Technology helps Canadian aerospace firm cruise to success

A Canadian aerospace manufacturer has seen productivity and savings soar thanks to some clever use of monitoring and control technology.

Heroux-Devtek Inc. based in Longueuil, Que. rolled out a manufacturing automation system developed by Memex Automation Inc. of Burlington, Ont.

The technology helped Heroux speedup programming of its industrial machine tools and robots as much as eight times.

Heroux, which makes aircraft landing gear and airframe structural components, was also able to cut the hours spent on machine diagnostics and repairs to just minutes.

The Memex system connects the various machines and robots at Heroux’s Kitchener, Ont. plant, enabling them to send diagnostic and performance data to a centralized control dashboard, according to Joe S. Kus, supervisor for programming and tool design at Heroux.

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“Ethernet connections provide real-time and accurate data transfers from the machines. This means we are able to know the status of each machine at the moment it is functioning,” Kus said.

The plant has around 27 machines in its production line. Typically, machines have a programmed output level. Each one’s output takes into consideration the performance of the machine before and after it.

If a machine falls behind, it could cause a production bottleneck in section of the line before it. On the other hand, if the machine’s output is faster than the unit can cope with, a bottleneck down the line could occur as well.

Previously, Heroux used a system that relied on serial cable connections. But this set-up was not as accurate and produced some lag time. “For example, machine operators or assigned monitors would take readings from machines every two hours and their reports would be compiled and viewed later.”

Kus said depending on the machines involved, it could take hours or even days before output discrepancies were identified and information gained on where bottlenecks are occurring and why.

But with the Memex system, machines continually send data to a control centre, which an administrator can view through a monitor dashboard to determine how each machine is performing.

The data transfer rate is around four to eight times faster than previously, said Kus.

“We can now identify potential bottleneck situations even before they develop,” said Kus.

Programming machines has also speeded up.

Programmers needed to load specific commands, such as cutting coordinates for metal stamping units, into each machine.

Previously, sending programming instructions from a central server to each local machine took around 45 minutes. If more than one machine was being programmed, operators had to make allowance for a longer set up time. This meant an even longer time to get the machines up and running.

The new system enables programmers to complete their task in as little as eight to 10 minutes per machine.

Islands of machine automation

“Memex unites the islands of machine automation,” said David McPhail, president and CEO of Memex.

Memex products an OEE+DNC system.  That’s short for Overall Equipment Effectiveness plus Direct Numerical Control.

Operating as an Ethernet-based network that bi-directionally communicates to all of the plant’s machines; the system provides local memory, embedded software and high-speed network connectivity.

Essentially, the Web-based system offers real-time visibility into plant floor production metrics and enables personnel to adapt and control each machine based on the data collected, McPhail said.

He explained that squeezing out as much productivity as possible from every machine has become very important for Canadian and North American manufacturers, especially is the past two years.

“Machines in a plant like that of Heroux would typically cost as much as $3 million each,” he noted. “Company owners want to get as much value as they can from each unit,” he said.

According to Kus, three of the biggest benefits the system provides are:

The DNC package – This enables fast file transfers from system computers to the machines. With more than 15,000 programs in their libraries for manufacturing hundreds of specific parts, quick access is vital.

E-mail messaging system – Plant operators and personnel can communicate with one another quickly via e-mail, on their machine monitors, or handheld devices.

Dashboard-linked ERP tool – Kus gets immediate visibility on what each operator on the floor is doing and how their machine is performing. A machine’s performance is can immediately be matched with preset metrics for that specific machine. This way production bottlenecks can be quickly identified and eliminated.

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