Process Insights

Metal Technologies Inc. Embraces Flexible Manufacturing Systems for Automation

Second-Tier Supplier Implements Flexible Manufacturing System, Improving Quality, Productivity and Reducing Cost.

Automotive manufacturing is one of the toughest industries around. Competition from overseas has forced many manufacturers to find an extremely delicate balance between cost-cutting and profitability. Some other automotive manufacturers have abandoned the market altogether, creating opportunities for second-tier manufacturers to compete for more contracts.

In order to win these contracts, second-tier suppliers have had to rethink their processes to increase part quality while improving cost per part, process stability and reliability. Metal Technologies Inc., a production machine shop near Bloomington, Ind., knows firsthand what it takes to succeed in the difficult automotive manufacturing market. The secret to the shop’s success? A fully automated, flexible manufacturing system and reliable machining centers that make automation possible.

Flexible manufacturing systems are nothing new to automotive part manufacturing, but Metal Technologies took the concept to a new level by fully automating its production capabilities from the stage of raw material arrival to finished part delivery.

“Automation alone doesn’t equal success,” says Doug Conrad, owner of Metal Technologies. “You need machining centers that can leverage the full capabilities of a flexible manufacturing sy stem by minimizing every instance of out-of-cut time while offering the flexibility necessary to produce a diversity of part materials and features. Without our Makino a81 horizontal machining centers, we simply couldn’t work as fluidly or as efficiently.”

Metal Technologies was formed in 1996 as a metal fabrication company to support sister company Bedford Machine & Tool. In 2005, the company purchased a 130,000-square-foot facility to support its growing automotive portfolio. Since then, it has moved into high-volume production machining and has grown into a 67-person company with $9 million in sales.

Today the company primarily supports the automotive production market, as well as other markets, through fully automated flexible manufacturing systems with robot loading and a climate-controlled quality inspection lab. The company is committed to total customer satisfaction and continuous improvement.

Fully Automated Flexible Manufacturing System

According to Conrad, in order for North American automotive part manufacturers to compete with low labor cost (LLC) countries, they must follow a "don’t touch the part” philosophy. Adhering to this philosophy means investing in fully automated flexible manufacturing systems that increase throughput and decrease operator intervention.

“Automation isn’t just for the big guys anymore,” says Conrad. “Today any manufacturer can make the investment—and should—if they want a sustainable, globally competitive business. In working with Makino, we’ve always found the right, competitively priced solutions structured the way we need them. It’s never been a hassle, even for a relatively small operation like ours.”

Metal Technologies’ recent investment in four Makino a81 horizontal machining centers with two central material-handling robots has enabled the company to manufacture up to 510 parts per day (approximately 255 parts on each cell).

“We can feed raw materials into the cell, and using a visual recognition system, the robot picks the part off the dunnage, cleans it and then sends it to the other side of the conveyor to be machined,” explains Conrad. “Once it’s machined, it gets tested, washed and then restacked on the dunnage and sent out the door, all without human contact. Even more impressive is the fact that we can machine six different part numbers in the same cell."

“To change part numbers, it’s as simple as going over to the PLC and telling it you’re going to run another part and then the PLC tells the conveyor system, the machine tool and the robots what part number will be running. This, combined with the flexible manufacturing system of the a81s, has enabled us to produce a variety of different part numbers in the same cell on the fly.”

Cutting Around The Clock

By embracing flexible manufacturing systems in automation, Metal Technologies has increased part quality and production volumes, expanded into new business opportunities, focused its management efforts for efficient and effective operational practices, and can now simultaneously run multiple applications in one cell.

“Automation drives shop quality because you have consistency in your shop’s processes,” says Conrad. “Any manufacturer that makes that investment can reap significant benefits.”

However, Conrad also cautions that automation often requires more from a business in order to achieve its full value.

“A shop must be ready and willing to run their operation around the clock,” he says. “When you make the investment in automation, you don’t necessarily want to be a five-day-a-week operation, because it won’t pay off as significantly. Our large lines run 24/7 with four shifts, and our smaller lines run five days a week with three shifts.”

Ensuring Quality

For any production shop, quality is king. If the part doesn’t meet exact specifications, every time, it doesn’t matter how automated a shop is or how many parts it churns out. Metal Technologies’ flexible manufacturing system uses a variety of error-proofing techniques to ensure quality.

“Our feed conveyors include several fail-safes to ensure the part is properly fitted on the fixture,” says Conrad. “Mechanically, it won’t fit on the fixture if someone tries to load the wrong part number. There is also an electronic fail-safe so the wrong part can’t be loaded on the line and get down to the robotic cell.”

The cell also ensures quality by using hydraulic fixturing, fixture washing, tool-life monitoring and smart programs that can reject the part when it recognizes an error.

Once the part is finished, it’s checked for quality. Metal Technologies measures critical bore tolerances using multiple methods, including probes in the machine, bore gauge inspections, CMM inspections, pressure testing and visual inspections by the quality assurance team for casting defects, one of the only times humans are involved in the process. Some lines use cameras for visual inspection.

In addition to quality, traceability is also critical. Metal Technologies ensures traceability through every step of the manufacturing process, using pin stamping, bar coding and physical ID part marking.

Machine Centers Govern Success

“For successful automation and system integration, you have to start with machining centers that possess all the qualities necessary to run fully unattended around the clock,” says Conrad. “It’s not as simple as putting a robot in front of a machine and saying, ‘let’s go automate this process.’ You have to start with a good, solid and reliable machine to enable the automation process.”

Conrad says one of the key concerns with automating a machining process is highly flexible control software.

“Makino’s Professional 5 control software makes it simple to integrate the machines with a PLC system and database,” says Conrad. “Its user-friendly interface makes it quick and easy for us to modify all aspects of the cell, including interlock switches, hydraulic part clamp control and robot interfaces.”

Conrad’s a81 machines are also equipped with tool-life monitoring and broken-tool-sensing technologies to ensure drills and taps aren’t broken or chipped. The data gathered from these monitoring devices is seamlessly integrated with the machine control to alert operators when tools must be replaced. This data enables reliable, repeatable part production without interrupting cut time or demanding constant operator attention.

“Control systems have come a long way in the last decade, enabling more than just an intuitive operator interface. They also allow for up-to-the-hour production surveys,” says Conrad. “If you really want to impress a customer, show them how you can monitor production capacities anytime, anywhere, using a smartphone. With today’s monitoring software, we can send reports to mobile applications that provide us the number of parts we made in the last day, hour, what our average is for the day and what we’ve made for the last seven days running. Customers can see this data online too, adding to their confidence in us.”

Other critical aspects of the machine tool include extended utilization rates and reduced maintenance activities.

Because there is no operator standing in front of the machine at all times, common maintenance activities such as coolant and chip flushing must be managed by the machine itself.

The interior of each Makino a81 is constructed of slanted and vertical panels, so chips and coolant are easily flushed into the center chip trough positioned directly under the table for quick evacuation from the machine. A filtration unit built into the lift-up chip conveyor ensures a constant supply of clean coolant through an eight-nozzle spindle and overhead shower system.

Flexible Manufacturing System Creates New, Higher Skilled Jobs

“A flexible manufacturing system does more than increase quality and productivity,” says Conrad. “It changes the dynamic of the people in your organization, creating additional, higher-level jobs.”

Automation creates job variety. Metal Technologies’ maintenance and cell operators are trained on nearly every element of the automation process, including robotics, error detection and machine tools. Instead of knowing one small segment of the business, they learn the entire cell and are ready to attend to issues if they arise.

The automation process has decreased labor costs for Metal Technologies. Since it is using fewer people, the company can offer higher pay, which helps the company attract more talented individuals.

Automation also changes the relationship between the shop and the machine supplier; the machine supplier becomes part of the team.

“Since we’re running around the clock, the number one thing we look at when selecting a machine tool is support,” says Conrad. “Many machine tool manufacturers make good machines, but few possess the depth of process knowledge required to service a complete automation solution that runs high-volume part production day in and day out. With a facility like ours, we simply can’t afford to be down for even one shift.

“Makino’s automation support was a deciding factor in our original investment and has been vital to our success ever since. We’ve come to rely heavily on the shared learning experience that they offer, growing not only our production capabilities but also our own knowledge of automation integration.”

Grow and Compete

“Our growth through automation wasn’t an overnight success, but rather a learning process through hands-on experience and solid partnerships,” says Conrad. “The service and support we received from Makino provided us with a roadmap for a successful and sustainable integration, and has helped us manage job bids and train a new group of committed, highly skilled engineers.”

Today, Metal Technologies has automation down to a science, beginning first by manually running part production to test machine capability, developing custom tooling and fixture design for reduced cycle time, selecting required error-proofing procedures to maintain accuracy and consistency, and finally implementing robot programming for seamless integration. In doing so, the company has been able to adequately build and prepare for the most time- and cost-efficient processes achievable.

“There is a lot to automation. But if you stick with it, it will pay off,” Conrad says. “In 2006, we manufactured about 60,000 parts per year. This year, we’re on track to manufacture more than 800,000 parts. That’s a significant leap, especially in a down economy where other manufacturers are struggling to maintain their current production volumes. However, the best part is gaining complete control of our business without ever touching a part.”

Metal Technologies, Inc.
Bloomfield, Indiana
(812) 384-9800

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