate the trial-and-error process that comes with running a first-time press brake job.
"It's a whole lot cheaper to scrap out those three or four parts electronically and offline," Wood said.
Over recent years the prices for solid modeling systems, such as Autodesk® Inventor™, SolidWorks®, and UGS's SolidEdge, have fallen to the point where it is no longer cost-prohibitive for small and medium job shops to invest in a software license or two. The world of 3-D design has come to the masses.
With the newfound design muscle, fabricators had to ensure that their manufacturing software could function in this 3-D world. Fortunately, many software developers have come a long way in ensuring that 3-D drawings lead to automatic tool selection and nesting layout, just as the software did for 2-D drawings. And when changes need to be made to the 3-D drawings, it's not that big of a deal.
"It's minimal," Wood said. "Traditionally, customers in the past sent flat DXF files back and forth. When whoever was forming the components needed to modify the part, in some cases they basically had to recalculate the flat pattern to get the part to match the press brake tooling and get the desired outcome.
"By working with 3-D data, it's much simpler to manipulate the geometry, make a minor change to it, and get the part correct."
Ed Patterson, vice president of technology, Vero International Inc., said this type of change on-the-fly is possible because software is no longer constricted by a history tree, a record and collection of every change that is made to a design drawing over the drawing's history and up to the most recent modification. When a change is made to a 3-D model, a designer doesn't have to worry how this might affect an earlier revision.
Patterson said Vero's die design software allows users to cut out a piece of a die, replace it with a new piece, and carry on with the project.
"We are seeing people enjoying their work because they can do a representation of what they are going to get, three-dimensionally," Patterson added.
Working with 3-D drawings and translating them into useful manufacturing files can be a wonderful thing, but it also opens the door to some new concerns.
"The shortcoming with these modeling systems is that once you talk about doing everything as a 3-D model versus individual drawing files, there is a lot more data that has to be managed," said Michael Boggs, sales manager, Striker Systems.
The result is the creation of a software product called a production data management (PDM) solution. The PDM product consistently would verify that the latest revision is being worked on. The software also would control who could check out design drawings and keep track of drawings checked back in. It would act as a sort of master revision control system.
Boggs said that PDM products targeted to the fabricating world are relatively new, and most CAD/CAM products in the fabricating shops don't have programming interfaces that allow them to interact with the new data management tools.
In lieu of a PDM solution, Boggs said an alternative might exist. For every job revision a customer releases electronically, the fabricator can request that a revision number be designated to the order. If the revision number does not exist in the fabricator's part library, the manufacturing software automatically could flag the customer to let him know that the fabricator doesn't yet have this revision or a new number needs to be issued.
At the very least, fabricators probably need manufacturing software with some sort of shared library system offering to keep up with the trend toward more 3-D data, according to Boggs.
The days of having a traveler card for a specific job order be the main source of manufacturing information in a fabricating operation are nearly gone.
First came the emergence of material requirements planning (MRP) software that used bills of material, inventory data, and production schedules to calculate material requirements. The software could recommend the initiation of new orders for materials as inventories dwindled and even reschedule jobs when due dates and shop floor realities did not align.
Enterprise resources planning (ERP) does what MRP software did, but reaches over the entire business. ERP handles not just inventory and resource tracking, but also covers all aspects of financial, manufacturing, and distribution management. Many view this type of software as the neurological lifeline for decision-makers because it provides the needed information to make informed business decisions.
"We are getting a lot of interest in this area," said Planit Solutions' Wood. "The need to have the production data and the schedules interfaced with the CAM software is necessary to prioritize jobs.
"With this ability to pull this data from the MRP system, you can drive the manufacturing software, the nesting, and other components with the information and on the back side get reports of what was produced and where jobs are at."
This trend has led many manufacturing software companies to develop interfaces with some of the leading MRP and ERP software used in the manufacturing space. Some manufacturing software developers even have created custom interfaces to work with homegrown front-office systems that might have sprung from the mind of a talented database administrator.
In reality, most have basic MRP systems or job shop management systems that handle the creation of job orders, production schedules, and quoting. Whatever the case, the need to have an up-to-date picture of the manufacturing operations leads to more efficient operations.
MTC Software's Watson said this level of connectivity between manufacturing software and front-office software automates formerly paper-based processes, helping to remove cost and possible mistakes from the production process. At the very least, he added, people are looking to have the bill of materials accompany the manufacturing drawing.
That level of connectivity is going to become more important as larger manufacturing customers rely on the Internet to communicate with their contract manufacturers. Job shops that rely on older manufacturing software or that fail to ponder future information technology may find themselves working on retirement plans instead of manufacturing drawings.