Building a Foundation for Growth with Machine Monitoring
For those looking to gauge the current economic outlook, it is certainly not an easy task. With so many forces at play around the globe, one can only speculate with a very modest level of certainty what lies ahead. Whatever the future holds, the most sage advice anyone can offer is to simply control what you can control. For PBC Linear, that has meant making the necessary investments in new technologies and upskilled personnel to stay competitive and build the factory of the future.
In a recent episode of MakingChips, Hosts Jim Carr and Nick Goellner share thoughts on the state of manufacturing with industry leaders Tom Schroeder of PBC Linear and Akshat Thirani of Amper. In this conversation, they discuss several topics related to automation and process upgrades, including the business impacts from machine monitoring with Amper.
Setting the Stage for Growth
PBC Linear has set an ambitious goal of doubling the size of the business over the next five years. This means streamlining existing processes and overcoming obstacles through additional automation investments.
Tom Schroeder, Executive Vice President of Plant Operations and Sourcing at PBC Linear, explains that one of those obstacles is the ongoing and worsening labor crisis. Today, skilled machinists are hard to find due to a variety of factors. Twenty or thirty years ago there was a large pool of workers to fill those roles. Today, the harsh reality is that pool has dried up.
As an effect of the pandemic and labor crisis, PBC Linear had already started adding cobot technology and other automation tools like the innovative Cobot Feeder (pictured below), introduced from our brand Applied Cobotics. In 2021, these investments quickly bore their fruit, with our factory growing by 33% while only adding 3% to direct labor.
Newer investments include the impressive new $5.6 million Flexible Manufacturing System (FMS) from MCM. The FMS, which contains four horizontal CNC mills, a 90-pallet change system, and over 1500 tooling options, will be a 20-year asset for PBC Linear. This new system, alongside cobots, augmented reality training, and 3D printing are helping to lay the foundation for our two-fold increase in productivity.
“We gotta do more with less. You gotta manage it with technology, business processes, system software and hardware to help get you through this hurdle that’s coming at us.”
– Tom Schroeder
Machine Monitoring with Amper
With the push to expand the business, Tom Schroeder knew that PBC Linear couldn’t be managed with spreadsheets. In addition, the ERP system was lacking when it came to pulling data off the shop floor. This meant it was difficult to tell how many hours a piece of equipment was running, was down, or could have been running if there was material or operator assets available. For example, one of our load-and-go bar feeds could be set up to run for the weekend. In theory, the machine could achieve six hours of run time, but we didn’t know the actual data.
With over 170-thousand square feet of manufacturing floor space at PBC Linear, it is nearly impossible to physically monitor the factory. As Tom Schroeder explains, “It would take me a half hour to physically walk our enitre shop floor. With that many machines and people, how can you know if machines are running efficiently?” It was time to start gathering data to inform the growth process.
PBC Linear made crucial investments in ERP software and brought in technology like Amper to help track machine productivity. Amper is a factory operating system that uses digital tools to track, improve, and run the factory. The Amper dashboard is integrated with machine sensors throughout the factory, helping to proactively respond to issues in real-time, drive strategic decisions about CI projects, and unlock hours of capacity with existing teams and equipment.
Prior to implementing Amper into PBC Linear, machine monitoring vendors were proving to be ineffective and costly. PBC Linear has roughly 140 pieces of production equipment, and as with many legacy companies, they vary widely in age. With the initial vendor, installation was requiring roughly four hours for a full team to set up one machine. At that pace, complete installation would have taken at least six months and incurred exceptional cost. There was an obvious need for something much more efficient that would accomodate ALL equipment types.
Amper works by first installing non-invasive sensors to the power supply, then connecting to cellular or Wi-Fi Gateway for system calibration. Once set up, users are able to access operational analytics from any device.
The Amper Effect
The Amper approach offered a low cost alternative and ease of implementation. They were able to achieve this through the quick set-up of equipment, at roughly ten minutes per machine. The set-up hardware includes tracking mechanisms that use electrical signatures and other sensors as part of a larger digital IoT suite. That data is then channeled through dashboard software that allows real-time visibility into the shop floor. Operations managers can easily access visual data on a weekly, quarterly or yearly basis, and then assess the main reasons for downtime or other issues while making the necessary adjustments.
“Our system has to be agnostic to different brands and types of machines,” says Akshat Thirani, CEO and Co-Founder of Amper. Using this system, Tom Schroeder was able to first create a baseline of production. Over time, that baseline has been increasing incrementally. The research also revealed some issues that, on the surface, seemed concerning but were later realized as a modest benefit.
For example, if two operators were running eight machines, their utilzation percentages were low. At first glance, this data might be disheartening. In this scenario, Tom’s experience with Amper taught him to take a step back and realize that it’s not humanly possible to reach 95% utilization unless you automate. As Tom explains, there has to be an understanding that its not about percentages, but about getting more machine hours out of the day. After all, one operator managing four machines is far more productive and cost-effective than one operator loading single pieces into one machine.
Another great benefit from employing Amper is that customers realize the value of machine monitoring and the increased operational KPIs that come with it. In other words, customers don’t want to pay for anything that isn’t adding value to their product. As Nick of MakingChips says, "When they see a supplier using this technology and getting 97% utilization, they realize that they will be getting more value from that supplier than the guy down the street who doesn’t have that standard."
What is the Factory of the Future?
"I look at the factory of the future as combining your processes with your technology and your people… with the base understanding that you have to do more with less."
— Tom Schroeder, Executive Vice President of Plant Operations and Sourcing at PBC Linear
"The Factory of the Future doesn’t just have data collection—it knows what to do with that data. Let’s face it, if you’re not monitoring your machines, you don’t know which ones are making enough chips, and if you’re not making enough chips, you’re not making money."
— Nick of Making Chips
Discover your ideal linear motion solution: