Manufacturing Automation At A ‘Crossroads’ For IBM i Shops
July 13, 2015 Alex Woodie
Manufacturers across the country rely heavily on their MRP or ERP systems to automate the handling of resources. That’s what the “R” stands for, after all. But it turns out that MRP and ERP systems leave a whole lot to be desired when it actually comes to managing resources–including raw materials and labor–on the shop floor. That’s where companies like Crossroads RMC and its manufacturing execution system (MES) comes into play.
Crossroads RMC was founded more than 20 years ago to develop automation solutions for the factory floor. The Lisle, Illinois, company originally developed its Crossroads MES solution in the early 1990s to help manufacturers running MAPICS, an AS/400-based MRP system created by IBM and now known as Infor ERP XA. The MES package was soon adapted to work with other popular OS/400-based ERP systems, including BPCS from SSA and Intentia’s Movex, all of which are now owned by Infor.
As Crossroads RMC solutions executive Anthony Etzel explains, the MRP and ERP systems didn’t do enough then to help manufacturers monitor and manage what’s actually going on down on the shop floor, and they still don’t do enough now.
“The mindset of the ERP software companies has always been we’re going to put paper on the shop floor. That’s how they’ve done it for years,” Etzel tells IT Jungle. “The manufacturing floor in most companies is what I call a black hole. They rely on their employees to manually fill out labor tickets, what they’ve used and consumed and produced and collected and scraped. In the best of cases, it’s a good guess.”
Crossroads MES solution addresses that “black hole” by replacing the paper with a touch-screen device connected to a programmable logic controller (PLC), such as those from Allen Bradley. Instead of requiring the worker to remember how long he spent at each station and what he did, he can enter it as soon as he’s done using the MES’ touch-screen interface, thereby providing managers with better data about what’s actually happening on the shop floor.
“When they touch the screen, they touch the job, and by touching the screen they’re immediately on the clock and we’re tracking time against that order,” Etzel says. “They get a list of material. They can validate the material they have and either straight-issue the material in or backflush the material when they report production. They retain all the operational notes or all the other relevant information from a job.”
The MES approach requires buy-in from the workers, of course. The software was first developed with a 5250 green screen interface, which may not fly with today’s tech-savvy (but tech image conscious) millennials. But Crossroads RMC’s new touchscreen display works the way people except computers to work these days.
End users aren’t the beneficiaries of the MES system, of course. It’s the owners and the managers who stand to gain the most by building more automated data collection into the factory floor. The chief benefits of the MES software include higher per-station and worker efficiency and better insight into the activities on the job floor.
“We feed the MES data into a configurable dashboard that a manager or a plant supervisor can have, monitoring all the work centers,” he continues. “We can show trending: Is a work center up or down? What percent efficient are they? How many units of work have they completed? What remains to complete, and OEE statistics. So they can actually see and monitor in real-time, as well as drill into detail on any machine–who’s operating it and how many people have worked on it. It’s all right at their fingertips.”
The MES can help identify potential bottlenecks in the manufacturing process, such as a recurrence of low inventory situations, or workers who are not pulling their weight. It can also help identify star employees who could be up for a promotion as well.
“What happens in most manufacturing companies today is they’re really unaware of all the things that cause a job to stop,” Etzel says. “I’m no longer producing anything. It could be a machine or mechanical breakdown. If it’s a mechanical breakdown, you want to get maintenance involved. But it could be other downtime not associated with mechanical breakdown, such as they no longer have a spool to put material on, or they no longer have material to use.
“Those are downtime events that can be prevented by doing a better job of ensuring that everything is around that work center that those people need to perform producing products,” he says.
Most manufacturers have based their scheduling on a standard that says it takes so much time to make so many units. Often, those standards are old and out of date, Etzel says, and workers can run the machines more efficiently. However, they’ll often hide behind the standards, because it gives them more free time during their shift.
“If they’re beating the standard, it means they can do more throughput, so you can schedule more and they can possibly even reduce selling price because they’re selling based on a standard,” Etzel says. “The workers are not going to say to their boss, ‘Hey send me another job.’ They’re going to hang out a bit and socialize, take downtime. They’re not stupid.”
It’s surprising to Etzel that such a big part of the manufacturing process has been left to paper, worker’s memories, and the honor system, especially considering so much effort has been made to automate the front-end of the manufacturing process–such as obtaining raw materials in a just-in-time manner–as well as ensuring that the finished products are distributed efficiently from the warehouse.
“You’ve got your hands around the front-end and back-end,” he says. “Now let’s get our hands around the middle.”