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Industrial Processes

Improved process planning for SMEs

PLANMAN developed a generic software system which collects, analyses and stores process data from the manufacturing shop floor and makes it available to planners to improve the accuracy of their time and cost estimates.
Targeting small and medium-sized enterprises, the project involved developers and end-users in three countries. The system is well adapted to the technical and financial constraints experienced by 'real world' manufacturers - it has been designed to interface with existing process planning software, and is effective in 'manual' mode when on-line data is not available from current machine controls.
It was launched at the September 1996 CIM Show in the UK, and a prototype has already proved itself in use in a variety of engineering contexts.

The profitability of any manufacturing company depends crucially on the accuracy with which it is able to predict production costs and times. If process costs or times are over-estimated, the company will fail to win new business. If they are under-estimated, it may take on contracts that result in losses, or let down its customers.
Yet in many small and medium-sized engineering businesses, production planning is a theoretical exercise which fails to take into account the actual conditions on the shop floor. A particular combination of operator, machine and materials may produce performance which is better or worse than the 'ideal' which forms the basis of planners' calculations. In either case, the company will lose out.
PLANMAN set out to develop software tools which would support progressive improvement in the accuracy of process planning by giving planners access to accurate data directly from the shop floor.
Informed throughout by feedback from industrial end-users, the project has produced a flexible, generic solution which neatly adapts the 'self-learning' concept to the realities of the industrial world. The system is suitable for use in applications as diverse as steel milling and medical scanning, and is in each case able to improve the tracking, analysis and prediction of critical processes.

Helping planners learn from experience

The PLANMAN project was suggested by the Institute for Production Engineering and Machine Tools (IFW) at the University of Hanover. Process planning systems were available, but none could incorporate feedback from what actually occurred within an operation on a particular machine.
Instead, planners were using values based on specifications supplied by the machines' manufacturers. IFW found, however, that actual performance deviated from estimates in at least 20% of cases. Process parameters were changed on the shop floor, but planners often remained unaware of these changes, so the accuracy of their predictions never improved.
The project's partners wanted to close the gap between shop floor operation and the planning department's estimates by linking them both to a comprehensive Technological Information System (TIS). Feedback from the shop floor would allow the nominal values used for costing and work planning to be adjusted in the light of actual experience. As the bank of data grew, the quality of the estimates would get steadily better.
The partners foresaw substantial benefits. Not only would the accuracy of process planning be improved, but PLANMAN made keener pricing and better control of margins possible. Accurate estimates would also provide a more reliable yardstick against which to monitor manufacturing operations, allowing problems to be diagnosed and corrected at an earlier stage. By providing an interface between them, PLANMAN would lead to enhanced performance both in the planning department and on the shop floor.

Modular design

IFW's initial mapping of currently available theoretical models and approaches led to the specification of a system with five distinct modules.
The partners had recognised from the outset that the monitoring of all manufacturing operations would generally not be practicable. The Process Data Definition module therefore focuses on operations which are most critical to overall productivity. Planners are asked to define these in terms of parameters (for example, cutting speed and depth) and resources, such as tool and workpiece materials).
The Process Tracking module handles the collection of actual data for each specified parameter. Data can be keyed in by the operator or, if the machine controller offers a suitable interface, collected automatically from the machine itself. In each case, 'pop-up' screens on a standard PC prompt the operator for manual input when it is needed, for example, to explain an unscheduled stoppage.
The Process Analysis module enables the planner to interrogate process data stored in the system's database to detect deviations from predicted performance. Inquiries can be made in relation to particular machines or tools, particular materials, or specific orders or workpieces. Results may be visualised in chart form or summarised in printed reports, which are configurable by the user.
The Process Prediction module uses data selected from the database as the basis for predicting the outcomes of common operations under different process conditions. Planners can calculate the costs of a specific operation using past results, or predict the effects of adjusting process parameters.
Lastly, the Information Manager provides tools for the integration of PLANMAN with a company's existing process planning, tool management or quality management systems.

Satisfying relationships

The project involved six partners, with a technical developer and an industrial end-user in each of three countries. The national pairings proved extremely helpful, according to British software developer CIMTEL, which led the project. Each partner had their specialist role, but the close relationships between the two partners in each country created a framework within which a high level of focus and commitment was achieved.
While IFW developed the underlying data model, TEKNIKER was responsible for researching the end-user requirements on which specification of the system's functionality was based. Nevertheless, full end-user participation in the testing phase was crucial to the system's thorough adaptation to real-world manufacturing environments.
The original design concept was adjusted in a number of key respects in order to satisfy the practical needs of the project's industrial partners. As a result, the system as a whole is more flexible, and will be attractive to a wider range of customers.

Productivity gains

For example, the automatic collection of process data from machine controls had originally been specified as a required feature. In practice, however, many manufacturers are unwilling to invest in more sophisticated controllers capable of outputting data directly to a computer. The partners realised that the system must also be able to operate in 'experimental' mode.
ADWEST Engineering, a British firm, uses the system in this way, entering data manually in order to test alternative set-ups before production is started or modified. As a result, for one product they have achieved a better balance of throughput across a group of machines, increasing overall productivity by 30%.
A further extension of the project's original technical aims arose from the request of the Spanish machine-tool manufacturer ZAYER for shop floor analysis and control functions. These enable machine operators themselves to examine on-line process data in order to investigate deviations from the workplan.

Flexibility gives lowest-cost solution

CIMTEL's approach to the design of database functions was also driven by industrial cost-consciousness. PLANMAN gives users the option of fully relational data storage and retrieval. However, that is likely to require new hardware and software which may be beyond the reach of some potential users, so a simpler file management solution was built into the system, and offers 98% of the functionality for no extra cost.
The completed package was launched at the 1996 CIM Show held in the United Kingdom, and will form an important addition to CIMTEL's established product range. ZAYER will also gain a significant competitive edge from their ability, gained through the BRITE-EURAM project, to offer purchasers of their machine-tools the option of controllers which can feed results directly to an analytical system.



Project Title:  
Operator driven technological information system for the continuous improvement of process planning

Industrial and Materials Technologies (BRITE-EURAM/CRAFT/SMT)

Contract Reference: BE-5455

Cordis DatabaseFor more information on this project,
go to the CORDIS Database Record