Written By: Colin Gilchrist, Applications Engineer, Selway Machine Tool Company
The following story is based on an experience I had giving advice to a client last year before I joined Selway Machine Tool Company as an Applications Engineer. I wanted to share some of the insights that I’ve learned about data, and how important data has become to manufacturing companies. I hope to help you learn about the concept of Product Data Management, help you identify what kind of PDM is currently in use at your company, and hopefully present a compelling story about a shop who solved many of their own data issues by implementing ProShop ERP.
Data has become an integral part of the lifeblood for almost every company on the planet by 2020. Imagine your manufacturing company as a human body. Like a body; your company is made up of many systems.
You would be forgiven for thinking that the lifeblood of your company is made solely of money; it is an easy assumption to make. In our imagining, money is more like food to your business. Following this analogy along, money – like food in your body – allows your business to grow. But like food, the money your company makes is also consumed: some money flows to you, some flows to your employees, and money also flows out to your vendors/suppliers. Your company is seeking out money – without cashflow; no business can survive – but money doesn’t ‘flow through your business’ directly.
Here is what I mean by that; although you pay your workers a wage, you do not give them instructions written on money. Nor do you load paper bills into a machine to make parts. What does flow through your company, at every level; is information. Data is another term for this information, and data is tied to everything that flows through your business. Records are kept of all kinds of things, and the best systems allow you to tie that data together to drive good decision making. Good internal communication and access to accurate and timely data, allows everyone in the company to make the best decisions possible.
Data in the context of this discussion then; is simply digital information, and data is the lifeblood of your business. For a great many businesses; this information flow (or the lack of it), governs how much more money you can earn.
The Data Revolt!
I can see it now; every manager, shop owner, programmer, and machinist – all collectively rolling their eyes at me in unison – every single one of them convinced that Material and Machines are the lifeblood of their businesses, and convinced that I am misguided in my zeal to put data on a pedestal…
It is true that material also flows through your shop – in fact – the material and the information are intrinsically linked together. In other words; there is information that is tied to each batch of raw material at the start of the job. Although this step (receiving material) may be the start of the ‘part flow through the shop’, it is not the true beginning – or birth – of that job. The true start of that job may be a conversation, a napkin sketch, or a large RFQ (Request for Quote) package with hundreds of pages that form an assembly you are asked to submit a bid on.
My point is that data is there at the start of every job. That data must now be reviewed by at least one person – and often a team of people – in your company. After review and internal approval is given, a quotation or estimate must be generated and sent to the customer. There is typically more digital communication, which ultimately culminates in your customer finally placing an order. Once an order is placed, you may get started by simply ordering material. (In very small shops; you might be tasked with doing every step of the whole process yourself). But that information; what kind of material, what size/shape, how many, and how soon, all needs to be passed on to the material vendor. That information must be communicated somehow (email, fax, U.S. Mail, etc.). Sure, it can be as simple as a phone call, but in-person phone conversations are hard to track. E-mail chains provide a powerful bit of evidence when a disagreement arises, or there are problems with an incoming material order.
For many larger companies, there are many steps to go through before you eventually place the order for material. Often there will be a Production Planning meeting, where an Operations Plan is developed. Tooling and/or Fixtures need to be engineered, machined, and/or purchased. Time needs to be allocated in the Production Schedule for the existing machines, or a new machine solution might need to be purchased. All of these steps require the exchange of information. The end result is typically the generation of a Job Order, which then is used to plan and execute the machining of this job. In many shops the information that is recorded for a job is done manually.
As a Job progresses through your shop, the amount of data stored increases at each step of the journey. As a new operation is completed on the job, and an operator signs-off on each manufacturing operation, that ‘part data record’ is continually growing. The amount of information that is tied to an individual part grow almost exponentially, with part/process complexity. As the size of an assembly grows; so too do the individual data records for each part, process, and sub-assembly. Many shops still record this “Part Data” manually. They are stamping, signing, and dating every operation and step in the Job Order/Manufacturing Plan.
How many of you have scrapped a part due to one of these factors?
- Wrong Material (Bad/No Cert, Bad Traveler)
- Wrong Tool (bad setup sheet)
- Wrong Holder (bad setup sheet or holder not available, substitution made without notice)
- Bad NC Program (wrong Revision, wrong Pallet, wrong station)
- Bad Setup (Work Offset Location)
- Bad Tool Offset (Tool Length Offset, Cutter Radius Compensation)
- Bad Probe Calibration
- Q) What is the Root Cause of all of those problems?
- A) Poor communication. The data was input incorrectly, was missing, or in the worst cases – the data was simply ignored or overlooked.
Consider what steps have to take place, in the average aerospace company, in order to turn a “block of raw metal”, into “finished aerospace component of low complexity”. Let’s take a quick mental journey through the process of winning the bid on our fictional aerospace component. We’ll call this fictional part “Support Flange 0123-45-6789-001 REV C”.
Your company has been asked by New Space Ventures (NSV) to bid on the delivery of 4 of these critical Support Flanges for their new project. NSV has prepared a Request for Quote (RFQ) for your company, but before they will consider receiving your quotation for these parts, they wish for your company to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA). Signing this NDA is a typical starting point – in the process of bidding – for the contract to supply parts, and involves the transfer of data back-and-forth between companies. Skipping ahead, let’s say that your processes and prices quoted were accepted by NSV for the delivery of these 4 Support Flanges. Moreover, you’ve planned the process and the material has just showed up in your receiving department. Along with that raw material, your team has been hard at work in the background, preparing the manufacturing processes to physically make this part. Tools and/or Holders have been specified, and multiple manufacturing fixtures have been built. CNC Programs have been developed for specific machines, and plans have been drawn up on how to schedule the flow of these parts through your shop. All of these steps are crucial to the pieces of metal being transformed into parts, but the result of sometimes months of effort, is only binary digital data at this stage. The visual results of all this work can be hard to see until after the cutting begins.
As these “raw material blanks” begin their physical journey through your shop, there is data that must be captured at each step of the process. During Incoming Receiving, someone should be in charge of checking the material (for size and type), and recording the material certifications (for traceability and Product-Lifecycle-Management-Purposes). At every stage of the manufacturing process; data is being both recorded and used to remove material to leave a “finished part behind”. A CNC Program instructs the machine on “which tool to use, and how to move that tool”, in order to remove material only where it isn’t needed. When done within the tolerance limits that were specified by the customer; we may have produced parts that meet the demands of the original RFQ. However, we must also be able to verify that our parts have been produced correctly, which requires us to perform our own “Setup Inspection, In-Process Inspection, and Final Inspection Sequence”, before we can ship our parts to the customer. Our “Part and Lifecycle Data” responsibilities often don’t end, even after we have shipped “good parts” to NSV. Many manufacturing quality systems specify the length of time that a manufacturer must maintain Manufacturing and Quality Data Records after the parts have been delivered. This time-frame can been years – or even decades (in the case of military, jet engine, or space parts) – and should help to frame how the management of data often comes far before, and far after, your parts have been cut, measured, and shipped to the customer.
My discovery of ProShop actually happened by chance. I had a customer ask me to help them find a Software Developer who specializes in the VBA Interface (Visual Basic for Applications) for Microsoft Excel. When I asked them “why they would need an Excel specialist”, I was told it was “to help manage their ‘reporting data’ that was being generated from their current ERP system”. I was a bit intrigued with this, so I decided to probe a little further. I won’t quote the full back-and-forth of the discussion here, as there were several intertwined topics that were discussed, with multiple potential solutions to each topic.
The real problem: too much data and too many systems
In a nutshell, the customer was generating a report that would list all of the “in-process jobs” that were currently active in the shop. The issue was the difficulty in sorting through over 2,500 ‘active jobs’, and being able to gauge and sort the status of those jobs. He said “for example, I want to run a report to tell me; here are the jobs are due in the next 30 days. Or here are the jobs more than 2 weeks late”. He was frustrated that he was forced to generate this massive report for “every active job” in the company. He was becoming quickly overwhelmed without the ability to filter and sort that data into something useful. While it was possible to use the sorting and filtering tools inside Excel itself, a custom query had to be created and ran for each different type of ‘report’ that the owner wanted to see. Moreover, the report was essentially ‘static’. The process of “dumping a new daily report” took several minutes. And that was in addition to any ‘report filtering’ that may need to be run (custom programming), in order to be able to visualize the data more easily.
It turns out that many ERP systems are great at generating huge amounts of data. Mountains, and mountains of data are generated by most small-to-medium-sized businesses every day. However, most existing ERP systems on the market are not necessarily setup very well to help the average user “make sense of the data that is generated”. That may seem like a weird concept to consider at first. Why wouldn’t these ERP systems make it easy to “do something with the data”, once it has been entered into the system? Shouldn’t this be easy to do out-of-the-box?
It turns out that usually isn’t the case. Although most ERP systems have provisions for creating things like Work Orders, Operations Lists, Job Travelers, BOM’s (Bill-of-Materials), Estimates, and Invoices, things like “data reports” are usually an afterthought, and typically require someone to do bit of custom programming to manipulate the data into a report which “makes sense” to whomever requested the report. What isn’t built into these ERP systems is the ability to ‘Visualize the Data’. Data Visualization is the ability to transform numbers in rows and columns into charts and graphs which help us to spot trends, make comparisons, and identify problems, quickly. The ‘quickly’ part is the most essential aspect of good Data Visualization, and I think ProShop was built with this functionality in mind. There are many different modules in ProShop that not only allow communication; but actively encourage it!
Reporting, Messaging, and Data Visualization all seem like one of those ‘no-brainer’ things that should be easy to pull off. Like it should be “at the touch of a button”. The more I looked into “how do I organize and filter the ERP data”, the more roadblocks I kept running into.
Many manufacturers are attempting to tie their Industry 4.0 data collection to their shop’s ERP systems, with varying degrees of success. I had an experience recently which led me to discover the PDM capabilities of ProShop ERP, from Adion Systems, and how this software can do so much more than just ‘Enterprise Resource Planning’. The PDM Tools available in ProShop allow you to tie all of your shop’s data together, into a single database, accessible through a simple-to-use web browser interface.
The Eureka Moment
One night while I was doing some research for ‘writing a query to mine the ERP database’, I gave a friend of mine a call. I wanted both to pick his brain a little and to vent about how frustrating this ERP nightmare was.
His response; “dude, why don’t you tell him to dump that P.O.S. ERP system, and just get ProShop?” was a light in the dark. I think he could tell by my hesitation that I was unfamiliar with ProShop, which is why I wasn’t sharing his enthusiasm.
“Ugh, not another ERP System! They are all terr…” I began.
“No.” He cut me off abruptly before I could finish my rant.
“ProShop is way different. It is entirely web-based. All users in the company access the same dataset, 100% of the time. It is always live”. I pondered where he was going with this.
“Since all the modules share the same internal database, all the functionality you are talking about to gather and format data is already built into ProShop. I think my favorite thing is how your company communications are also built into the interface. I’ve completely dropped email for all internal communications at our company. The chats in ProShop are logged, and searchable!”. I could tell his excitement was growing. I was reluctantly coming around to at least consider seeing what ProShop was capable of.
I started researching ProShop, and reached out to another user who had recently switched over to ProShop so I could pick his brain. As it turns out; all of the reporting tools that I had struggled to integrated into Excel were already available in ProShop. It was a eureka moment for me, as I discovered that ProShop would not only solve the ‘reporting problem’, but it also solved about a dozen other inter-company issues. These other issues would not have been solved by running a custom report, built by another ‘contractor’, on the existing dataset coming out of their old ERP system.
Reporting was just the tip of the iceberg
Although the issue I was trying to solve was specifically; ‘how can we make sense of the ongoing work that is currently flowing through the shop’, it turns out that switching ERP Systems to ProShop ERP, gained the customer far more than just the ‘data visualization and reporting’ that was the original challenge to overcome. When we tallied up the total, ProShop ERP was used to replace four additional ‘Software Systems’ (each with their own maintenance fee), about a two dozen different ‘custom scripts’ that were used across different business systems (accounting, payroll, estimates, invoicing, time tracking, scheduling, quality, purchasing, programming, shipping, and receiving), and the customer was finally able to completely eliminate the generation of new paper documents for all shop processes. By implementing ProShop across the company, it gave the owner much better capabilities to mine the data the company was already generating. Plus, it gave the company the ability to filter data access much more carefully, along with automating and linking together the locations where this part data was stored. In the end, the answer to my customer’s original question: “How do I spot jobs that are late, or due in a certain time-period”, was a somewhat unorthodox approach in some ways. Rather than just answering them – “make an incremental change by generating a custom report” – my solution was to take a look at their entire system and recognizing that a fundamental change in system architecture was my suggestion. Admittedly, there were significant costs involved in making the decision to switch off multiple separate software systems, and implement a system-wide solution like ProShop ERP. I am happy to report that my customer is now able to ask and answer a huge range of questions, and get the answers extremely quickly, which was the original problem that I was asked to solve. In addition, their entire company is now embracing the full range of digital record-keeping and is now communicating internally using the ProShop integrated chat feature.
What is Product Data Management and why should you care?
PDM stands for Product Data Management. PDM is the ‘architecture of the data storage system’. Typically, in small-to-medium-sized shops, the structure of this data storage system is: ‘create a series of customer-job-part-revision folders, and put the customer data there’. This simple “manually created and maintained” folder-architecture is often just designated to take place in the ‘root of a shared network folder’. Often this uses ‘UNC File Path Naming’. UNC stands for Universal Naming Convention, and is used on your network to define ‘Server Names’ or ‘Server Address Letters’. This will often be referred to colloquially as the “S Drive” or the “T Drive”, or whatever “Alpha-Character is designated to store our critical data, based on some random assignment by our IT person”. This convention may allow your users to “more easily access a particular server”, but it can also often lead to “server address conflicts” down the road.
I would term the state of this PDM as “Unmanaged PDM” or “User-Managed PDM”. This data structure is rarely planned for growth, and all the processes rely on humans following some homegrown process of manually creating nested folders. These processes are ripe for typing errors, people not aware or not caring about following protocol, and simply nothing that truly tracks the location of the data being stored. PDM, in a nutshell then, is the organization, storage, and retrieval of any data that might be tied to a manufacturing process. ProShop essentially gives you a built-in PDM system, since you can store all your CAM Files, Setup Documents, Tool Data, and any other data that needs to be tied to a step in your process of making a part.
Moreover, the process of creating folders, updating file locations, and “looking for where I saved that file”, is all non-value-added work. At the end of the time spent, we haven’t recorded any metrics about the data being stored. A PDM system also controls, who has access to specific data, who is allowed to edit or update the data, and it keeps a history of revisions, so you can call up a ‘specific revision’, either for comparison purposes, or to be able to produce ‘a part at any specific revision level required’.
ProShop uses a “template-based approach” to allow your IT Department to designate “the permissions which are assigned to folders as they are created. This approach greatly simplifies the process of adding a “new job” to ProShop, as the permissions for read/write/modify access are inherited by the folders from the templates. What does this do for you? It allows you to really “lock down” the access to different parts of the ProShop system, based on what type of user is logged onto the system. The hardest thing I think for people to realize about ProShop is that “everyone in your company should be a ProShop user”. Why is that? Because ProShop includes tools which benefit everyone in the company, and these tools facilitate better communication and decision making. It does this by managing the “PDM Data”, which is tied to every job which flows through your shop.
The reality for most shops is this: you are already doing some form of PDM today, as-in “right now as we speak”. The problem is that this is typically just Unmanaged PDM or User-Managed PDM. All that means is that your company uses a “manual process” to create a “data structure” (folder path on a server), where the “data for a given job is stored”. Because this is a “manual process”, it is ripe for human errors to occur. ProShop eliminates much of these manual processes, and replaces those manual processes with automated systems for managing the storage, access, and retrieval of data by authorized users.
For more information about ProShop ERP, you can visit their website link below, or give ProShop a call at 360-515-7576.
By Colin Gilchrist, Applications Engineer, Selway Machine Tool Company
As an Applications Engineer for Selway (SMTC), I am responsible for pre-and-post sales technical support, answering CNC Applications related questions for our customers, and teaching both onsite and classroom-based training classes for CNC machining, at our machine showroom in Auburn, WA.
SMTC is a Haas Factory Outlet (HFO), and offers sales and service for several different Machine Tool Builders, including: Haas, Matsuura, Hwacheon, Eurotech, Quantum, Mitutoyo, C.R. Onsrud, Fuji, Acer, Clausing, Brenton USA, Marvel, Fastems Factory Automation, Hydmech, Toshiba Machine, Toyoda, and HP 3D Printing Solutions. Selway also offers full machine-tending and lights-out automation solutions, through our subsidiary Trinity Robotics Automation.