Solving low rates of machine utilization in the metal fabrication shop

Anyone who’s worked on the fab shop floor for years probably has memories of the boss bursting in after the punch presses stop. Why is it so quiet? To managers, the cha-chunk of presses in the fab shop is equivalent to the cha-ching of cash registers. If machines aren’t producing, the thinking goes, the fab shop isn’t making money.

Conversely, if a machine is running, everyone assumes all is well with the world. But is it really? Is the machine producing good parts? Is the machine in a healthy, well-maintained state, or will things go awry sooner rather than later? Is the machine producing the right parts for the right job at the right quantities, and how well is it producing them? Is the operation running as efficiently as it could be?

In recent years, machine vendors and third-party players have introduced monitoring systems that aim to make the shop floor much more transparent. They offer, among other things, dashboards showing actual machine uptimes and idle times. Such platforms connect directly to the machine and don’t require manual input.

Historically, machine uptime has been looked upon in a binary way—it’s either running or it isn’t—and again, a lot of that information is based off simple assumptions. I can hear and see the machines running, so everything must be OK. But the shop floor isn’t that simple—a reality that continues to reveal itself in the increasingly connected shop.

The Monitoring Continuum
Today’s machine and third-party vendors offer a variety of software that can track actual machine utilization, an act that itself can help fabricators identify previously hidden problems, boosting utilization and efficiency right off the bat. Depending on the product and level of service, software also can relate that utilization data to specific jobs and other machines in the value stream or job routing. Then comes condition monitoring, which delves into machine-level data to determine the machine’s health and identify issues before they snowball into larger problems.

The level of integration and sensing intelligence depends on the software used and the age and brand of the machine. On some modern machines, a fabricator might be able to track specific alarm codes or the condition of specific components. Still, even the simplest sensors on ancient machines can reveal a lot about an operation’s efficiency.

Machine utilization measurement, job tracking, and machine condition monitoring are often viewed in separate sandboxes. That said, the lines between software functionalities may blur in the coming years. Specific shop floor problems have many causes that can’t be pigeonholed into one category. For instance, poor utilization on a press brake might have to do with not just the condition of the machine (leaking hydraulic oil, for instance) but also the sequence and nature of jobs the machine processes throughout the shift (job tracking and scheduling).

Fabricators who think broadly, connect the dots, and identify patterns of events might find they get more out of the machines they run and the people they employ. Such a feat will become only more important as the labor shortage persists.

Read more: Solving low rates of machine utilization in the metal fabrication shop