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Capturing insights by connecting things and people (2 of 7): Feedback from connected things

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Previous: Capturing insights by connecting things and people: Integration and the internet of everything

Connected things are everywhere but steel fabrication shops are full of disconnected things, even when those things are driven by a computer.

Our photos are automatically uploaded to cloud storage and our calendar sends text messages to our phone. We can see graphs online representing how many steps we have climbed today. Cameras capture our speed and license plate number and then computers automatically send us traffic citations.

In fabrication shops, though, we see people programming by hand, right at the CNC machine controller, while the attached, tireless machine waits for instructions.  Files are delivered to the machine on a thumb drive, much like we used to receive faxes in a physical in-box on our desk.

Other steel fabrication shops have machines that know the next dozen beams lined up to go through the saw. Sometimes the machine, not the operator, guides cut beams on to the drill line and others past it, straight to fabrication. As the beams are processed, the machine removes them from the queue and knows not to process that beam again.  A network based server is updated as more beams are loaded and lined up for processing. When it's all working, the operator looks bored, may not even be near the machine or is doing work to get ready for a part or some raw material that will be processed hours from now. Progress, and the time it took to do it, is logged.  

This is pretty sophisticated for a job shop but the data collected from the CNC machine work cell, while valuable, is often disconnected from the rest of the business.

The CNC machine server knows that a part is complete but can you view that together with the rest of the assembly or project story?  Are the other parts, not processed by a machine or at least this brand of machine, ready for fit-up?  Are the latest revision of relevant documents available to the shop?  Anything on hold?  How long did it take to complete that complicated column, including the processing time the machine captured, the fit-up, painting and welding?  

It's possible to capture all of this from machines and bring it together with other data about a project, assembly, or overall shipping progress across all projects. It's almost effortless after you set it up.  

And there's the rub, investing time in the original setup.  If you had this data for the next three months, with dashboards and reports making it unnecessary to get out of your chair, pick up a phone or send an email to find out everything that happened to 100B1 (onsite and too short) or whether loads for any of the projects you monitor shipped this week, you would never go back. Once the system is working, it's better than free. It takes minimal effort to use everyday and repeatedly helps you avoid mistakes, save money and save time.  

What about delivering data to the machine?  Is the "thing" connected to the rest of your material and production plan? Can it receive cut lists and production batch plans electronically?  How does the operator find this data and how much effort is expended making sure that the right CNC file is used? Is this in sync with how documents and data are delivered to other processes and machines?  With the proper setup, much of the effort to deliver this data to the machine is eliminated. This means better quality and better coordination between all of the people, departments, fabrication bays and machines working together to deliver multiple projects to different job sites.

FabTrol's current software implementation staff has used FabTrol software to deliver this kind of value to hundreds of steel fabrication companies world wide.  Once it is working, it does need revisiting every year or so, but day to day data capture from machines just happens quietly, with no extra human effort, as a side effect of doing the work you have to do anyway.  The software literally does this data capture work for you and pulls this feedback together with data from processes and people throughout your company.

 Next: Capturing insights by connecting things and people (3 of 7): Feedback from connected people


Brian Williams has spent his adult life working in steel fabrication and technology. Starting as a grinder/wire brush operator in college he worked as a fitter, CNC programmer, production control manager, and VP of Operations for a 4-shop industrial plate and structural fabricator. At FabTrol he has delivered training and implementation services to some of FabTrol's largest customers and designed software as FabTrol's Product Manager. Today, he continues to work in product management and serves as the General Manager of FabTrol Systems.