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A Measured Response

Flexible works order analysis software

When it comes to investment, the shopfloor has always been key. Without the right machinery, tools and technology, how can manufacturers maximise the efficiency of their process or the quality of their products? Yet Seiki Systems sales director Paul Lane sees a strategic weakness – in that firms are failing to invest in systems capable of enabling them to measure and monitor how well (or poorly) production is performing. “Capturing manufacturing performance data to gain information about your business – a snapshot of its health, in a way – has been the poor relation. CAD/CAM/CAE systems have attracted significant outlay for front-end development and manufacturing preparation, but PLM [product lifecycle management], which gets closer, has failed to connect with the shopfloor. So too many manufacturers simply don’t have systems in place to support and manage the effectiveness of their plant and machine tools.”

Lane acknowledges that some companies have bought partial solutions – such as tool presetting and DNC systems – but not as part of a coordinated shopfloor management strategy. But that is changing, he believes: ” We are moving into a phase where MES’s [manufacturing execution systems] are coming of age, reaching a level of sophistication and maturity that Seiki Systems – and it’s competitors, in fairness – is now providing to UK manufacturers on an expanding scale.”

Certainly, there has been a major market push into this space, with some high-profile acquisitions driving things forward at the blue-chip level. But at the SME level, which is Seiki’s main focus, he believes there appears also to be growing recognition of the need for a holistic approach among manufacturers. “While CAD/CAM was seen as sexy and attractive, the same can’t be said for the swarf and coolant end of the business – the shopfloor. And yet there is real money to be made here, and that is increasingly being acknowledged. Firms are now understanding that they may be spending hundreds of thousands of pounds – millions even – on plant and machine tools to make high value parts, but without a good handle on how effective they are, they’re limiting their return on investment.”

Making real money

Why? It’s all about capacity, and utilisation of that capacity, in production terms – which, he argues, is where Seiki Systems comes in, with it’s capacity, post CAD/CAM, from ERP to real-time finite production capacity scheduling. “All of the essential data that drives the manufacturing process can be delivered to the shopfloor and, during the make process, live shop data – whether that be starting, stopping, pausing and finishing of jobs, the quality completed, reasons for machine downtime or non-productive time of resources – can be captured and recorded by our system. This is where money is made and lost, particularly with the rising costs of today of heating, lighting, plant and materials.”

As UK companies look to bring more of their manufacturing back home, through improved efficiency and greater awareness of how effectively they are performing – both plant and people – Lane sees Seiki Systems as a key enabler in helping them to achieve their goals. ” Our function is to bring together all of the disciplines across the manufacturing environment, so that production can be made as effective as possible. That doesn’t happen out of the box : there is such a disparate range of skills and disciplines, But it’s essential, because without measuring and monitoring the shopfloor, how can you ever know how well you are performing?”

Behind the scenes, it’s all about the effective control and delivery of data across the business and, where problems occur, having the means to articulate that from shopfloor to top floor – back again. “What our systems do is provide the means for businesses to identify what will make them even more efficient, productive and profitable: How good were they with their estimated times for producing given parts? Did the operator have the right information at the time he needed it? Are we achieving perhaps just 30-40% of our total capacity?”

Lane believes a strategy for investments is becoming clear: “Some of our most successful customers are now pushing 85% capacity utilisation through the Seiki Manufacturing System [ a modular system that comprises both manufacturing and business intelligence software], which allows you to analyse your performances and effectiveness. This is not beyond the reach of manufacturing SME’s.

This article was published in the Manufacturing Computer Solutions IT Strategy Issue 2008

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