December 10, 2010
By eliminating its work order packets, Advanced Laser Machining Inc. has saved time associated with trying to make corrections once engineering changes were made to jobs in progress and reduced the risk of upsetting its customers.
John Walton, president of Advanced Laser Machining Inc., Chippewa Falls, Wis., isn’t too different from other metal fabricators in the business. The business is in his blood.
He started welding woodburning stoves in high school for a local metal fabricator, and he’s pretty much never left the business. He spent a few years selling CNC programming software, but even then he was calling on metalworking businesses.
He was working for another metal fabricating company in April 1996 when he became part of a scenario that’s been all too familiar nowadays—the company closed. The piece of bad news turned into a good opportunity for Walton and a former co-worker, however. They opened up Advanced Laser Machining in September 1996.
Today the metal fabricating shop specializes in the “hard stuff,” the projects that other companies can’t or don’t want to do, according to Walton. Advanced Laser Machining has 60 employees and 37,000 square feet of manufacturing space. With annual sales around $11 million, it has two laser cutting machines, two press brakes, a punching machine with automated load and unload capabilities, and hardware insertion machines. It offers all kinds of welding and assembly services.
Like other metal fabricators, Walton does things his own way. Consider the two laser cutting machines and two press brakes on the shop floor. Any machine tool builder likely would make the case that a fab shop needs two press brakes for every laser cutter. That’s not how Advanced Laser Machining’s management sees it.
“We run seven days a week, up to 20 hours a day in those seven days,” Walton said. “We don’t want a bunch of machines that run eight hours a day. We want two that run 20 hours a day.”
Where Walton differs from other metal fabricators is his comfort level with software. Other fab shops live in a world where a business is run using basic software tools such as Microsoft Excel and paper trails are necessary to turn an order into a delivery. Walton, who was in charge of information technology at his previous employer, wanted an enterprise resource planning (ERP) software package for his company. He knew of the software’s ability to pull information together to give everyone an idea of just what is happening in the shop at any given time. He also knew that his previous employer’s software license for FabriTRAK would be up for grabs at the business-closing auction. He grabbed the license and had the FabriTRAK software implemented in early 1997.
“I saw the value with my previous employer when I went through its initial implementation,” Walton said. “At that time I was the IT manager, and I was on the front lines. It was an interesting thing to watch because initially on the shop floor everyone thought that big brother was coming to watch them. About a year later, the tone had changed to the point where the shop floor said, ‘If you guys put more in that system, we can get more out of it.’”
Advanced Laser Machining discovered the ERP system could track and organize all aspects of the business: blueprints, routers, bills of materials, engineering change orders, requests for quotes, estimating, purchase orders, timesheets, invoices, packing slips, and scheduling. However, the company started to experience tremendous growth in 2006 after a more dedicated focus on OEM customers. The “manual-print-it-out-stuff-it-in-the-sleeve- and-walk-it-out-to-the-shop-floor solution,” as Walton called it, was proving to be a drag on efficiency.
For example, an aircraft manufacturer might have five separate orders at Advanced Laser Machining, all for the same part number, but all in various stages of completion. If that customer sent a design revision for the part, someone literally had to walk to the shop floor, track down the five orders, take them back to the office, print out the new revision guidelines, restuff the packets, and put the packets back at the starting point of the fabricating process.
“It became almost a full-time job for someone just to keep the paperwork on the floor updated every day,” Walton said.
Those traveling packets weren’t small either. The packet included the work order; the blueprint, which could have multiple pages showing everything, including the coding to run the machine tool; and an inspection report, which could have four to seven pages associated with each part number in the job.
“We knew there had to be a better way to do this,” Walton said.
He had heard about a paperless option for MIE Trak™, the new name for FabriTRAK following MIE Solutions’ acquisition of the software from MetalSoft Inc., and implemented the software enhancements a little less than a year ago. The purchase and implementation process might hold some lessons for other fabricators.
Don’t be afraid to ask the software developer to deliver what you need. Walton liked the original FabriTRAK product so much because the original developer, David Ferguson, wrote the software for his dad’s fabricating shop. Well, Ferguson was back in the picture after MIE Solutions took over the ERP product line he originally wrote, and Walton didn’t shy away from suggesting some improvements to the new paperless offering.
Perhaps the most important improvement was in the presentation of work center scheduling. Previously an operator could see jobs listed only by order number in the software’s MIE Kiosk interface, which was originally called Scanview. That didn’t help out a laser cutting machine operator, who needed the jobs organized by material thickness so he didn’t have to change out laser torches and adjust focal length after every job.
“So they added options like that so different work centers could have the information presented to them in different ways. It became so much more useful for us as an end user that it began to get momentum on our shop floor,” Walton said.
MIE Kiosk allows the operator to highlight all the jobs slated for the shift. As jobs are dragged and dropped onto a scheduling whiteboard at the work center, the software keeps track of the time spent to complete the job. The operator also can access display drawings, blueprints, and models on the computer screen if needed.
Plan to invest in hardware and possibly personnel. Currently Advanced Laser Machining includes an identification tag and a traveler—an 8.5- by 11-in. sheet of paper with part numbers, customer name, and other job-related details—with each job. All the other information is accessed through computer monitors.
Walton estimated that he has 20 sets of monitors—each work center has two computer monitors (see Figure 1). Machine operators need to press just one button on the screen and the software pulls up the requested information, whether it’s the blueprint, inspection report, or setup notes.
“It’s not like you have to navigate Windows Explorer and find the PDF file,” he said.
Walton has a full-time IT staffer working on the migration to this paperless environment. He started as an assistant on the laser cutting machine and has since made the jump to the front office, taking IT courses when he’s not working. His No. 1 job assignment for 2010 was making this move to a paperless work process a success.
“I was the IT guy for the first 10 years, and it got to be more than I could keep up with,” Walton said.
Keep in mind security needs when investigating a paperless work process option. Walton said Advanced Laser Machining doesn’t need layers of password protection for certain documents that are accessed on the shop floor. The shop floor employees simply access the information they need, and the electronic documents really have no need to be locked down.
When it comes to final inspection reports, however, security is stepped up a notch. When a job is complete and the quality technician approves the work and signs off on the job, that data is locked and cannot be changed by anyone.
Don’t underestimate the benefits of a paperless environment. The push for using less paper began with an announcement that Advanced Laser Machining was trying to be more environmentally friendly. About 80 percent into the implementation of the paperless option for the ERP system, the company is saving dozens of reams of paper per month. Mission accomplished.
Another benefit is a design engineer no longer frantically runs all over the shop floor when a customer requests an engineering change. The company’s IT manager estimated that the software probably has eliminated the need to hire another person because of the efficiencies gained from real-time sharing of information with the shop floor. Now if a customer service representative is notified of a revision, an engineer can have the job order connected with the part design that is to be revised electronically quarantined in minutes. The machine operator cannot proceed with a job until that particular part has been revised and released into scheduling. Another expected benefit appreciated by all.
However, the unexpected benefit is probably the most noteworthy.
“I would have to say the biggest benefit that I didn’t see coming is the traction it has given us with the potential customers,” Walton said. “Everybody comes in and we go through the demo and they drool all over.”
Apparently, the move to eliminate paper is something valued not only by forward-thinking fab shops, but also larger OEM customers as well.
Walton said the 8.5- by 11-in. sheet of paper accompanying orders should be eliminated in the first part of 2011. Any job identification information will be included on the small tag that is already attached to jobs. The push to eliminate more paper continues.
He added that he has noticed a customer resource management offering from MIE Solutions that might be worth investigating. It’s one more module that’ll help him keep track of the company’s potential for sales.
John Kubit, MIE Solutions’ vice president of sales, said options don’t end there. With a module called MIE Exchange B2B, a manufacturer’s customers actually can enter their own purchase orders over a secure Web connection. The orders are securely transmitted directly into MIE Trak production control, eliminating the possibility of someone entering the wrong data on a paper purchase order.
“Using the Web or EDI [electronic data interchange] to exchange information is growing,” Kubit said.
Many possibilities abound for Advanced Laser Machining and other fabricating operations looking to streamline work processes. For now the company is concentrating on maximizing the benefits of its current software upgrade. It’s celebrating the success associated with being paperless.`
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