Wondering how to digitize your machine shop?

We’ve all heard about the need to digitize machine shop operations.

But knowing there’s a need doesn’t make getting started any easier. 

This post will introduce you to 5 ways machine shop manufacturers can digitize their operations now. 

You’ll notice one thing quickly: this isn’t a guide to particular solutions. (You can find more complete coverage of those here).

Rather, this post is about helping you find opportunities to introduce digital technology. We find that locating needs is the first step and that solutions follow easily.

When the time comes, you’ll be better able to align a need with an appropriate solution. 

1.) Take a look around. Where is there paper? Whiteboards?

We always ask manufacturers a few straightforward questions at the beginning of a project. This one comes first:

Where are you still using paper? Let’s take it one step further:  

  • Are you using paper forms to collect data? 
  • How much time and resources do you devote to manual data collection? 
  • Are your operators following paperwork instructions to perform changeovers or maintenance? 
  • How many versions of paperwork instructions are circulating at any given time? 

The same goes for whiteboards. Does production data live on whiteboards?

This line of questioning isn’t to hate on paper (or the humble whiteboard). It’s meant to point out the opportunity cost of relying on it.

Here are just a few things paper can’t do. 

  • Collect data automatically
  • Respond to operator actions in real-time
  • Assure quality inline 
  • Connect workers to processes
  • Route real-time production data to dashboards

If any of these are things that would be useful to you, they’re all easy ways to get started with digitization. 

2.) Bring Legacy Machines online

Some of the oldest machines in the machine shop can be the most essential. 

Just because a machine was made before the internet era doesn’t mean that you can’t bring it online. 

With new smart sensors and IIoT devices, you can bring your legacy machines online.

A real example helps illustrate the point.  

Taza Chocolate’s manufacturing operation depended on exactly these kind of workhorse legacy machines. Just by attaching RPM sensors, they were able to get an accurate reading of machine uptime and OEE. 

The result was a 15% increase in throughput.

Better yet, they were able to avoid hundreds of thousands in expenses by increasing utilization. Better machine efficiency meant no need to purchase new machines. 

3.) Bring Humans in the Loop 

Humans are just as much a part of machine shops as machines. So if you’re only monitoring what your machines are doing, you’re missing half of the picture. 

This can be done in a number of ways. Process visibility applications can show you exactly who is doing what, where. 

Smarter on-machine terminals can give operators the ability to enter downtime reasons codes and send alerts if machines are operating outside of normal parameters. 

The trick is to understand what role humans play in your processes. 

4.) Don’t Just think about your machines


This point follows from the previous. Many of the biggest opportunities for improvement come from optimizing the processes around machines. 

For example, it doesn’t matter if all of your machines have perfect OEE if they run into bottlenecks further downstream. 

Or suppose a production run has a higher-than-usual rate of defects. It’s harder to get to root causes without having visibility into each step of the value chain. 

Ultimately, efficient job shops have ways of automatically:

  • Tracking inventory
  • Recording product genealogy
  • Optimizing job routing
  • Tracking WiP
  • Replenishing materials 

Manufacturing processes are sets of deeply related, interlocking activities. Efficient operations find ways of optimizing the movement of materials from start to finish. 

5.) Create a single source of Truth

How many different locations is your production data stored in? How long does it take to pull it all together?

One way to open up new opportunities for improvements is to streamline the way you collect and visualize your data. 

On the one hand, production dashboards can help everyone in the operation get on the same page. It lets everyone in the operations see if you’re meeting production quotes, machine uptime and downtime for the shift, as well as any other information you need to keep things moving. 

On the other, eliminating silos can make finding opportunities for improvement significantly easier. 

Conclusions

Hopefully, the strategies for digitization outlined here gave you some ideas. There’s no one-size-fits-all strategy for digital manufacturing. What works for you is going to depend on your capabilities, needs, and budget. 

If you have any questions about how to get started, we’re here to help. Get in touch