by Amy Bauer
Today’s process enhancement software offerings allow plastics manufacturers a wide array of capabilities and oversight possibilities with the click of a mouse or, in some cases, the flick of a finger across a tablet or smartphone.
Three suppliers shared their perspectives on the capabilities and benefits of software systems for production monitoring, quality control and planning purposes, as well as what is new in the marketplace.
Husky Injection Molding Systems
The Husky Shotscope NX process and productivity monitoring system offers “at a glance” information in a real-time, web-based format to help control processes and improve productivity, while minimizing scrap and downtime. Shotscope NX is compatible with both Husky and other brands of injection molding and plastics manufacturing equipment, said Curt Norby, product manager, software solutions, for Husky Injection Molding Systems.
“We have installed the software in manufacturing processes that range from high-tolerance medical components to PET (polyethylene teraphthalate) preforms,” he said. “The software benefits any operation where the company is interested in improving part quality and becoming more efficient in its manufacturing process.”
In today’s manufacturing environment, where time is limited, process control software expedites data collection and allows for quicker reaction times if things are going off course, Norby said. “Process monitoring/enhancement software highlights process problems that often can go unnoticed. With this information at hand, the software then helps technicians and engineers troubleshoot process problems faster, thus contributing to better overall equipment effectiveness (OEE),” Norby explained. “Improving OEE results in less machine downtime, better part quality and more consistent cycle times, thus improving the bottom line.”
Norby noted that in addition to the real-time information, Shotscope NX also collects and can recall a wealth of historical information. In a demonstration video created at the 2009 NPE: The International Plastics Showcase, Norby explained: “One of the claims to fame of Shotscope NX is that we capture the process data from any machine, every cycle, and we keep it forever. So in terms of traceability, this gives us the ultimate capability in that aspect. We can go back and look at data that may have happened five minutes ago, but we also can look at data that occurred 10 years ago.”
This data-collection capability has been important particularly to medical customers for meeting the requirements of the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) for quality and data management, Norby said. Shotscope NX stores and recalls the process variables for every shot during an operation. Husky reported in April 2012 that Shotscope NX experienced a 60 percent increase in the number of customer installations in 2011, with beverage packaging and medical customers making up a large part of that increase.
Shotscope NX runs on Microsoft Windows operating systems and uses Microsoft SQL server database for data storage. The system is web-based so users can remotely log-in to monitor multiple plants from a single location. The system also can exchange information with other plant management systems – Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) – and its report information is customizable. Its statistical process control (SPC) capabilities involve recalling and plotting shot variables in a variety of formats for analysis.
The system also allows for job and maintenance scheduling. Color-coded Gantt charts allow users to quickly see the status of each job. The system can store run templates – including tools, machines and materials – so that they can be pulled up for future runs. The system also uses historical efficiency information to suggest the best machine to run a selected job, and it can alert employees to upcoming maintenance needs.
The newest module, introduced in North America at NPE 2012 in April, is the Shotscope NX Energy module. The module allows companies to individually monitor all sources of energy consumption, from individual chillers and other auxiliary equipment to complete injection molding cells. The module measures the amount of energy used to process a kilogram of plastic (kilowatt hour per kilogram). For injection molding machines, the software will relate the measurement with the material throughput on the molding machine for Specific Energy Consumption (SEC) monitoring.
Another new feature of Shotscope NX is the Husky machine controller view. “This module allows a user to view Husky controller screens within the Shotscope NX software,” Norby said. “This provides a complete integration of data between machine settings and actual process information collected.”
Daniele Fresca, director of marketing for IQMS, said it is a common misconception that companies must be large in size or operating within a certain industry to benefit from process control software. “We would argue that essentially any manufacturer that puts a premium on real-time visibility to quality data, traceability and the consistent production of favorable product, all the way down to the process level, can benefit,” Fresca said.
Two of the biggest benefits to such software are identifying and correcting trends as they occur to eliminate bad production in real time while a job is being run and collecting scientific data to support the fact that parts are being made to client specifications and design, Fresca said. Further, notifications and alarms that signal the process trend prior to them going out-of-spec give time to react without bad product being produced.
“Process monitoring can be predictive of success. Parts that are manufactured with consistent processes tend to have a consistent outcome,” she said. “Therefore, scientifically plotting this information creates a trend. When the trend skews from standard – in some cases considerably, in other cases minimally – the manufacturer can better understand when a part is trending out of control.”
The IQMS RealTime Process Monitoring software is part of the company’s EnterpriseIQ ERP/MES software package, which includes manufacturing and inventory control, sales and distribution, and financial management. “All the modules communicate with complete traceability in real time, without batch transfers,” Fresca said. “This is critical in manufacturing to eliminate silos of information and to minimize the time and effort necessary to correlate the process data with lot and serial numbers in inventory.”
“With the single database design, scheduling can see the information, quality is alerted perhaps even customer service or other key people. The information flows through the entire software and the manufacturing company,” Fresca said.
The EnterpriseIQ system has a database powered by Oracle. It can be accessed from networked computers or handheld/personal-data devices.
Mobile applications, for which Fresca said demand is growing, are among IQMS’s newer offerings. “We live in a world where people need to be connected all the time and aren’t always in an office,” Fresca said. “From smaller, more mobile devices – like tablets or smartphones – to simple-to-use touchscreen units, the ability to provide software offerings in many different delivery options is important.”
The EnterpriseIQ Android apps offer functions including manufacturing machine monitoring (part counts, cycle speeds and other machine processes), process monitoring charts and graphs, SPC inspections, reject management, production reporting, workflow, document control, labor tracking, barcode scanning/label printing and access to the warehouse management system (WMS).
The EnterpriseIQ system itself includes a wide range of customization options, with more than two dozen modules available. All aspects of production can be tracked in real time, with access across multiple departments. For example, the modules perform such tasks as automatically generating work orders during the MRP process, tracking labor and part information, creating infinite capacity planning/dispatch lists, viewing material exceptions, rough cut capacity planning, entering SPC data, printing labels and more for each assembly process. The process monitoring portion gathers machine performance and process data in real time, instantly updating schedules and inventory; and the statistical process control (SPC) module gathers, tracks and measures variable and attribute statistics for a manufactured part and offers charting and analysis tools to measure quality and performance.
Other capabilities include predefined multi-level bills of manufacture for use with tool- and die-based manufacturing. A drag-and-drop graphic scheduling tool allows users to view the entire production schedule and make adjustments or use auto load to automatically optimize the schedule. The system has multi-tool and family tool functionality; it is designed to understand multiple part numbers within the same physical tool. And other modules incorporate such aspects of operations as managing inventory (including accounting for shelf life considerations), scheduling and tracking employee time and attendance, performing human resources functions, forecasting sales and budgeting, expense tracking and processing credit card transactions.
While process monitoring software tracks plastics molding operations as they take place, the Sigmasoft process enhancement software takes a different angle on the molding process, looking at the parameters and how the materials will respond before the substrate hits the mold. Christof Heisser, president of SIGMA Plastic Services and MAGMA Foundry Technologies, said Sigmasoft is built on decades of success in metalcasting simulation and offers a customizable, three-dimensional, digital animation of the injection molding process for thermoplastics, elastomers and thermosets.
“We are the only tool that allows you to put every component of the mold into the simulation,” he said, “literally every nut, every bolt, every detail.” Users then can analyze the production process from injection phase to finished part, taking a virtual look at the mold at any point in time. Sigmasoft also takes into account multiple cycles, such as those needed to heat up a mold, and the cooling process, Heisser said, “and through that we are much more accurate.”
In the past, Heisser explained, simulation has been used in the plastics industry primarily on the design side. Sigmasoft takes advantage of advances in computing to bring accurate simulations to the plastics production side, he said.
“One of the reasons we are in the market now, not maybe 20 years ago, is because the plastic material flow is very complicated to describe mathematically,” Heisser said. Calculations that two decades ago would have taken computers two weeks can be performed by today’s high-powered and more affordable machines in an hour, he described.
Metalcasting production simulation has been standard practice in such areas as the auto industry, Heisser said, noting the cost-savings of virtual trial runs versus physical test runs of parts. Cost-effective solutions can be sought without investing material costs. “It literally takes the whole trial-and-error process from new parts and moves it into the virtual world,” he said.
In addition to serving as a testing tool, Sigmasoft can improve communications within a plant. “It’s an excellent communication and training tool internally,” Heisser stated, as production and engineering departments can view simulations alongside machine operators to show how changes in parameters can affect processes and to discuss potential problems. Similarly, such simulations can illustrate to customers how certain changes could make a part more easily molded.
The simulation specifications all are recorded within the software, leaving a record that can be used when certifying parts or processes. Heisser said large medical companies have told him that the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) was asking them to include simulation data in their documentation. Such documentation also is valuable when employees leave a company, so that knowledge is transferred to new operators and a company’s intellectual property is protected, he said.
“That is the beauty of simulation,” Heisser said. “It’s not just a toy for the engineers and the engineering department. It can become an essential business tool, a tool that changes how you operate.”
Sigmasoft runs on Windows-based operating systems, and Heisser said it can range from a basic system and single rental license up to systems for dozens of users and as a perpetual license. Heisser said that most companies currently using Sigmasoft – primarily medium- or larger-sized companies – have a person or department dedicated to simulations, or both simulations and computer-aided design (CAD).
Investing in Process Enhancement Software
The three companies offered tips for making the decision to invest in process enhancement software:
- Look for a company that will support the product through its entire lifetime and provide a path to upgrade when the next generation product becomes available.
- Judge the package not only based on the software itself but on the reputation of the company, all of the experts agreed. Be sure there are good avenues for technical assistance from the vendor.
- Understand that the return on investment (ROI) from a system, if implemented and utilized accurately, comes from better and more streamlined production processes.