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Make the Leap to Industry 4.0 in 2022

Still on the fence about implementing digitalization in your shop? Consider your future workforce — or lack thereof. By smarting small, your shop can keep and invest in the staff you have and implement machine-centric processes to do your base line work.

Posted: January 19, 2022

W. Kent Lorenz, Lakeside Consulting LLC


Fabricating & Metalworking’s Editor Rachel Duran spoke with W. Kent Lorenz about the topic of Industry 4.0 and where small and medium-sized manufacturers should start on their automation journey. Lorenz is the former chairman and CEO of Acieta LLC, an industrial robot integrator. During Lorenz’s time with the company, they installed 4,400 FANUC robots, for the most part in metal industries, as well as end of line packaging and palletizing. Lorenz is now the managing partner of Lakeside Consulting LLC and speaks publicly on industrial robotics and Industry 4.0.

Fabricating & Metalworking: Kent, you spoke about Industry 4.0 trends at the Wisconsin Manufacturing & Technology Show in the fall [2021] discussing the changing demographics of the workforce and the role Industry 4.0 can play regarding workforce challenges. Detail this for us.

Kent Lorenz: I am very concerned that small manufacturers are paralyzed from the fear of making the wrong decisions when looking at new technologies and as a result are not adapting them fast enough or at all. Job shops of 20 people and less are still hesitant to adopt Industry 4.0 and the digitization of the ecosystem on the shop floor.

While shops have several reasons that prevent them from implementing automation, such as risk and expense, the benefits are massive, including: more proactive production planning; improved machinery utilization, better material management; and improved customer interactions through customized dashboards, where they can track their orders and also view available capacity on machinery — meaning they can send another job your way.

Larger shops of 500 employees or greater are already adopting Industry 4.0. Due to their size and scale many have digitized their ecosystem, and are now providing their customers a real-time customized dashboard. From any smart device I can see my orders and what is happening in real time on the shop floor. I can adjust production schedules and perhaps even see their open capacity. If I have a hot job and I see the company has a machine open, I can send an order for that machine.

So, you get a much stickier relationship with your customer base. It starts to become less about cost per part. It becomes a much more integrated relationship.

F&M: So, how do you compete with that, especially with workforce challenges?

Lorenz: Therein lies my concern. Where do you start? Regarding workforce, I encourage people to look at their local demographics. What is the number of 12th graders that will graduate in your area; and what is the number of first graders? Say you determine you have 10 percent fewer students in the first grade than there are in the 12th grade. Looking at the future workforce, you will have 10 percent fewer people to hire in a few years.

If we look at that in aggregate, and look at the birth rate in 2000, there are less of those folks by a significant amount than the Baby Boomers who are retiring.

Having said that, if you want to grow your business by 40 percent in 10 years; — how do you do that without additional people?

In manufacturing we typically talk about the scalability or leverage. You can scale accounting, IT and marketing, but on the shop floor, it is pretty much one to one. Traditional thinking says if you double your production, you need to double the number of people on the floor.

That is the status quo we need to question and break. We have built our companies with manufacturing process that are human centric. Processes on the shop floor involve two hands, vision, hearing, the ability to lift up to 75 pounds, to turn, to twist and to walk.

So, when we automate, the initial question is: how do we put a robot in place of a person to perform work? That is when we can question the human-centric process and make it a machine-centric process. What advantages would a robot have? It can lift more. It can move faster. We can hang it from a structure above the machine. We can move the machines closer together.

What other things can the robot do during the downtime in the cycle? Can we measure the part, can we deburr the part, can we put rust prohibitive on it, can we put a 2D bar code on the part and scan the part as it goes through the different operations in my plant? In real time you will know where your entire work in process inventory is relative to your finished goods inventory.

From that perspective you begin to see how you can keep and invest in the people you have, provide them with more education in technology and quality, and begin to use machine centric processes to do the base line work. Let your people do more cognitive thinking.

F&M: What are the first steps toward implementing machine-centric processes?

Lorenz: Start small and build on what you are doing. Capture data from your newer machines; a CNC or press brake — it doesn’t need to be every machine on the floor to start. Third-party software companies offer products that allow your shop to capture and store data in real time. For example, Machine Metrics has a screen that is mounted to machines on the floor. It is connected to the cloud and captures data in real time and feeds the dashboard to your production team.

You need to start capturing data. What data should you track? Start with the basics but don’t be afraid to cast a wide net because you can always scale back the data sets at a later date.  Capture data starting with the time the job took to set up, the current number of pieces run that shift or per job, the scrap rate, the number of E-Stops, and when you are down, why you are down? Is it due to a lack of materials or the lack of an operator?

Follow this process for a year and one of the things you will discover is the shop’s production planning meetings change completely. Production planning meetings will be more proactive and not wasting time initially reviewing what was made the past week, but instead look forward. This has massive benefits in production planning, material management, and customer interactions with dashboards customized for them.

And by starting with a small capital expenditure, as little as $20,000, tracking the return on the shop’s investment doesn’t seem as daunting.

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