Software Solutions

Easy access

By Gretchen Salois

Above: SM3 is automated but allows for manual adjustments on process lines and within the software itself. Shown: Multi-torch CNC cutter at Accurate Metal Products.

A simple software interface tackles complicated tasks

September 2015 - Today’s art of controlled chaos includes abolishing messy paper trails. Shops that are busy but not organized can lose jobs to competitors. Instead of fiddling around to locate purchase orders and phoning and emailing colleagues for order statuses and job progress, there exists a straightforward software that allows multiple people to check on the status of any order in mere seconds. 

A steel sheet and plate processor in Milwaukee, Accurate Metal Products was looking for software that could encompass everything from its quoting and inventory control to order entry. Accurate Metal helps customers build pieces for mining and construction equipment, power/energy and agricultural machinery. Using a wide variety of materials, including carbon steel alloys and stainless, from thin gauge to 12-in.-thick plate, the company fills JIT, next-day and blanket orders.

After comparing programming options, Accurate Metal Products chose Steel Manager III (SM3) from 4GL Solutions, Ontario, because of the features offered and the particularly helpful and available customer support. “They’re quick to make fixes if something isn’t working the way you need it to,” says Lee Hau, vice president at Accurate Metal. “4GL’s core focus is service centers so they know the ins and outs of what works and what doesn’t for our type of business.”

Keep track

On the shop floor, Accurate Metal uses the software to track inventory and fabrication jobs in real time. “We can also track labor time,” Hau says. This feature is particularly helpful when monitoring workstations. “It helps monitor employee performance so we can make sure they’re getting jobs done in the quickest, most efficient ways.

“Inventory is updated in real time compared to before where it was updated one day, maybe two days later,” Hau continues. “Now as soon as it’s used, the operator updates it live.”

By keeping track of inventory using the software’s shop floor management system, the company has been able to reduce errors. “We no longer need to do speculative buys—we can make actual buys because we can see what we have on hand at all times,” Hau says. “The software helps us look at usage and projects how many pounds of steel sheet and plate we’ve gone through in a month. We’re able to see what products we should purchase based off our order history and what materials we’re going through regularly.”

In the Northeast, another steel distributor installed 4GL’s SM3 to help streamline its value-added services, which include fabricating jobs to spec. In addition to the usefulness of the software’s features, “what did it for us was 4GL’s customer service,” the CFO says. “Using it has made our workflow smoother and overall processes more efficient.”

She, too, cited the inventory tracking capability. Before using SM3, “we were guessing what material we had on hand and who cut it. Now we can scan it as soon as they fill the material. Anyone can go in and see the shop order itself whereas before everything was manually done and it could take days to find that paperwork.”

SM3 works as well with jobs sent for outside processing because it takes into consideration the machine types, number of heads, pierces, loading costs, machine time, labor, and can handle multiple processes and markups. The software will also calculate the kerf material consumed during processing and reserve the required inventory, according to Paul Parsons, vice president sales and marketing at 4GL Solutions. “The quote to the customer will include the cost of the kerf cut, giving you more accurate margins before you process your quotation.” 

FFJ 0915 software image1

SM3’s advanced production scheduler allows users to assign jobs to multiple machines, sort or group jobs by order of importance, including information such as required date, thickness or customer. The software evenly distributes workload of machines and keeps overtime down, Parsons says. “Reassigning jobs to other machines is as easy as a click of a mouse.”

Easing the fabrication process on the shop floor, SM3’s production schedule capabilities take all approved orders and files them in the production schedule under machine codes of each respective process, explains Parsons. “Only the first machine will be accessible until the [first] process is completed,” Parsons says. “Access is then available to the next machine and so on, until all processes are complete.”

Flexible automation

SM3 is automated but allows for manual adjustments on process lines and within the software itself. “Total machine time will be calculated based on cutting length, number of heads, total pierces and the unit time for each process,” Parsons says, adding it is possible to alter the calculated time by changing any of the parameters. “If a machine goes down or gets overloaded, for example, it will be possible to transfer a job from one machine to another.”

Multiple processes are straightforward. Once a process has been completed, the next process sequence will be scheduled automatically. “If during machine assignment, a vendor code is attached to the process, the system will treat it as an outside process,” Parsons says. “In this case, a processing purchase order will be produced to handle the outwork.”

Included in the programming is a feature called production traveler. This allows a job be broken into multiple parts. “The job arrives at the first workstation and when completed, is routed correctly to the next production process and so on,” Parsons says. 

Major updates are released once a year and program updates occur throughout the year. Since starting its software company in 1984, 4GL Solutions has evolved along with technology. The company’s programming is a result of both 4GL Solutions’ own knowledge of the metals industry along with customer feedback, which inform new product releases.

Automation is the new normal and SM3’s approach is to simplify once-manual tasks into an automated, easy-to-use interface. Some functions SM3 has developed include inexpensive USB scanners that scan signed proofs of delivery, automatically setting up an invoicing run. Material test reports are automatically sent via fax, email or printed to be mailed as soon as an order is generated. Automated management reporting with preferred reports are sent every morning as a PDF attachment in an email for review. Invoices and packing slips can also be automatically emailed, faxed or printed for customers, saving time and confusion.

As demand ebbs and flows, Accurate Metal Products’ Hau says the software offers an added benefit of going from quote to order. “You can make a quote and convert it into an order instantaneously,” he says. “The process is very fast. Before we had to record the quote in one system and then re-enter it into another system to turn it into an order. Now it just takes a couple of keystrokes.” FFJ



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