Measured Approach – Monitoring the Manufacturing Process

Expert Access – Cincom’s Online Business Magazine – March 26, 2014 – Would a pilot fly a multi-million-dollar jet without a dashboard of instrumentation that defines the current state of the aircraft? Obviously not. Yet CEOs, operations VPs, plant managers, engineers and maintenance staff continue to fly blind as their companies run million-dollar machines, multi-million-dollar plants and billion-dollar manufacturing concerns without a dashboard that monitors the conditions of each machine in real time and aggregates capacity utilization machine by machine and plant by plant.

According to the Association for Manufacturing Technology, approximately 95 percent of manufacturing machines are not monitored. Given that manufacturers purchase machine tools over time to match contracts, it’s no wonder that a plant may contain machines with up to 30 generations of eight different controls, all running closed proprietary protocols. This is a manufacturing automation precondition that severely limits the ability of these machines to communicate at all. Stated mathematically, the problem is: (N-1)^2 – N, where N is the number of protocols.

Suppose your company has only five protocols and five business applications (see Figure 1). According to the formula, the required software driver set is unwieldy. In other words, under these preconditions, you would require a full-time team of programmers to deconstruct the closed proprietary protocols of each machine and then write custom software drivers to connect each machine to each business application. Needless to say, few plant managers are keen to pursue this course of action.

How has the manufacturing industry solved this connection problem economically? MTConnect is a relatively new, open and royalty-free standard that enables any machine to talk to any business intelligence software over a company’s intranet. As a non-customized solution, MTConnect opens the machine architecture of the plant in a way that overcomes its preconditions.

One might think of MTConnect as a “Bluetooth for manufacturing that comes with a dictionary of terms,” said Dave Edstrom, former chairman of the MTConnect Institute and author of MTConnect to Measure Is to Know. “Why do I emphasize that MTConnect has a dictionary of manufacturing terms? Because this dictionary standardizes all of the different manufacturing terms used by different machine protocols such as “emergency stop,” “door open” and “M00″ so that they mean the same thing from any control.”

Figure 1

Including tier 1 manufacturers, several major original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) of machine tools, such as Mazak, Okuma and DMG Mori Seiki, have been instrumental in both the creation of the MTConnect standard and its practical application. OEMs, for example, now offer new machines that are MTConnect-compatible. Likewise, Memex Automation, an OEE and technology solutions provider, has commercialized an MTConnect solution called Merlin (Manufacturing Execution Real-time Lean Information Network) that monitors any machine of any vintage in real time.

By combining hardware with software running MTConnect, Merlin connects the shop floor to the top floor—to anyone with a need to know—in real time. Management can then increase production and free cash flow. “We’ve taken our 25 years of experience in shop floor technology integration and distilled it into a machine-to-management packaged solution that runs on MTConnect, as well as other protocols,” said Memex Automation’s CEO, David McPhail.

The term “Industrial Internet” was coined by General Electric and refers to machine-to-machine (M2M) and machine-to-man communication. Merlin leverages the industrial Internet. It physically integrates as a hardware overlay of the machine, uses networked sensors and software to connect the machine to the company’s intranet, then delivers an objective “voice” of the machine’s manufacturing processes, parameters, tolerances and conditions (see Figure 2). Significantly, Merlin converts the machine’s data in real time into information that management and the plant’s engineering and maintenance teams can use to:

  • Analyze the business of production plant-wide in real time.
  • Bucket idle time to its root cause and enable some to be converted back into production time.
  • Capture and define quality issues for each machine tool and operator in the production cycle to define poor quality root causes more quickly.
  • Define machining parameters, tolerances, conditions and production flow on an SKU basis to achieve lean manufacturing.
  • Optimize machine states and conditions to increase spindle time and asset utilization.
  • Complete preventative maintenance based on actual run times.
  • Thereby increase production and income from operations.

Figure 2

Operationally and financially, M2M is forecast to be one of the primary engines of economic growth, double-digit productivity and bottom-line improvements for the next decade. Installation of Merlin allows a plant to reap all of the advantages of M2M.

As points of validation of Merlin, Mazak is now using it to monitor production at its 800,000 square-foot plant in Florence, KY, and added it to its options price list to enable its customers to monitor their capacity utilization plant-wide, machine by machine. In addition, Microsoft® has chosen Merlin as its “mid-market Manufacturing Execution System (MES) solution” to connect Microsoft’s ERP software, Dynamics AX, to its customers’ machines. In September 2013, Frost & Sullivan awarded Merlin its 2013 Machine Monitoring Technology Innovation Leadership Award.

Merlin delivers two tools in one, according to John Rattray, Memex Automation’s VP Sales. “First, it’s a real-time situational analysis tool that defines production from the customer’s point of view: What’s happening on the shop floor in terms of quality and on-time delivery? Second, it’s a Google-like visual reporting engine that allows these production analyses to be accessed company-wide on any device.”

Memex’s vision for growth is based on global expansion of its packaged product toolkit. “Rather than doing a one-off, expensive custom services installation for each company, we’ve produced an M2M packaged toolkit that applies to all manufacturers, said McPhail. “The technological breakthrough here is that Merlin is an XML-based hardware and software module that does not require programming or setting up of PLCs. Merlin frees up the operator and leverages the company’s investment in plant, equipment and enterprise software.”

The business case for investing in the software was explained recently by Magellan Aerospace Corp., where the cost of Merlin was recovered within 20 production days (see figure 3). “Using Merlin to monitor a three-machine cell, our team was able to uncover close to 100 hours of idle time per machine per month,” said Jonathan Ung, Magellans’s continuous improvement coordinator.  “Merlin exposed an inordinate amount of M01 (optional stop time) on its by-the-second event strip chart.  This information permitted us to have a conversation with the operators, set a new threshold and monetize $40,000 of production time each month,” he said.

Magellan went from a 36.9 percent overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) rate to 85 percent OEE, according to Rick Moes, general manager for the facility. “This was clearly evident in the indices.  In addition, we saved the capital expenditure of a fourth machine, which we thought was necessary before we installed Merlin.”

Figure 3. Magellan Aerospace’s 20-day breakeven on investment in machine monitoring

In short, MTConnect enables M2M solutions such as Merlin to automate machine condition monitoring in real time. Monitoring plant-wide each machine’s parameters, conditions and tolerances is viable and profitable when it is implemented in a way that is focused on increasing production and income from operations.

Thomas Smeenk is vice president of Business Development for Memex Automation, He can be reached at

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