Shop Floor Management

The digitized shop floor

By Lynn Stanley

Closing the communication gap between people, machines, processes and real-time data

February 2017 - More than a decade ago, value-stream mapping burst on the manufacturing scene and changed the way fabricators looked at their plants. It helped fabricators to “rearrange the furniture” from repetitious assembly lines and batch and queue production, to a seamless flow that effortlessly pushed raw material from forming and processing to quality checks, packaging and shipping. 

Today, wearable devices, cloud-based software systems, refined data gathering and smarter machines enabled by the Internet of Things (IoT) are infiltrating everything from refrigerators and cars to an enterprise resource planning system for beekeeping. The smart beehive management system tracks a bee colony’s vital signs and productivity metrics. In much the same way, these types of tools are also digitizing shop floor management to provide safer working environments for employees while tracking data in real time for everything from order status and work-in-process to inventory, equipment availability and more.

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IGear’s Squeaks directs select messages from people, processes and machines to the right person via wearables and other devices.

In a recent report, market intelligence firm International Data Corp. made several predictions. IDC stated that “by the end of this year, 50 percent of manufacturers will exploit the synergy of cloud, mobility and advanced analytics to facilitate innovative, integrated ways of working on the shop floor and, by 2019, 75 percent of manufacturing value chains will undergo an operating model transformation with digitally connected processes that improve responsiveness and productivity by 15 percent.” 

Many companies are stepping up to the plate with products designed to help manufacturers navigate the “smart” shopfloor. IGear introduced Squeaks, the industry’s first IoT messaging platform, at Fabtech 2016. The Louisville-based firm developed the mobile messaging app to promote human-to-machine real time reporting and collaboration.  

Machines communicate via tablets or wearables (like a watch) by squeaking in actual time to alert a human “supervisor” to events ranging from low inventory to a simple press check, a call for maintenance or collision detection of tooling or robots. The closed-loop collaboration means an employee can quickly assign ownership of an alert, date stamp it, record a location or escalate the alert to senior management. Users can also send voice notes.

IGear President, CEO and founder Don Korfhage says the idea for Squeaks began to incubate after he watched the way his sons, Brooks, 15, and 17-year-old Haydon, used their cell phones. “They both play high-level sports,” he says. “They were using their phones to capture and share rich, meaningful data—video, photos and information—among select classmates, coaches and teachers without ever saying a word. If you look at social media, people follow news that matters to them and filter out the rest as noise. We wondered if we could do this with machines.”

IGear talked to several of its customers including Komatsu America Industries LLC in Rolling Meadows, Illinois. “Quite a few years ago we had a customer that was abusing its stamping machine,” recalls Jim Landowski, vice president for Komatsu. “By the time we became aware of the situation, the press had been badly damaged. If we had known about it beforehand, we could have saved the customer hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment and downtime.” 

Squeaky wheel gets the grease

After a year of beta testing, Komatsu uses Squeaks, remotely in real time, to monitor press condition and performance. Using an interface it designed, Komatsu can deploy Squeaks with a simple install that requires nothing more than an internet connection.

“Feedback to the right individuals is so critical,” Landowski says. “Access to relevant data on a timely basis can prevent serious downtime, something manufacturers can no longer afford, particularly the Tier 1 and 2 suppliers who operate on a just-in-time and just-in-case basis.”

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Global Shop Solutions' inventory and labor tracking software allows personnel to monitor performance and production metrics on- or off-site.

With broadcast or open loop communication on a shop floor, even smart machines must rely on the assumption that an employee will see an blinking light or hear a sensor indicating a press is down or an error occurred on a feedline. “Squeaks provides a new level of monitoring,” Landowski explains. “In today’s manufacturing environment, it’s no longer about just a press or coil line. You have to be able to monitor entire systems whether you are in another country or traveling at 30,000 ft., because if any machine in that system goes down, it affects the entire production line. Squeaks ties this all together.”  

According to Mark Doyle, sales executive for IGear, the trend for wearables is expected to grow. “Voice recognition wearables are making incredible strides,” he says. “Watches and glasses can accommodate the kind of simple, at-a-glance communication that needs to take place without reaching into your pocket or grabbing a mobile device.”

Squeaks-enabled wearables can be used to monitor the health of employees who work in harsh environments. “One customer that has a smelting operation for cast aluminum is looking at using wearables to relay heat index warnings and remind employees to take water breaks,” Doyle says.

But Squeaks isn’t the only shop floor management tool making “noise” these days. Cloud-enabled Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software—like the enterprise management system (EMS)-embedded ERP product from Epicor Software Corp.—gives manufacturers a platform for tracking, measuring and monitoring operations from top to bottom. Among other things, the birds-eye view allows a company to improve performance in areas like on-time delivery, schedule compliance and inventory accuracy while streamlining processes for higher productivity gains. Consolidating and storing that data in the cloud makes these processes visible to personnel from operators to managers using any device. 

A walk in the cloud

“Users can decide if they want to become part of the Epicor cloud community or have a cloud solution on site,” says Christine Hansen, senior manager, product marketing for Epicor. “We see a lot of movement among startups in that direction. They want complete visibility of their operations; they want to be able to manage costs more effectively; and they want to create a highly visible, mobile environment that fosters collaborative communication between shifts and departments.”

In the last two years, the Austin, Texas-based company has seen a major shift among manufacturers and supply chains. “The connectivity that cloud-enabled applications and cloud-based communities provide is reshaping the expectations manufacturers have of those they are doing business with,” she explains. “They think, ‘My customer is in the cloud, my suppliers are in the cloud, what does this mean for me?’ The Epicor ERP format makes it easy for manufacturers to run their business on site but it’s really the expectations of the companies they engage with who are already in the cloud that they will have to deal with.”

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With Squeaks’ IoT messaging platform, assigned workers can respond to alerts from people, processes and machines, share photos and ask questions using disparate devices.

Epicor built its business around industry-specific software tailored to the needs of manufacturing, distribution, retail and service-driven organizations.  And despite the relentless transformation to a business model unfettered by hardware and geography, the software developer knows that plenty of manufacturers are still grappling with the escalating amount of data they must sift through on a daily basis. For starters, collecting data and understanding how to use it are critical for meeting quality standards and having equipment perform at peak conditions.

“Ensuring systems talk to each other is another component,” says Hansen. “Some manufacturers are using ad hoc systems as a work-around. For legacy equipment, hard coding bridges the communication gap. When you start looking at older equipment, you also need someone with the skill sets to enable the connection.”

An ERP system anchored in the cloud supports and connects disparate equipment, but mobility and the vehicle for electronic collaboration influences more than just machines. “Manufacturers need to consider the expectations of the generation coming in as well,” Hansen notes. “These up-and-comers are used to conducting Internet searches and combing through YouTube to find out how things work. They are coming into the work space with the same expectations. In order for companies to attract talent, they will need to start mirroring the way people communicate in their personal lives. The right ERP solution can provide a stable foundation to build on.”

Getting it right

But a foundation is only as strong as the building blocks used to construct it. Global Shop Solutions engineers ERP systems to support a manufacturer’s current growth rate and its goals for future expansion. One can create customized applications and reports that exceed the scope of standard ERP applications.  And despite increasing digitization of the shop floor, the Woodlands, Texas-based, family owned software provider also believes customer service and training are key components to profiting from an investment in ERP software. 

For manufacturers, the ability to master inventory is the heart of ERP. “If you can’t trust the inventory data in your software, it becomes worthless,” says Rhonda Gieza, senior consultant for Global Shop Solutions. “Instead of saving you time, time is wasted going through stock rooms and purchase orders to determine if a part is actually available and what the true cost is.”

Global Shop Solutions’ ERP products make inventory transparent through features like an inventory supply-and- demand screen that instantly provides a complete data profile on each part number. Drill-down capabilities allow employees to quickly access bill of material (BOM), individual parts on the BOM and demand for those parts. The fully integrated system keeps every department in the company on the same page by allowing inventory transactions to be entered manually or through an electronic data collection device.

“Getting a grip on [carrying] cost is huge for manufacturers. It’s a strong marketplace niche for us,” says Mike Melzer, Global Shop Solutions’ vice president of operations and service. 

According to Melzer, properly managed inventory helps a manufacturer optimize shop floor space. It can mean the difference between excess materials taking up real estate versus a new machine making parts. The ability to answer such questions as—Do I have enough product to ship? If I land the order do I have the necessary material on site? Do I have enough parts on hand if I have to source them from overseas?—can be a game changer for manufacturers. 

“People are used to being able to look up anything on their cell phone,” says Melzer. “They want to be able to do the same thing on the shop floor. We have a customer in Michigan that used to spend two days securing a SolidWorks drawing, entering a bill of material, invoicing the job and moving it to purchasing. With our SolidWorks interface, they are able to do the job in 15 minutes.”

Global Shop Solutions’ mobile app delivers sales, order status and customer contacts to an employee’s phone or tablet. An inventory/labor app facilitates transactions from the shop floor or the field. “I can pull up information while I’m traveling in a car with a cup of coffee,” notes Melzer. 

“I can look at performance metrics from both an employee and a machine perspective and find out how much production has been completed. I don’t have to wait until I get to the office. The ability to look at your entire shop from a device in your hand builds trust with customers. When you can show data that supports a 99 percent on-time delivery record—that’s a significant statistic.” 

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General Sales Manager Gary Hochstatter can link Shop Data Systems' inventory module to customers’ MRP systems, enabling them to funnel more feedback from the shop floor to the top floor.


While ERP affords a macro perspective of a plant’s operations, material requirements planning (MRP) software targets data from production schedules, inventory and the BOM to calculate purchasing and shipping schedules for the parts needed to build a product.

Shop Data Systems, headquartered in Garland, Texas, serves the general fabrication, product manufacturing, HVAC fabrication, blowpipe contractors and structural steel component providers with a wide range of CAD/CAM nesting modules. By linking its inventory module to its customers’ MRP system, Shop Data Systems gives manufacturers the ability to funnel more feedback from the floor to upper management. 

Nesting software also links to MRP so personnel can monitor parts, materials and inventory. Conventional MRP systems manually tracked material use and number of parts cut. “You didn’t know when parts were nested, when they were cut or how much material was left over,” says Gary Hochstatter, general sales manager for Shop Data Systems. “Due to the differences between estimated material usage and actual material usage, inventories can be notoriously incorrect, requiring time-consuming manual intervention to correct.”

Today, Hochstatter says, customers want to know material type, usage and the exact sheet from which parts were cut. “This level of detail allows companies to track data associated with specific plate and sheets for recordkeeping purposes,” he says. “The ability to access a sheet’s heat number, prime code, mill certification and purchase order gives a customer the ability to trace the raw material if parts cut from it should come into question.”

Detailed feedback also allows companies to create more accurate cost-based quotes. If a company finds it is using more material than anticipated or that machine run times are slower, it can make adjustments, Hochstatter notes. Shop Data Systems released the MRP module in 2014 and says enthusiasm among customers has been high.

“Demand for real-time feedback is only going to grow,” he says. “And the role each of us plays in embracing new technologies will determine shop floor management’s place in the future. But we know its role will continue to be vital.” FFJ


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